Dark Phoenix

In writer/director Simon Kinberg’s “Dark Phoenix,” we learn how mutant Jean Grey (played by Sophie Turner from “Game of Thrones”) obtains extraordinary powers that corrupt her psyche and destroy the relationships around her. As a member of the X-men and a reliable presence at the school for mutants established by Dr. Charles Xavier (played by James McAvoy), Grey’s poisoned mind and accelerated emotions make her vulnerable to a seductive presence, in the form of a pale, sympathetic women (played by Jessica Chastain) who conceals a frightening alternate motive.

There’s a lot going on in “Dark Phoenix” and I’m not even talking about the heroics, explosions and state of the art visual effects in the foreground. In terms of subtext, this, like the best of the “X-Men” films, is rich with deeper meaning and narrative depth that outshines many others in this genre. It’s also, taken at face value, a great entry in this franchise and, no kidding, the only (unofficial) remake of “Carrie” I’d ever watch again.

“Dark Phoenix” is eerie, always compelling and, unlike many recent comic book movies, willing to explore the difficult issues it raises This is one of the strongest “X-Men” installments, as it deconstructs the entire franchise, explores the notion of nurturing one’s individuality, the ways parents “control” their children and the human responsibility of obtaining great power. The screenplay also questions the extent that humans use “good intentions” as an excuse for the worst things we do and, to say the least, its emotionally charged enough to not degenerate into a mere CGI light show.

Kinsberg’s film only sells itself short when the action and CGI-enhanced fight sequences take center stage; comic book movie fatigue would have set in even if this weren’t fourth comic book movie in six months (fifth, if you count “Glass”).

Pre-release press deemed this a train wreck-to-be, though there’s no visible sign of the multiple re-shoots and production troubles reported. Writer/director Kinberg may not be a stylish filmmaker but he gives this the zip, momentum and seriousness required and also allows for moments that showcase the talented ensemble cast.

In addition to a handful of great set pieces, there’s a cameo appearance from Dazzler, a Marvel superhero that never made the A-list but has always been a personal favorite; seeing her pop up in this equaled the surprise thrill of spotting Howard the Duck casually steal a few brief moments from the Guardians of the Galaxy.

The ending is overdone and positively bonkers but there’s a sensual beauty to the visual effects (notably the look of Phoenix’s powers and an arresting trip inside her brain). An “X-Men” movie without Wolverine is like a “Star Trek” entry minus Spock. Yet, even without Hugh Jackman on hand to ground it, the work by Turner (who makes Grey vulnerable, emotionally shaky and striking) carries it. Adding a great deal in supporting turns is McAvoy (never better as Professor X), a solid Michael Fassbinder and a spooky turn from Chastain.

How does it rate among the rest? The first “X-Men” (2000) and “”X-Men: Days of Future Past” are my favorites. I’d put “Dark Phoenix” at number four, right behind “The Wolverine.” Then there’s  “Logan,” “X2” and “X-Men: First Class,” the most wildly overrated in the series. The maligned  “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “X-Men Origins- Wolverine” both start strong, then fizzle out before the first hour is up. I’d put “X-Men: The Last Stand” at the bottom of my list.

By the way, “X-Men: The Last Stand” is, by a large margin, the top grossing of these movies (though far from the fan favorite for comic book movie aficionados). I mention this because, as I write this, “Dark Phoenix” has been deemed a gigantic flop at the box office, with op-eds and scathing news reports from various sources all too enthusiastic in deeming it a total disaster. Monetary success is not the same as artistic merit- Kinberg’s film isn’t perfect but its merits far outweigh its missteps. I know you’ve heard the awful things written about “Dark Phoenix.” Once the internet vultures fly away and the film receives a clearheaded second look, we’ll have the first-ever “X-Men” cult movie on our hands.

Three Stars

-originally published in Maui Time Weekly