Dark Phoenix Rises: A Somber and Mature Sunset

It is, of course, very difficult to evaluate Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix strictly on its own terms, as just one more movie and not the conclusion to an two-decade franchise, both epic and intimate, we now offer a bittersweet farewell to. The New Mutants next year might offer some odd isolated coda unrelated to the general narrative or its characters, and Deadpool will do as Deadpool does as long as the character is popular and Disney can find someway to work him in. But for all intents and purposes, this is the last X-Men movie, and perhaps those are its own terms.

In adapting John Byrne and Chris Claremont’s epic, what Kinberg and crew have given us is a mature, thoughtful, and cathartic closure. It’s not as epic as say, Avengers: Endgame, but it has no aspirations to be. This is a smaller, more intimate film. The stakes are still high, of course, but the introspection is deeper and more personal. Just as the X-Men movies themselves have always been more affecting than the MCU at large. It’s no secret why. The Avengers are a superhero team. The X-Men are a family. In this painful but rewarding final segment, we will see that family tested, nearly broken, and ultimately come out stronger than ever.

There is a visible and fitting sense of aging here, within the story and characters themselves, an implicit recognition of the franchise’s longevity. It’s not fatigue. Never that. It’s an acknowledgement that everyone, from the heroes to the fans, has been here for decades, and none of us seem sure where to go from here. “Maybe it’s time to move on,” Raven tells Hank, suggesting they leave Xavier and make a new life in a scene that speaks to both their long-term relationship and the uncertainty of what to do when it seems like everything is done and it’s time for the next stage, whatever that might be. Neither Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult look to be in their late 50s (shapeshifter Raven at least has an excuse) but their maturity is evident, as is the astonishingly honest portrayal of mid-life ennui. In the final scene of X-Men: Apocalypse, Raven told the team: “You’re not children anymore. You’re X-Men.” Nine years later, they’re not kids, but they still don’t have the answers.

The film takes place in 1992, which hard-core X-Fans may recognize as the year the brilliant animated series started, a fact Marvel shouted out with the X-Men 92 comic book series. Now the X-Men are celebrated heroes on the President’s speed-dial and Magneto is living a quiet life on the mutant commune island of Genosha. All seems peaceful, but the dissatisfaction and disagreements of the past are still there, just more muted. Raven, always the more outspoken and militant, still takes issue with Charles’s subservience to the human government. There’s some interesting debate here about just what they are willing to sacrifice for the good of all mutantkind.

Like the terrific climax of Apocalypse, this is a movie that knows just how and when to use everyone’s unique mutant powers. In the fantastic first act space rescue, Cyclops, Storm, Jean, Quicksilver, and Nightcrawler all have their time to shine, and we can see what an effective team they really are.

 

Even Hank, a more pensive intellectual character, really gets to let the Beast out here. The train sequence is an incredible burst of action as the mutants, both X-Men and Genoshan alike, get to go all out against the D’Bari aliens, and Beast is leading the way. This gives him an impressive chance to flex the physical side of the character.

Hoult is given a full range to work with here, as we’ve also seen his frustration with Charles, wishing Xavier would finally admit to a mistake, and an intriguing alliance with Michael Fassbender’s Erik.

After a long, troubled life filled with revenge and regret, Erik seems to have finally found some peace. He has lost so many so close to him, but now he sees the error of violence and tries to impart that wisdom to Jean. Sir Ian McKellan’s elegant and imposing turn remains a performance worth celebrating, but Fassbender has really made this character his own, and his portrayal of Magneto as tortured antihero is brilliant and nuanced. In this final film, Fassbender conveys a behind-the-scenes vibe of how he’s grown with the character over the past four installments. Decades in universe, 8 years in real life, they’ve matured together, and that’s evident. Look at his scene with Hank, where despite all their differences and clashes in the past, they both love Raven. And of course he and Charles have time to reflect on their complicated relationship. Charles saved his life and offered Erik a home. Now he looks at that offer again. And they always have time for chess.

The villains are effective and compelling without overshadowing the heroes. Jessica Chastain’s Vuk, leading of the dying D’Bari race, gives both pathos and menace to her performance. Her people have no place left to call home, but should she receive the phoenix power, she could do terrible things. The saddening part of her character is the way Jean comes to her. After realizing Charles’s betrayal and being rejected by Erik, Jean has nowhere else to turn, giving the sinister opportunist her time to offer an awful alternative. Vuk and her desperate aliens represent the worst possibilities of power, just as the X-Men represent the best. She’s a terrifying physical threat (her encounter with Magneto on the train is especially memorable), and even more pernicious for her influence.

This is obviously Jean Grey’s story, and Sophie Turner’s performance hits the right note. We see her at her most vulnerable and her most powerful, and sometimes they’re one and the same.This will be a thematic point, whether her emotions make her strong and weak. Certainly she doesn’t want to hurt the ones she cares about, such as Tye Sheridan’s Scott. Their romantic relationship is illustrated casually and comfortably, with the ease of two people who have been together for years. Watching this next to their first encounter in the last film, we can sort of bridge the gap to the domesticity already established off screen in the first X-Men, way back when it was Famke Janssen and James Marsters. Turner is especially affecting in tandem with James McAvoy’s Charles, a father figure who at long last has to ask himself some tough questions. Charles has a lot of time to consider who he is and the decisions he’s made. In the climax of Apocalypse, he defeated the eponymous There is a quiet and stirring scene where he talks to Hank in the room he first met his step-sister. Now he has to wonder if he did right by her. When it comes to Jean, he knows he made a mistake, but the script is wise enough to know where that came from.

The story of the X-Men, is, when you get down to it, a story about special individuals with gifts, and the way they choose to use them. Charles himself illustrates this when he first meets Jean, just a scared little girl, and gives her a pen. You could use that pen to draw a pretty picture, or to poke somebody’s eye out. The choice is up to you. With the Phoenix Force fully realized, Jean may be the most powerful being in the galaxy, but it is still the X-Men who tie her down to Earth. It’s still her family that gives her her real power.

At the risk of spoilers, the ending is somber without being a dirge. It’s not as heartbreaking as Logan, because what can be, and there is the ray of hope. What a journey it’s been! How long have we traveled and what sights we have seen!

And those sights, as if it even needed to be said, will stay with us. In our hearts and in our memories, and in whatever lies ahead. The beautiful thing about the phoenix story is, it always rises again. Remember Jean’s own words. This is not the end.

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