'Dark Phoenix' and the Exciting Uncertainty of the 'X-Men' Finale
Death is coming for the X-Men. Thursday night, 20th Century Fox released the second trailer for Dark Phoenix, the 12th and what might be the final installment, save for the question mark surrounding August's The New Mutants, of the 19-year-old X-Men franchise.
The film, which marks the directorial debut of longtime X-Men screenwriter Simon Kinberg, looks to end things on a somber note. After X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) took the franchise in a bigger, stranger direction, complete with world-ending stakes and a blue Oscar Isaac, Dark Phoenix scales things back once again and focuses on the characters and the dissolution of personal relationships created by Jean Grey's (Sophie Turner) turn to the dark side. Dark Phoenix marks the second time the franchise has adapted Chris Claremont and John Byrne's iconic storyline from The Dark Phoenix Saga. Although comparisons between Kinberg's film and unpopular entry X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) have been circulating the internet since the teaser dropped last year, Dark Phoenix appears to be a different beast from what we've seen from the franchise before.
Heat Vision breakdown
Right off the bat, the trailer for Dark Phoenix drops what might be a major bombshell: Jean kills Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). While this significant moment may have been best saved for the film, the fact that it's shown in the trailer suggests that it happens early on, and that if Mystique can die then no one is safe. Kinberg has said that he wants the film to deviate from the expectations audiences carry in with them to a superhero movie. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Kinberg explained: "It's a movie where shocking things happen, where intense, dramatic things happen. People don't just fall off buildings and dust themselves off and walk away. There's a reality to this movie and a consequence to this movie." With Disney's impending acquisition of 20th Century Fox and the fate of this iteration of the X-Men unknown, all bets are off and we fully expect that none of these characters will be handled with kid gloves. In other words, we expect Jean to rack up quite a body count before all is said and done.
One of the scenes that's been highlighted in both trailers is the X-Men confronting Jean outside her childhood home. While this seems to be a sticking point for the comparisons between Dark Phoenix and The Last Stand, it's also a showdown that happened in the Claremont and Byrne storyline and one necessary for Jean's evolution. It appears this scene will mark the film's turning point and divide the X-Men between those who want to save Jean and those who think she has to be killed. We expect a number of the X-Men will break away from Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and join Magneto's (Michael Fassbender) latest iteration of the Brotherhood. Beast (Nicholas Hoult) seems a likely candidate to split from Charles Xavier, which points to interesting ramifications given that Hank McCoy has been Xavier's most stalwart defender. While many of the X-Men films have relegated team members to the background in favor of focusing on Wolverine, the retirement of Hugh Jackman's character opens up the chance for some of these other characters to be given more consideration.
Most deserving of the extra screen time is Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), who was shafted in the original trilogy. His impassioned plight to save Jean could very well be the heart of the movie and see the character break out like he's never truly had a chance to before. While it wouldn't be an X-Men film without a moral battle between Charles and Erik, both leaders seem to be at a loss over how to combat Jean, which will hopefully allow their students to rise up and determine their own paths forward. If we're still thinking of these X-Men films as civil rights allegories, which they've wavered between, then Dark Phoenix could fittingly explore the outcome of social movements when they've moved beyond their most iconic figureheads, something that's currently being explored from another angle on X-Men TV show The Gifted.
Even though the film looks to scale back to a more grounded perspective than the last entry, it also seems less wary of comic book elements than the franchise did during the 2000s. Chalk it up to the proliferation of comic book movies that have gone for broke when introducing weird concepts we once thought we'd never see on screen. The soap opera elements and the mutants' seeming inability to age over decades are comic book elements that have been highlighted since X-Men: First Class (2011).
But Dark Phoenix looks to add another element from the comics, although it's streamlining the X-Men's complicated and often messy comic book history so that it doesn't refute the world that's been established thus far. We got our first hint at Jean's Phoenix Force powers during the climax of X-Men: Apocalypse, but rather than this power being entirely an internal force as it was in The Last Stand, Dark Phoenix takes a page out of the comics in which the Phoenix Force is a cosmic entity that possess Jean. While we're not getting the Starjammers or the Imperial Guard, Dark Phoenix will take the X-Men to space and get more cosmic than we've seen before.
This cosmic aspect of Dark Phoenix also raises questions about Jessica Chastain's manipulative villain, who seems to possess her own psychic abilities that suggest shades of Mastermind, the comic villain who set Jean on the path to Dark Phoenix. Chastain's character has been described as a shape-shifting alien who has come to Earth looking for the Phoenix Force. There's a likely possibility she's playing Lilandra Neramani, the Shi'Ar Empress and frequent romantic interest of Charles Xavier. But other than her alien heritage, Chastain's character appears to share very little with Lilandra, who is often an ally of the X-Men. There's an even stronger case to be made that she's playing Cassandra Nova, a telepathic, telekinetic shape-shifter who can manipulate DNA. Xavier's parasitic twin sister born on the astral plane (that's alien enough), Nova, faced off against the Phoenix during her plot to wipe mutants from Earth during Grant Morrison's New X-Men run. Giving further credibility to the idea that Chastain is playing Cassandra Nova is the fact that the X-Men's costumes in Dark Phoenix are taken from that very same Morrison run.
Dark Phoenix may not be the first film to depict Jean's troubled transformation, but it certainly looks more promising than what's come before. There's an exciting element of uncertainty that comes with the film's promise of consequences and Chastain's character. While the X-Men franchise has had its ups and downs, Dark Phoenix looks to be weighty, emotional and a worthy last stand for a franchise that helped create the superhero-movie phenomenon.
Dark Phoenix opens June 7.
by Richard Newby
by Graeme McMillan
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