Thursday, March 26, 2020

Child of light and darkness


Written and directed by Simon Kinberg

Spoiler alert: severe

Of all the thousands of X-Men stories, the most famous and perhaps the most celebrated is the passion of Jean Grey, and her Dark Phoenix Saga of 1980 tends to linger as the consensus pick for the apex of writer Chris Claremont's seminal, monumental 16 year run with the characters.  Once upon a time, Dark Phoenix was spoken of in the same breath as Watchmen, as Marvel Comics' contribution to the redefinition of the superhero genre for a maturing audience, and this has never really done Dark Phoenix any favors, because it's just not in that league; it's messy and silly in the way ongoing superhero comics almost always were back then (and not "still are today," only because now they are also boring, plus completely out of ideas), and Dark Phoenix was being rewritten and even redrawn, under the editorial diktat of wise tyrant Jim Shooter, so that it ultimately became, in a sense, the very opposite of what Claremont and his artist, John Byrne, had intended.  Yet even as it veered off course and into uncharted territory, it bore heart and fire and creativity.  It's an exciting, operatic comic, and for all its lumpiness it even mostly makes sense; there's a reason why Byrne was an 80s art superstar; and, somehow, it even seems to cast an appropriately oppressive atmosphere of apocalyptic fatalism over the greater span of its ten issues, despite nine of those issues being written under the assumption that Jean Grey would actually still be alive at the end of them.

Yes, that's a spoilerfor a forty year old storybut, hell, it's the thing everybody already knows: Jean Grey dies.  (Boy, does she ever.)  And more than anything else, The Dark Phoenix Saga offered a heartbreaking conclusion to a descent into madness and sadness that burned itself into the collective brain of comic book fandom because it did something genuinely new and shocking with a serial format that, by its misbegotten nature, could obviously never have allowed her sacrifice to keep for too awfully long.  But then, it was only the serial format that ever allowed it to touch greatness in the first place, for it was able to take characters you'd known for years (in the contemporary case, often literally grown up besides) and said, "This, right herethis is the end of their journey together."

Inevitably, because nobody can resist the temptation of a classic, The Dark Phoenix Saga has precipitously found its way into every last screen adaptation of the X-Men of which I am awarenot only all three animated series, but also the first trilogy of X-Men live-action films that concluded with 2006's The Last Stand, written by Zak Penn (who counseled not doing it at all) and a certain Simon Kinberg.  Reviled by practically everybody, this left the definitive X-Men tale without any definitive cinematic interpretation.  However, when the X-Men franchise's 2011 soft reboot, First Class, renewed the success of the franchise, it was only a matter of time before someone took another swing, and, following Bryan Singer's dull-eyed attempt at MCU-style superheroics in 2016's Apocalypse, producer, screenwriter, and first-time-director Simon Kinberg decided it was time to do Dark Phoenix right.  Obviously, the similarity of names is a coincidence, because, after all, Hollywood isn't just some place where you can completely fuck something up, then convince the same studio to give you another $200 million to try the exact same thing again a few years down the line.  Gosh, it would be nuts if it worked like that!

I kid, a little.  In the same way that The Last Stand wasn't entirely Kinberg's fault, neither is his film, Dark Phoenix, though it's admirable that he's attempted to follow his heroine's example and take the blame.  In fact, Dark Phoenix presents a little conundrum for me: it is not nearly as bad as people made it out to be at the time of its releaseand they were out for bloodand so I would prefer to defend it, because it's, like, mostly fine.  At the same time, it rarely rises anywhere above fine, and it's hard to say, "no, actually, this was good," just because it could/should have been, and sometimes even seems like it's good.  It is at least somewhat clear that Kinberg really doesn't get the point of Claremont's story.  The fair thing to do would be to concede that Claremont's The Dark Phoenix Saga is, if not truly unadaptable, then not adaptable for 2019.  For starters, it's worth admitting that, "definitive" or not, it's at such a right angle to the core X-Men racism/homophobia allegory that it simply doesn't have a lot in common with the filmic X-universe.  Then, there's awell, "undercurrent" would suggest it's somehow subtleof Claremont's never-remotely-subtle desire to literally fuck his female characters, which is clearly trivially severable from the Saga on the level of plot, but, I don't know, maybe it's not quite as easily severable from it as a story.  Either way, it's absolutely not adaptable like this, because it depends so heavily on preexisting characters and character relationships, and on audience affection for those, and Kinberg's Dark Phoenix can't depend on any of that, because this Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) was introduced only one movie ago, in X-Men: Apocalypse, and that movie, insofar as it was about anything (and it wasn't), was really not about Jean Grey.

I'll give Dark Phoenix this: it's about Jean Grey, and that's an impressive, even revolutionary novelty for a ten-film, twenty-three-hour series that has otherwise never managed to find time for anybody besides Charles Xavier (in this iteration, James McAvoy), Magneto (in this iteration, Michael Fassbender), and Wolverine (not in this iteration at all, which is the most revolutionary thing about it!), with maybe a scene, here or there, spared for Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, and depending mainly on whether she woke up in time for make-up).

It's great that ten films in this franchise can finally shift in any way whatsoever, but it's insufficient, as Dark Phoenix still can't suddenly conjure beloved characters out of five lines of dialogue apiece for the rest of its cast, particularly Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), or Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), which means that Jean exists in an airless vacuum wherein shadows with names but little substance flit around on the margins, voicing their concerns about her well-being and general moral alignment.  The X-films' two decades of indifference to weather goddess Storm has been a disgrace, it's needless to say; and Dark Phoenix appears interested in teleporting elf Nightcrawler solely to the extent he's a cool special effect, degrading the gentle comic book character so thoroughly that if I were a Nightcrawler fan, I'd probably be angry that 50% of his comparatively few scenes involve him awesomely murdering someone.  (I should hedge: for all I know, by this point in the comics, Nightcrawler is indeed a vicious killer.  Everybody else is.)  But the thing that damns this movie, more than anything else (and other things certainly do), it's that with thirteen years to think on his sins, Kinberg is still under the impression that Cyclops is a tertiary character, which you can get away with when the story's about Charles and Magneto's competing philosophies, and less so when the story's about Jean dying to save the one she loves.

He's not even in focus!

Kinberg's own, frankly rather idiosyncratic diagnosis of The Last Stand's poor reception was that it eschewed the cosmic elements of the story.  He aimed to correct that hard, starting in his film's very first proper scene, which sends the X-Men on a mission to space to rescue the shuttle Endeavor at the behest of the president, thereby setting up a fascinating new status quo for Xavier and his mutant students, in which they are embraced by the human public as full-fledged superheroes; by necessity, this creates a new dynamic within the team, too, particularly as it regards Mystique's growing disillusionment with a peace between mutants and humans built on the perpetual endangerment of mutant lives in the name of interspecies friendship.  This informs literally almost nothing that happens subsequently in the film, of course, but it does put Jean in a position to absorb the huge transient blob of glowing CGI that's hanging out in near Earth orbit, which augments her powers in increasingly uncontrollable ways, but above all gives her the telepathic strength to hear her father's thoughts for the first time in yearscurious, since the pre-credits prologue established that he died, along with her mother, in a car accident she inadvertently causedand in short order she's begun to question the dubious memories that Charles put in her head in lieu of the truth of her father's fear and loathing.  (Even putting it that way makes it sound more diabolical than it actually is, and one of Dark Phoenix's littler problems is that it cannot imagine a moral universe where what Charles did was anything but indefensible and unforgiveable, though if they wanted to make him a deeply flawed hero, they probably should have shaded him a tad darker than "tried to protect grieving child from her own parent's hatred.")

Things only get worse, however, as Jean starts freaking the hell out, leading to an irrevocable break, when she treats Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to a tremendous bitch-slap, mainly in order to keep the effects budget of an already cheap-feeling superhero film down (though it's a solid action beat that underlines just how powerful the "Phoenix Force" has made her), and immediately thereafter puts Lawrence out of her misery by accidentally impaling Mystique on debris.  This opens a schism within the X-Men, and Beast brings Magneto out of retirement to help him get murderous revenge on Jean, while Charles and Cyclops and, for reasons that remain extremely vague, Storm and Nightcrawler, scramble to save herwhich will be even harder than they thought, because there's a clutch of aliens wandering our Earth (predominantly a platinumized Jessica Chastain), who have their own plans for this incarnation of the Phoenix.

I don't know if it needs saying, but "cosmic" is not the essence here, and the shrugging way this tenth X-Men movie says, "yeah, there's fuckin' aliens, whatever," is a huge strike against it and in no way ever necessary for the dramaChastain's Vuk is rather transparently there to 1)give Jean someone to talk to and 2)be a big bad manipulatrix to overthrow because I'm not certain Kinberg understood why Jean earned redemption in the comic book storyand while this alien invasion soullessly and mechanically "works" in the context of its superhero plot, it feels inorganic and forced, and the film practically grinds itself to a complete halt every time Chastain exposits about the tragic backstory of her race.  (Who are definitely not the Skrulls, by the way, despite, yes, being Skrulls, which obviously isn't the only similarity Dark Phoenix bears to Captain Marvel.)  Kinberg must've been absolutely committed to his thesis that The Last Stand failed thanks to a lack of aliens, because for some reason it never occurred to him to do advanced Sentinels (Chastain makes for a seriously impressive Terminator in the film's finale!), and there's always a certain perversity to the very nominal way Kinberg expresses his passion for this "cosmic" side of the X-Men (no Imperial Guards or White Hot Rooms here, folks), considering that he delivers the cosmic spectacle of the Saga within a whole lot of drab 1990s-vintage streetclothes superheroics.  More's the pity, since Phoenix does have pretty much the coolest comic costume of all time.

This is where I make excuses for Kinberg, and concede that he got screwed: Fox took a movie that he'd conceived of as a two-parter, Phoenix and Dark Phoenix, and told him late in development it was going to be just one, and it wasn't going to have any M'Kraan Crystals or Empress Lilandras in it, though amusingly that seems to have been who Chastain was originally cast as.  Ultimately, history even repeated itself, and this adaptation had to change its ending after it was already done, too: it seems that test screenings mandated reshoots to avoid a climax that was apparently exactly like Captain Marvel's (which I can't imagine made much of an emotional impression here, so good).  Meanwhile, it's real clear that a lot of stuff got lost, stuff that might've made the movie feel complete; stuff about the shifting status of mutants in the world, stuff with Charles, stuff with Beast, and especially stuff with Cyclops.  Maybe even stuff with Magneto's Brotherhood buddies, so the first time he speaks one's name aloud it's not in the moment of her demise.  (Oh, that's what you did with Selene?  Lame.)  But I guess you have to triage when you cut an epic duology down to 114 minutes, and to some extent I'll give Kinberg credit for making any coherent movie at all.

But not a very good one, and there are problems you can't blame on studio skittishness, like the arbitrary, thoughtless way Dark Phoenix continues the pattern of the prequels before it and plops itself another full decade down the line with no obvious consideration put into what this would mean for characters who are veteran superheroes pushing thirty, but still written like college-age newbies.  Then, of course, there's the basic issue of miscasting Sophie Turner, who wound up in Apocalypse, I think, on the sound basis that she has red hair.  She's an imperious presence, which is great for Sansa Stark, and pretty much lethal for any useful version of Jean Grey.  (She also has a hell of a time keeping her accent stable, which might matter less if we didn't have to wonder how the American child playing young Jean became a British adult.)  But the big thing is that she just cannot navigate Jean's arc: even privileged as far as Kinberg and his runtime can permit, there's simply no way for Dark Phoenix to get us where we need to be with her character, though the foundational decision to subtly shift the Phoenix persona from a raving split personality to a traumatized breakdown within Jean's "normal" personality is in some respects an advantage over the source material.  (I'm less enthused about the recourse to canned trauma for her backstory, which isn't nearly as fascinating or confrontational as the ways Claremont gestured at a boring normie's sexual ennui and nascent manic depression.)

Now: Dark Phoenix still functions, and it manages to at least allude to everything it needs to; there's a certain pleasure in seeing it hit the beats even if they don't have their full force, and Kinberg puts it together fairly solidly.  The action is usually fun, even if beyond the Endeavor sequence it's either too lo-fi to register as particularly inspiring or else just plain nonsense (the train setpiece that serves as the climax might give everybody visually interesting things to do, but the fact that it's inside a train still means that Magneto should be doing all of them, and Chastain's zombie-like alien army is astonishingly cavalier about casualties for what has been explicitly established as the final remnants of a dying species).  Above all, for a movie that was compressed, cut to pieces, and ultimately remade on the fly, it marshals a tone, and it's a solemn, genuinely thoughtful oneappropriate to its subject, and worthy of the legacy of a franchise that's taken us from the depths of the Holocaust to two separate dystopian futures.  It's not bad.  I just wish it were commendably good.

Score: 6/10

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