Mutants and humans have always had an uneasy relationship. But thanks to Professor Charles Xavier’s diligent, careful efforts, the bridge between the two races seems as solid as it’s ever been. Mutants aren’t hunted, hated or feared these days. In fact, they’re increasingly seen as … heroes.
So when NASA faces a crisis in 1992—one of its space shuttles is spinning out of control and drifting right toward a mysterious energy cloud that’s menacing it—the president calls Professor X. And Charles Xavier sends his X-Men into orbit to save the stranded, terrified astronauts.
And so they do, thanks to Nightcrawler’s ability to teleport and Jean Grey’s telekinetic ability to stop the crippled craft from spinning.
Jean, perhaps the most powerful among them all, doesn’t get out of the derelict spacecraft in time. Instead, the mysterious mass of flame-like energy engulfs the shuttle, with Jean still trapped inside. But instead of incinerating her, she somehow absorbs the energy, screaming as its cosmic power permeates and penetrates her body, finding a new—albeit unstable—home within her.
Jean should be dead. In fact, blue-skinned shapeshifter Raven says as much. Raven’s also increasingly leery of how Professor X seems willing to put the X-Men in harm’s way for the sake of positive publicity. Even if it means risking their very lives in the process. Oh, yes, she knows Charles means well. But she doesn’t trust his motivations. Especially when he seems to be enjoying his proximity to power of a different kind these days: the political variety.
Raven confides her concerns about Xavier’s shifting loyalties to Hank McCoy, the sometimes blue-furred genius known as the Beast. Hank’s not ready to bail on the X-Men just yet. But Raven’s practically packing her bags.
At least, she was. Right up until the moment that Jean Grey’s already potent abilities begin to leak out in frightening, increasingly destructive ways.
Jean desperately wants to believe that she’s OK, that she’s got it all under control, as does her boyfriend, Scott Summers, aka Cyclops. But as she revisits old memories of the car crash that took her parents life, old instabilities resurface. Violently.
Instabilities that a mysterious, white-haired woman named Vuk seems eager to exploit … if Jean’s surging powers don’t kill everyone on Earth first.
Jean Grey is not an inherently evil character. But as a seemingly malevolent energy rages inside her—energy she struggles to control, especially in emotional moments—she increasingly loses her grip on her identity. A confrontation with the X-Men ends badly, sending Jean into exile while the surviving heroes try to figure out how to respond. Some (Cyclops, Professor X), still believe she can be saved. Others, however, are less certain. Much of the movie revolves around this central tension of trying to save someone whose self-destructive power is a threat to everyone she encounters—and maybe even a threat to the entire planet.
Another moral conundrum that the movie presents us with has to do with Charles Xavier’s motivations. He desperately wants to contribute to a world in which mutants are not only safe, but able to live harmoniously with humans who’ve often treated them badly in the past. That motivation is a good one. But Raven challenges him to see how his desire to do good has inadvertently caused him to use and deceive those around him. He argues that those choices were for everyone’s greater good, but Charles is forced to confront the consequences of his manipulations when secrets are revealed.
The film also demonstrates the importance of family, on several levels. We see how Jean Grey being orphaned has shaped her. Later, the role of her father in her life is shown to be an important one. Charles Xavier essentially adopts her when she’s very young, and the film unpacks layers of complexity about his intent and desire to protect and help her.
“I can’t stay here,” Jean says of Charles’ opulent mansion for other mutant children like Jean. “It’s too nice. I … I break things.”
“I can help you so that you never have to break things again,” he responds.
“You think you can fix me, too?” Jean says skeptically.
“No,” Charles says. “Because you’re not broken.”
Characters grapple deeply with the question of how best to deal with Jean. Two characters are driven by a desire for vengeance after a tragedy, but they both reconsider in the end. Charles struggles to admit that he’s made mistakes, that he was wrong. But he eventually is able to do so.
Storm wisely says, “Sometimes we want to believe people are something they are not. And then by the time you realize who they are, it’s too late.”
Raven sarcastically asks why the group is called the X-Men when it’s the female heroes who do most of the heavy lifting and rescuing.
As has always been the case with the X-Men, we hear several references to evolution with regard to the mutant heroes’ powers. “Who are we?” Jean Grey asks in a voiceover at the outset of the film. “Are we simply who others want us to be? … Or are we destined to evolve?” The force that inhabits Jean is said to be the “spark that gave life to the universe.”
Charles, for his part, possesses telepathic abilities that are amplified greatly by the device known as Cerebro, which enables him to locate mutants anywhere on the planet and to read minds. Jean is also able to read people’s minds. Other mutants obviously have various other superpowers as well. Jean’s eyes glow eerily, and energy ripples lighting-like across her skin, when she manifests the power within her.
Jean is restrained on a steel table with her arms outstretched, making look as if she’s on a cross. Two characters have a meeting in a traditional church where stained glass windows are visible. [Spoiler Warning] X-Men fans know that things don’t end well for Jean. But after she’s seemingly destroyed, we see several scenes of a phoenix-like energy creature flying through space.
Scott Summers and Jean Grey are a couple. Scott is deeply in love with Jean (we see them kiss passionately a couple of times), and he’d do anything to rescue her. A kissing scene in Jean’s bedroom perhaps implies that’s a place where Scott is quite comfortable.
Female characters wear some tight and revealing outfits. Younger mutants dance sensually at a party.
Superhero-style bombatics permeate this film practically from start to finish. Two scenes in particular, however, are especially worth detailing here. A character is impaled on several (three or four) wooden spikes that protrude through that person’s abdomen. Blood is visible, something that’s almost a shocking in a genre that generally avoids it.
We also repeatedly witness (in slow motion) a car crash that killed both of Jean’s parents. A camera inside the car gives us a very realistic-feeling sense of the destruction as the car flips and rolls. It lands upside-down; Jean’s mother’s eyes are sightless as blood dribbles from her mouth.
Elsewhere in the film, various heroes and villains (including Vuk and her surprisingly sturdy group of lackeys) duke it out with everything they’ve got. Cyclops blows stuff up with the beam from his eyes. Beast jumps through various battles. Storm unleashes her lightning-like powers. Quicksilver sprints in and around bullets. And Jean, of course, repeatedly unleashes her potent abilities in explosive, destructive ways, with several of her victims being vaporized.
Someone’s head is nearly crushed. Various heroes are knocked unconscious, then detained with shackles and collars that restrict their abilities. Guns play a surprisingly active role here, as the baddies pursuing Jean Gray are quiet resistant to them (though bits of skin do fly off from time to time).
Vehicles—helicopters, cars, trains, space shuttles—explode. A battle near Central Park involves many panicked civilians struggling to flee. And on and on it goes.
We see a flashback to an alien planet being destroyed by a powerful interstellar force. A group of people at a party are apparently killed.
We don’t hear a huge quantity of profanity here, but we do hear a few harsh ones: an f-word and two s-words. Jesus’ name is abused once. God’s name is misused thrice. We hear a couple uses of “d–n” and “d–mit.”
Jean goes to a bar to try to drink her troubles away. We see many bottles lining the bar’s shelves. We also see her drinking some sort of purple (and presumably alcoholic) beverage at a party.
And she’s not the only one. As things spin out of control, Charles increasingly seems to turn to the bottle as well. At one point, we see him awaken on a couch with an empty bottle next to him, implying that he drank till he passed out the night before. Hank McCoy drinks to soothe his grief, too.
As Jean’s power flares out of control, many humans seem to revert to a fearful stance toward mutants, undoing the ambassador-like work that Charles had done. When unconscious mutants are collared by soldiers, the military men do that task with grim glee.
A villain emotionally manipulates Jean by telling her, “You’re the girl who everyone abandons.”
Nineteen years, 12 X-Men movies. That’s the tally as this franchise closes out its time at 20th Century Fox. With Disney’s acquisition of the fabled studio, it’s only a matter of time before these characters are rebooted in the official Marvel Cinematic Universe. (You didn’t really think we were done with Wolverine, did you?)
Perhaps that’s for the best. I didn’t think Dark Phoenix was as awful as many mainstream critics have said. But neither was it a particularly memorable movie. The second big-screen iteration of Jean Gray’s tragic transformation into the Phoenix is a predictably violent, occasionally profane affair. It’s the kind of story only a hard-core X-Men fan could love, yet also the kind of story that hard-core fans tend to tear to shreds.
And perhaps that’s ironically appropriate, given the vast quantity of superhero shredding that’s unleashed by the time the credits roll.
I suspect moviemakers still have compelling new superhero stories to tell. But for most moviegoers—the überfans and the uninitiated alike—Dark Phoenix isn’t one of them.
We may not be tasked with saving the world from invading aliens. But as parents, we definitely fight to protect our children from many other kinds of attacks, including attacks on their identity and self-worth. For strategies and help with regard to the issues of identity and control, check out these Focus on the Family resources:
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.