There are few film franchises with a more convoluted storyline than the fabled X-Men of comic book lore. The films don’t really work chronologically, there are films that people argue are – or aren’t – part of the franchise (‘Deadpool’), and there are literally multiple storylines and timelines that never quite seem to converge into a coherent whole. But here’s the thing: That’s exactly how the comic book universe has always worked. There are characters that people love, but in the hands of various artists and writers, favorite heroes often have adventures that are completely independent of each other and are never referenced in subsequent storylines.
Marvel really changed all of this with the Marvel Comic Universe when it started to really track what happened in one film to ensure that it was properly referenced or had an appropriate influence in a subsequent film in the series. To the point of creating a 20-film canon that introduced and explored individual characters even as it assembled them collectively in other films too. Of course, I’m talking about The Avengers, but take a moment to contemplate what an extraordinary accomplishment it’s been for Marvel Studios to be able to accomplish this.
All of which is to say that it’s hard to even pin down exactly what film in the X-Men franchise comes before Dark Phoenix in the storyline. Probably it’s the somewhat goofy ‘X-Men: Apocalypse,’ but there are some oddities between when ‘Apocalypse’ ends and ‘Dark Phoenix’ begins that aren’t explained. But here’s the thing: In the X-Men universe, it doesn’t really matter that much. X-Men have always been about a bunch of misfits, a bunch of people basically like you and me if we had one peculiar and possibly awesome, possibly dorky superpower.
Except for Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who is one of the X-Men with a tremendous power: she is a telepath who can not only read other people’s minds but influence them too. The “X” in X-Men is, of course, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), head of the School for Gifted Youngsters that doubles as the not-particularly-hidden X-Men headquarters. Throughout the various storylines, X-Men have been embraced as heroes, vilified as the evil others and tolerated in a don’t ask, don’t tell sort of detente with non-extraordinary humans. ‘Dark Phoenix’ opens with the X-Men heading into space to rescue a space shuttle crew from a dangerous solar flare. The crew: Jean, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
The rescue goes a bit sideways when that solar flare turns out to be a mysterious energy cloud that ends up flowing into Jean, trapped on the shuttle as Nightcrawler whisks all the astronauts back to the X-Men ship. This is a lot of energy and it fundamentally changes Jean in ways that are not apparent for a while. She survives the flames and picks up the nickname “Phoenix” for her miraculous ability to survive what should have destroyed her. Space flare that affects our hero while in space is a story twist curiously like that of the Fantastic Four in one of their storylines, but that’s another discussion.
The energy cloud isn’t just some radiation burst from our sun, it’s actually a destructive force that is wreaking havoc throughout the galaxy. It’s also destroyed a distant planet and most of the D’Bari civilization. Except for a small band led by white-haired Vuk (Jessica Chastain) who have been pursuing the energy cloud and have now arrived on Earth. Their intentions are typically space alien, though: Take over the planet for their own use. (Why can’t aliens coexist? Then again, we don’t seem to coexist without aliens showing up so perhaps it’s a bit much to seek.)
Anyway, the stage is set: Jean realizes she’s gained these massive powers after a few troubling incidents and decides she’s going to avoid the risk of hurting others – especially her long-suffering boyfriend Cyclops – by leaving the school. She shows up at an island enclave where Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has created what appears to be a 70’s style commune for mutants who, well, don’t want to go to school, and he’s not sure he’s happy to see Jean.
Meanwhile, Vuk wants to enlist the X-Men to help subjugate us silly humans and take over control of the planet. But that’s not a plan met with great enthusiasm and it quickly devolves into Vuk versus Jean, with the rest of the D’Bari on one side of the battle lines and the X-Men on the other. The government doesn’t quite get the conflict, however, and are busy trying to capture and imprison the X-Men too, just in case there’s not enough going on with the story.
But in many ways, ‘Dark Phoenix’ isn’t about the storyline as much as it’s about Jean Grey and her journey of inner discovery. She learned in a terrible manner as a youngster that she had powers she couldn’t control and it was Charles Xavier who rescued her and helped her learn how to grow into a successful young woman. But at what price? What did Charles take away from her as she grew up, and how has that impacted her life? Interestingly, there’s a similar dilemma posed in ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ when Charles extracts memories from non-mutant Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) to ostensibly protect her from harm. Is it right for him to mess with people’s memories?
Sophie Turner also delivers a terrific performance as Jean Grey, giving her a heart and conscience that keeps her an engaging character even as she goes full Carrie in a couple of scenes. She’s far more interesting than Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) and stands as one of the best superheroes in the entire X-Men universe. There’s also something about the X-Men team that is often missing in the Marvel Comic Universe: humor and likability. Watch the young X-Men interacting and there’s a lightness to them, the sarcasm of Cyclops, the goofiness of Quicksilver, the self-effacement of Nightcrawler and even the pomposity of Xavier and self-righteousness of Raven. They interact as adolescents do, with wry wit and teasing that underlies a genuine affection for each other.
Fortunately, this lets the X-Men franchise get away with a lot of dumb storylines and confusing plot twists, something that definitely saves ‘Dark Phoenix’ too. Unlike the Avengers, I find that I like the X-Men and care about the eventual outcome of battles and their wrestling with inner demons both. There’s a reason it’s so successful as a comic book franchise, that’s for sure.
If you’re just looking for a popcorn movie, you might find ‘Dark Phoenix’ a bit confusing and wonder why story fragments start up but aren’t resolved. But focus on Jean Grey’s “hero’s journey,” and you might just find this one of the best entries in the entire X-Men cinematic journey.