The Stories 'Dark Phoenix' Could Have Learned From
[This story contains spoilers for Dark Phoenix]
The problems that faced Dark Phoenix have been picked over during the past week. It bombed at the box office, despite its strong cast, and faced withering reviews. Observers have noted its similarities to another film, Captain Marvel. An alien invasion, a male mentor with too much control, newly discovered superpowers, and a girl-power theme lace both narratives together. So why was one a hit and the other a miss?
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Opening scenes usually can shed light on such questions. The first flicker of a project lights sets the tone for the entire story. A great first shot can reveal insight into the characters' state of mind, set a visual base upon which the story builds and helps establish the conflict within the film. Look at the opening shots of the top-rated X-Men films, Logan (James Mangold) and X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn.)
In Logan, Wolverine wakes up hungover in the back of his limo to the sounds of assorted criminals stripping the wheels from his vehicle. His hangover vanishes into a rage after one of those individuals shoots him in the shoulder. The animal wolverine always tried to keep at bay, dances with the devil in the pale moonlight as he slashed through each robber in a mad fog. Strung together, these images allude to the depression, fear and violence thematically tying each subsequent scene. Ultimately, Logan regains his humanity when he chooses to save his progeny and a group of astonishing mutants, just like his mentor saved him all those years ago.
X-Men: First Class shares a beginning with Bryan Singer's X-Men. A torrential downpour accompanies dozens of marching Jewish families into a Polish internment camp in 1944. In the middle of the crowd, a young Erik "Magneto" Lehnsherr (Brett Morris) stands guarded between his parents, but they cannot protect him from seeing the piles of deceased humans discarded like rubbish. Nor could they stop the guards from separating their small family. In an attempt to get back to his mother's arms, Magneto's powers manifest. Pain and rage became the fuel by which Erik moves through the world. Beginning the series and its relaunch with this scene, established the power dynamic of trust in the human race (Xavier) vs. the right to use whatever means necessary to protect oneself from those who seek to do harm (Magneto).
Now, look at the opening scene of Simon Kinberg's Dark Phoenix. In an emotionless voiceover, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) explains her view on the world, over a black screen. A nondescript vehicle cruises down a pine tree-lined highway. Inside, a set of parents argue with little Jean (Summer Fontana) over which radio station to play. In a fit of prepubescent rage, Jean mentally puts her mother to sleep behind the wheel. The car veers into an oncoming truck, the family vehicle does a 360 in the air, but Jean's mind creates a protective barrier; she walks away from the accident without a physical scratch.
Why start the film this way? Weird kids losing their parent or parental figure in a car crash has been done to death and no longer inspires fear. Hannah, Cloak and Dagger, Baby Driver, Pete's Dragon (2016), Jessica Jones, Captain America: Civil War, The Da Vinci Code, Shazam! the list goes on. The bigger problem: Jean's pain over killing her mother ought to have been centered in the story. Dark Phoenix manages to focus its lens on the mentor/mentee relationship between Xavier (James McAvoy) and Jean, with Xavier getting nearly as much screen time as his student. So why kick off the movie with the car crash as the defining moment in her development? Why not the day she finally was able to access and control her powers? Or the first time she felt like she had a family?
Another problem with the story is Jean's lack of agency in act two. Her mind is taken over by a space cloud 20 minutes into her journey. From there, she essentially fights the world's worst airborne disease. Later, Xavier reveals he built walls in Jean's brains so she wouldn't remember that her father was alive, or that she was the reason her mother died.
So far Jean accidentally killed her mother because she couldn't control her powers, had an emotional dam implanted in her brain because her mentor didn't think she could handle the truth despite having spent no time psychoanalyzing her, and then a cloud made her a murderer. If good storytelling follows characters making decisions, there isn't any to be found in Dark Phoenix for Jean Grey.
Xavier has much more of a story to tell. Before the magic space dust invaded her lungs, Jean didn't experience any visual emotional discomfort working as a member of the X-Men. There's no cool montage of her and Charles testing their mental limits or her struggling to fit in. If the professor's walls were the problem that led to Jean's emotional break, there aren't any clues in the script. As Jean begins to exude manic teen angst lashing out at everyone, it blindsides the audience.
Unfortunately, Charles gets to make all the moves. He decides when the team puts their life on the line. He decided when to apologize. The only reference back to Xavier's relationship with Jean comes in a flashback. He tells his grieving student she is not broken. The truth would have revealed Jean was broken-hearted and in need of therapy. Dark Phoenix isn't a story about Jean, but about the men around her. Ultimately, Xavier even decided how to fix Jean.
Jean never gets the opportunity to confront Xavier on his decision making. Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) does tell Xavier exactly how she feels, but Jean accidentally murders her not long after. Her words do little to impact the professor's actions down the road. Instead, he does everything in his power to shut Jean down before the U.S. government decides to attack all mutants. It's only after the government achieves that goal, capturing all the mutants that Xavier can apologize to Beast (Nicholas Hoult). That's right: Beast, who was mad at his leader because he put their lives on the line, got the big apology. To be fair, Jean does get a quick I'm sorry toward the end, but its placement doesn't hold the same significance. Leaving both the Dark Phoenix storyline, and the narrative of a fractured student/teacher relationship on the ground floor.
The X-Men series was the first film franchises of its kind. It took the story of a team across multiple generations and several decades. It boasted 19 years of cinematic experiences that never culminated in a clear story. Unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which was inspired by the original comic book text but took the time to explore each character on screen and make them distinct to the film series, X-Men played exclusively to a comic book crowd. Familiarity with the students of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters was a necessity to enjoy the nuances of the series.
This format no longer works in a post-MCU world. As unfair as it may be to demand all cape and cowl series rise to the bar of the MCU, the bar has been set. It hasn't been set terribly high. The best of the Marvel Studios films centers on one character or a feuding duo, explore their inner turmoil as it pertains to the greater good, and asks the main character to make a final decision over where they stand.
Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok greets the audience with a cocky Thor (Chris Hemsworth) trapped by Surtur, the beast who was destined to destroy his home. Imbued with comedic banter and a visual aesthetic of a metal album cover, Thor was beginning to prove himself a different type of king than his father. He was solving the problem, on the ground, by himself, before it could become an issue. The scenes following were his father's death, his brother insolence, a long lost sister and enslavement. This set up the doubt, isolation and fear that has followed the mighty god of thunder all the way through Avengers: Endgame.
Look at those same steps to examine Dark Phoenix. The story, based on the title alone, should be about Jean Grey. To frame Dark Phoenix as a women's superhero film is to do the gender a great disservice. In the end, Jean only exists as a scorching bird streaking across the sky, as the two men continue their game of chess. Jean Grey deserved better.
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