“Why am I here?”
One of, if not the, most important question any superhero movie must answer is, “Who are the bad guys and what do they want?”
It seems pretty basic, right? It’s important. Without a clear answer, the heroes who fly in to punch those bad guys into the sun kind of just seem like dicks (unless you’re going for a thing where the “heroes” are actually bloodthirsty nutjobs, which, incidentally, I would be here for). It’s like that old George Carlin bit about announcing boxers as the “undisputed” heavyweight champion (“Well if it’s undisputed, then what’s all the fighting about?”). If we don’t know what the bad guys want, what’s all the fighting about?
Incredibly, Dark Phoenix is the latest superhero film to commit the cardinal sin of failing to address this basic question. I say “incredibly” because of all the superhero properties, X-Men always seemed like one of the strongest, narratively speaking. Whereas so many others were about — I dunno, good vs evil? Being super? What are most of them even about? — X-Men was about mutants, facing the choice to protect or to disdain the humans who fear and mistreat them. Built into X-Men‘s very DNA is the question of whether to fight or make nice, which is probably what makes it feel so comparatively grown up. It’s a rich enough premise that you could easily imagine it supporting an entire R-rated prestige cable series — Game of Thrones with mutations, say.
Instead we have Dark Phoenix, the latest in a long line of X-Men movies (for Fox, who were only recently acquired by Marvel/Disney), jumping back, then forward, then back in a timeline I’m not even going to begin to try to explain. Dark Phoenix has basically the same cast that starred in the first rewind, X-Men First Class. I liked that movie and I like this cast. Jennifer Lawrence and James McAvoy (Mystique and Xavier) rarely disappoint, and I would run through a brick wall if Michael Fassbender told me to (Magneto). (God, why is that man so convincing? Is it the steely gaze, the square jaw? He’s mesmerizing — all compact and tastefully muscled and perennially looking an aspirational 42.)
To First Class‘s base cast they’ve since added Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), an early contender for one of the best actors of his generation and Sophie Turner, famous for playing a beloved character on Game of Thrones and for marrying a Jonas brother (also, constantly vaping). Turner plays Jean Grey, and it’s around Jean that this spinoff is built. Jean can control the physical properties of matter with her mind (that’s telekinesis, Kyle) but they’re tied to her emotions, which are intense and fickle because she’s a woman. …Or, you know, young. And a mutant. And she accidentally killed her mother when she was 10 in a dispute over the car radio (Young Jean was trying to listen to Warren Zevon, much better taste than her mom if you ask me, though admittedly not worth killing her over).
Like many a troubled mutant, Jean is taken in by Charles Xavier and goes onto become an X-Man. In the first mission we see her go on as an adult, she has to help rescue some astronauts from some kind of… space goo. Jean gets trapped in the shuttle during the evacuation and all the space goo goes right into her body. Why isn’t she dead? That much space goo should be enough to kill anyone, etc.
It’s at this point that Jean’s tantrums become even more deadly, her emotions even more swing-y. Is that the conflict? Xavier trying to help Jean control her even-more-violent emotions while she lashes out at him and others? Well, sort of. It seems even Simon Kinberg (writer/director of Dark Phoenix and of Apocalypse, Days Of Future Past, and X3, among others) understands that watching someone try to be less crazy is generally very boring and exactly the kind of internal conflict superheroes were created to avoid.
It turns out, that’s not the conflict. Because some aliens (?) show up, and they also want the space goo. What we know about these aliens (?) is that they sort of look like Baby Groot, can shape-shift (in the 3-5 seconds we actually see them before they shape-shift into regular humans), and have some kind of telekinesis power that can stop hearts. Jessica Chastain plays their leader, and has to do about five seconds of real acting work while she’s still a human (“Honey, I’m gonna go check on the dogs”) before spending the rest of the film reciting dialogue as flatly as possible. She also has creepy blonde eyebrows, which make sense for an alien but not really for the regular human that that alien is supposed to be impersonating. (Couldn’t they have just let her look like Jessica Chastain? That’s almost always better.)
What we don’t know is who the aliens are, why they want the goo, how they’re supposed to go about getting the goo, the consequences of them getting the goo, why the X-Men don’t want them to get the goo, and how the X-Men teaming up again or Jean Grey being more sane is going to prevent them from doing so. Meanwhile the central question of X-Men (help humans or fight them?) is almost entirely irrelevant.
That a movie with this many people working on could fail at such a crucial storytelling level is kind of shocking. The only possible explanation I can imagine is that maybe in the era of five, seven, 10-year plans for a superhero franchise’s characters, basic questions about each individual movie, like who those heroes are supposed to fight and why, turns into an afterthought. (It feels very American to buy big guns first and then wonder who to shoot with them at the very last second, doesn’t it?)
You could hear the death knell for Dark Phoenix‘s chances of being good when at one point, Magneto lifted a giant metal thingy, apparently just because he could (Magneto, such a show off). Ah, yes, now I remember that terrible bridge scene from Brett Ratner’s X3 (co-written by Simon Kinberg).
Coincidentally, just when it seemed like there were about five minutes left in Dark Phoenix, our theater had a false fire alarm. The screen went dark, some lights flashed, and a theater employee said we had to clear the theater. A few minutes after that, someone said we could go back in. People looked at each other. Should we bother? Plenty of people just left.
That’s the thing about not knowing who the bad guys are or what they want, it makes it very hard to care about whether they get it.