Long before Marvel movies stole our hearts and imaginations with the Avengers movies, it found major hits in the first two “X-Men” films. The third film “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006) finally brought the Dark Phoenix story line to Hollywood audiences and (arguably) fumbled it completely. Many fans, like myself, simply chose to pretend it never happened. To many comic book fans, the story of Jean Grey being exposed to and consumed by an alien power, becoming corrupted by it, and her ultimate fall was the most anticipated moment in X-Men films. But Hollywood executives felt the story was too dark for a family summer blockbuster. So they shifted the main focus off Jean (then played by Famke Janssen) and instead put it on the cure story line. Humans were ‘curing’ mutants of their super-abilites. The resulting film was rather lackluster. Awful in fact. Forgettable.
Flash forward to 2019, and 20th Century Fox releases a new version of the story, adapted by Simon Kinberg (who had co-written The Last Stand), and this time he also directs. The story focuses on the younger X-Men cast, introduced in “X-Men: First Class” (2011). For some reason, critics landed on this film with the resounding SMASH of the Hulk! They reported it was “disappointing” and had “missed opportunities”. Not sure I saw the same film they did. And yet, “Captain Marvel” also opened in 2019 and was praised as making “effective use of the franchise’s signature formula.” Again, not sure I saw the same film they did. I will argue that Captain Marvel suffered from sticking to drab signature formulas. (Spoilers will follow.)
It may surprise you that CinemaScore polled audiences that gave “Dark Phoenix” a “B-“, and “Captain Marvel” an “A”. So audiences seemed to enjoy both, despite the critical reviews. My belief is Marvel fans were desperate to see CM because they were salivating for “Avengers: Endgame”. We’d been waiting since “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) to see how our beloved heroes were going to undo Thanos’ devastating cliffhanger. It was obvious, the hitherto unknown Captain Marvel would soar into the sequel and be a mighty reason why Thanos would finally fall. To be honest – I never read her comics and had no understanding of who she was. I went into her film waiting to be astounded (as I had with Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman.) I was waiting for the moment Brie Larson’s heroine would make me want to rise up out of my seat and join her battle. And ho-hum, it never happened for me. Brie’s one-note performance, matched by her expressionless face (see the photo above. Seriously, she wears THAT BLANK LOOK the entire movie!) left me bored and disinterested. Her alien enemies were boring, and let’s face it, Jude Law’s biceps and Annette Benning stole the whole movie away from her. To be fair, I think Brie/Captain Marvel is much better written and acted in “Endgame”, but that was too late for me to care. Why, I wondered, did my friends enjoy a film that stuck to a signature formula? Worst still, the creators teamed Brie with Samuel Jackson, who can overshadow any Avenger when he appears onscreen. Jackson’s Nick Fury is overused and steals most of the film away from our dull heroine. Did she really need a Buddy-Movie to introduce her? Gal didn’t. She stood on her own two feet. But this wasn’t supposed to be Nick Fury’s film. Did producers worry that fanboys wouldn’t put cash down to see an Oscar-winning actress lead a Marvel Superhero film – for the first time? Probably. Jerks.
So I walked into “Dark Phoenix” with very low expectations. Imagine my surprise to be completely entertained, and even better, feel all the emotional payoffs for the characters. I will argue that Sophie Turner is far better at acting the emotional complexity of her heroine than Brie was. To be honest, Game of Thrones never let Sophie show this many emotions in it’s final season, or let her explore the darker shades of her character in the end. As Jean Grey, she greatly surprised me. She got the mix of fear, confusion, power-hungry aspirations, and full tilt villain ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. It is very hard not to feel emotions for Jean, even while you thrill to moments when she flexes and unleashes her horrible powers. The film builds with an excellent sense of dread, even while it excites.
Jean’s scenes with Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) are spot on, and explore the depths of all the moments in past films that brought us here. Better yet, Sophie never takes a backseat to her male co-stars. This is her story, first and foremost. This is THE BEST young X-Men movie by far. To be fully honest, I never cared for Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique. Tye Sheridan as Cyclops is never capable of matching Sophie in the nuances of her performance and therefor their love story quickly fizzles out. Her moments with Hoult and Fassbender especially carry way more punch, more depth and are beautifully acted. The men in this movie realize quickly they have no answers how to rescue or redeem Jean once she kills a colleague, except to (maybe) end her life in order to save the other lives she intends to wipe out. And – most importantly – the male characters care deeply for Jean and wrestle with their feelings about hurting or having to kill her. Bravo!
Much has been said about what a female champion Brie’s Captain Marvel was. Really? Ho-hum. Here, there is more exploration of how a female hero can be more powerful than a man, displayed in ways that have far better payoffs. For example, the moment when the seductive alien Vuk (Jessica Chastain, equally marvelous) manipulates the Dark Phoenix into attacking Professor X, by quietly telling Jean she doesn’t have to take orders from men like X or Magneto anymore is way more compelling to watch. The emotional bonds between McAvoy’s X and Jean Grey hit us hard in the gut. This is a man she followed into battle without question in the past. Watch Sophie’s eyes and body language as she wrestles with the decision to hurt him, despite wanting to keep her comrades safe. She is an all-powerful being who can squash her friends like bugs, and yet, she fights to regain self-control, even while enjoying her new freedoms as an omnipotent god. “Dark Phoenix” shows us that Might doesn’t always mean Right. And Jean will deeply feel the fallout from her actions. Just because this woman can bash men like Magneto and hurl him through walls of concrete doesn’t mean she’s going to like doing it. Or that she won’t pay a price for killing people. Sheer brilliance, and it raises the stakes of this story and elevates it above the lackluster battles of Captain Marvel. It is a frightening vision of a beloved heroine descending into the darkest realms and resigning herself to losing her soul (à la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)
Apparently, the finale of “Dark Phoenix” had to be re-filmed because it closely resembled the finale of “Captain Marvel”. To be very honest, the “train scene” here never seems tacked on, or added after the fact. Events made total sense as they came to a close. I found very little not to like in this fine X-Men sequel. I applaud Sophie Turner for creating a much more believable super hero than Brie Larson. I argue that years from now, this film may also be better appreciated. If only the Avengers movies hadn’t come along, been so brilliant, and made critics forget what made X-Men films so worthwhile. They were always more about the human relations between the heroes and less about the alien-bashing. Check out the reviews on Amazon for “Captain Marvel” and you’ll find I wasn’t the only Marvel fan let down by it’s lackluster story. My humble opinion is: (Captain Marvel is 1 star, and Dark Phoenix is 4 stars out of 5). Tell me what you think.