Dark Phoenix is the second attempt to bring the famous “Dark Phoenix Saga” storyline to the big screen, and both times, writer Simon Kinberg, who now directs this latest adaptation in addition to serving as screenwriter, seems to be at a loss with how to do the story justice. In X-Men: The Last Stand, a major problem was trying to do both Dark Phoenix and an adaptation of the Astonishing X-Men storyline “The Cure”, and neither one really gets the attention it deserves. This time around, the main problem is that we simply don’t know the main character, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), well enough to have this be a compelling story. In the comics, having Jean go dark meant something because she had been around since the beginning of the X-Men and that turn had a serious effect on her fellow mutants. Here, that connection doesn’t really exist and the result is a horrendously muddled picture that doesn’t know what it wants to be about as it clumsily tries to weave in set pieces and a battle among X-Men.
The film begins with a prologue showing that a young Jean Grey, whose mutant powers of telepathy and telekinesis were emerging, accidentally killed her parents in a car crash. However, she was taken in by the kindly Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who assured her that they could fix what was broken and she was not broken. Cut forward to 1992, and the X-Men are now doing space missions where they must rescue a group of astronauts. During the rescue mission, Jean is hit with a cosmic force, but manages to survive and become more powerful as a result. However, this cosmic force carries with it a dark side, and as Jean’s childhood trauma starts to reemerge, she starts hurting people, including her fellow X-Men. This ends up fracturing the mutants who think Jean needs to be put down and those that want to save their friend. Meanwhile, aliens led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain) want to use Jean for her new power.
My fear going into Dark Phoenix was that the audience doesn’t have an emotional investment in Jean or her relationships. The Jean Grey we know has been in one movie—X-Men: Apocalypse—and she was a supporting character. What Dark Phoenix proves is that adapting the Dark Phoenix saga can’t simply be a one-off. It requires building Jean Grey up into an endearing character so that when she goes dark, the audience feels the tragedy of that downfall. It also requires understanding her relationships so that when those are fractured, we share in that loss. None of that happens in Dark Phoenix. When Jean ends up killing a close friend, that loss doesn’t mean anything because those characters never interacted until this movie. When Beast (Nicholas Hoult) goes out for revenge because of that killing, it doesn’t matter because he and Jean don’t have a relationship beyond being fellow X-Men. There’s no definition to the relationship, so nothing really changes in a substantial way.
The Dark Phoenix story could still be an interesting plotline with some stronger subtext, but the film also fails here. At times it seems like the “Phoenix”—the cosmic force inhabiting Jean—is a metaphor for drug abuse. It’s something that has become part of her identity, makes her feel great, but it hurts the people around her and causes them to fracture into those who think she’s beyond help and those that believe she needs their help more than ever. Unfortunately, that metaphor never really develops because you have to deal with the dumb alien subplot and Kinberg seeing the Phoenix more as buried trauma, which also doesn’t really work.