By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)
Writer-Director Simon Kinberg redeemed himself from his involvement in the lamented X-Men: The Last Stand, the third chapter of the saga about mutants just looking for a place to belong in modern human society. This subtext has been running throughout the films and it’s been explored in the past films to varying degrees of success.
His film, The Dark Phoenix, gets a treatment that is not too out there and it works without having to resort to sending the mutants to the moon.
When I have seen all the movies to date and followed the saga of the Phoenix up till the mid-90s (Excalibur, Series one), I had specific expectations in mind. While Kinberg’s work lightly touches upon a few things coming full circle, I suspect The New Mutants will have to provide some answers about the human and mutant relationship before Marvel Entertainment rewrites the mutant chapter for Phase Five of their narrative plan.
Here, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) gets the spotlight. At first, the tale suggests she was a product of Xavier’s (James McAvoy) mind-bending. Readers of the Uncanny X-Men saga know more and will find more of a balance in between the many characters involved in Jean’s trying time. The Beast, Magneto, and Raven hardly get much screentime. The Dark Phoenix storyline spanned ten issues (or 18, including the origin) and it touched on a lot more drama going on, including the subversion of how Jean, a caring psychic superhero, into a psychopath, a destructive force. This film focusses on one piece of trauma and how it got suppressed. She’s basically a variation of The Incredible Hulk. The fight sequence on the train is the best bit–perhaps intentionally mirroring The Wolverine (2013).
The movie functions more like a psychological thriller than a complete superhero knock ’em till they are down film. The latter is still required to provide the action. The thought bending moment is when Raven asks if everything Professor X wants truly for the better of mutant and mankind or just for himself? The tale wants to explore his selfishness but does not get far. It would take two films than one to get into this discourse. In the comic book, Mastermind and the Hellfire Club represented the ills of mutant kind. In the film, the villains here are Vuk (nicely played to alien effect by Jessica Chastain) and the mysterious D’Bari. I welcomed the nods to Chris Claremont and John Byrne‘s work. They are searching for the Phoenix force and will stomp upon humanity to get at it. True to the books is in how Jean got her Phoenix powers, what this entity represents and with how much of a threat it can be in the wrong host body.
One detail that may have been taken from issue #199 of Uncanny X-men is in deciding if the force should be used for evil or for good. The orb contained a psychic imprint of Jean. Rachel Grey, a daughter from a future alternate timeline, found this object and decided to claim the power as her birthright. If this film series is to continue, I hope she will become part of the canon since Turner may not be contracted to continue with more X-Men films.
As much as I like to see this franchise continue with Kinberg showrunning, Disney and Marvel now have creative control. As for recasting everyone, I’d rather see these performers continue than have someone new.
3½ Stars out of 5