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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



X Men-Dark Phoenix, Review: X-Men, ex X-Men and X-Women

X Men-Dark Phoenix, Review: X-Men, ex X-Men and X-Women

Every fan knows that the X in X-Men is for Xavier, the teacher-trainer who runs a school for the differently abled (gifted with a power or force other humans do not possess). In Dark Phoenix, there is a lot of play on the ‘word’, if one may call it that, X-Men. There are X-Men, and there are ex X-Men, then there are women members of X-Men who tell Xavier disparagingly that he should consider changing the name to X-Women, in view of the fact that there are more women than men in the force.

It was announced in December 2017 that any future X-Men films would be produced by Marvel Studios only, as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), making Dark Phoenix the last main instalment in the 21st Century Fox-produced series. So, for Fox, after this venture, it is truly ex X-Men. Coming to the movie, there is so much of over-the-top stuff that you might be tempted to rename it the Xcess Men. Writer-director Simon Kinberg said in May 2016, before the time when he came on board, that he hoped Dark Phoenix would be the first in a new line of films focussing on the younger versions of the original X-Men characters. Judging by initial reactions and reviews, that is not likely to happen. So is it going to be eX PhoeniX? Read on.

In 1975, while yelling at her mother for playing loud music that she does not like, eight-year-old Jean Grey inadvertently uses her telekinesis to cause a car accident that leaves her orphaned. Shortly afterwards, she is told by a man in a wheel-chair, Professor Charles Xavier, that her parents are dead. He then takes her from her native Red Hook to his Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, where he mentally blocks the accident from her memories, by building a  kind of scaffolding around it, and helps her hone her psychic abilities.

In 1992, the X-Men respond to a distress signal from NASA’s space shuttle Endeavour, which is critically damaged by a solar flare. No less a person than the President of the USA makes a call to Xavier, on hotline. A little unsure whether they can travel into space, they nevertheless take off in their souped-up jet, risking their lives. While the X-Men save all of the astronauts, Grey is unable to return to the X-Men jet in time, and absorbs the solar flare in her body. As a result, her psychic powers are greatly amplified. At the same time, the scaffolding placed by Xavier is destroyed.

Back on earth, she hears her father’s voice, and believing him to be alive, she travels to Red Hook, to meet him, and finds that he is indeed alive, though her mother died in the accident. The X-Men, led by Xavier, who knows where she must be headed, follow her, and attempt to take Jean home, first by persuasion and then by considering using force, but she fights them. In the process, she accidentally kills Mystique, who is hurled across and lands on sharp rods that pierce her body in several places.

Dark Phoenix is the twelfth instalment in the X-Men film series, a direct sequel to X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), a spin-off, flashback kinda enterprise, and the seventh and final instalment in the main X-Men series. Simon Kinberg was signed on to make his directorial debut in June 2017, and filming was completed in October, but the entire third act was reshot, in late 2018, following poor responses to test screenings. Guess not much was achieved, for the first look in the media finds the film "boring", the CGI and action sequences have not been appreciated, and character development has been found to be poor, although some of the performances drew praise. I tend to concur, but will not be unduly harsh on the film, because the protection of specially gifted children, or adults, for that matter, is a cause that has never received due attention and the plight of boys and girls, men and women, who have extra assets instead of handicaps, does resonate in my psyche.

Conceived as missing pages from a diary that chronicles the escapades of the X-Men, from 1975 to 1992, the film draws on the same character-base that was acquired from M/s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1994. The first film was made in 2000, so this is the 20th anniversary of the X-Men franchise. It comes with the familiar trappings of an array of heroes who have distinct (sometimes slightly overlapping) powers and the relationships they enjoy with each other and their teacher-mentor, Charles Xavier. Very little time/footage is spent on reminding viewers about each X-Man/Woman’s powers and his/her equation with the others. Clearly, the film is banking on fandom to see it through.

Associated with X-Men since 2006, as either writer or producer, and having written the 2016 Apocalypse, Simon Kinberg knows the game like the back of his palm. He is 45, British and a hot favourite with Jennifer Lawrence (Raven), who had threatened to walk away from the project unless Kinberg directed. Bryan Singer, who had directed Apocalypse, had originally been announced as a producer on Dark Phoenix but, in the wake of his being fired from Fox’s production of the Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, amidst accusations of sexual misconduct, he had to leave the project, and in came Kinberg. And a major issue came up soon afterwards. Captain Marvel had a climax in outer space, as had been shot for Dark Phoenix. So, to make it different, they reworked and reshot the climax, making it more grounded on terra firma. That meant a delay of eight months in the release, but Kinberg took it in his stride. There’s more adversity that will walk with him, in his stride, as the film runs in cinema-halls.

Although Kinberg’s idea of casting aspersions on the motivations of Charles Xavier was a novel move, it could have completely backfired, what with him being the raison d’être for the X-Men. As it transpired, the attempt to paint him dark ended in light grey, while the attempt to paint Jean Grey as a black and white schizophrenic, split personality (the makers call it ‘dissociative identity disorder, DID; I did say something similar, didn’t I?) took centre-stage. Xavier never slides down to villainy, although his acts are questioned many times by various X-Men, and the hotline with the President is shut down unceremoniously. Frankly, it would be extremely difficult to attribute petty vanity to a man of Charles Xavier’s credentials. As for Jean Grey, a plot point was needed to turn some of the X-Men against the others, and she provided the same on a platter. A better execution was needed of the CGI and VFX when creating the solar flare and the rescue mission, which, as it unfolds, is more of a blur than the showcase it should have been.

Ask any fan what he missed, or, rather, who he missed, most, in Dark Phoenix, and the but obvious answer would be Wolverine, last seen in a conclusive role as Logan, in 2017. Kinberg told Rolling Stone that this didn’t prevent him from thinking about including the character in Dark Phoenix and to explore Logan and Jean Grey’s romantic attraction, as it was depicted in the original Dark Phoenix Saga. But because some of the characters look so young, viewers probably would have found this off-putting, he opined.

“If you know the Dark Phoenix story, you’d want to really service the love story between Logan and Jean,” said Kinberg. “And I think the notion of Hugh Jackman, as great as he looks for his age, and Sophie Turner — it didn’t sit well with me. Or anyone else! It would be a little weird to see the 50-year-old Jackman compete with Tye Sheridan’s Scott Summers/Cyclops, for the affections of the now 23-year-old Sophie Turner.”  Well, make-up and digital technology has worked wonders before, not too long ago, making actors look 30 years younger, convincingly, so that is not a very valid argument. Kinberg went on to explain that he didn’t want to distract from Jean’s character arc either. The latter is a more acceptable line of reasoning.

A growing trend has been noticed in the superhero movies of the new millennium: existential crises. Most of them are either grappling with the question, “Who am I,” and the only variations permitted are the slight rephrasing of the fundamental query into, “Should I be what I am expected to be, or should I be what I want to be?” and “Should I be what I am, or should I become what I aspire to be?” Such questions bothered Nobel Prize winning French author/philosopher Jean Paul Sartre in the last century, and it bothers another Jean in 1992, twelve years after Sartre’s death, a female Jean, Jean Grey, who moves in the grey areas between extremes. (Was she so named as a tribute to Sartre)?

James McAvoy as Charles Xavier/Professor X, the mutant pacifist, dons a shaved-head look in 1992, to look 17 years older than he did in 1975. You do get shades of ambivalent angst in his portrayal, as demanded, but he is also partly caricatured when made to climb steps in spite of his walking inability. Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto, the X-Man who went his own way and set-up a shelter for mutant refugees, is brought in much later and found to be no match for either Jean or Vuk. He has a meaty role and garners appreciation for taking his stands, which, albeit, don’t amount to much, in real terms. Jennifer Lawrence plays Raven Darkhölme /Mystique, the shape-shifting mutant and Xavier's adopted sister, changes from Raven to Mystique once too often, but her exotic make-up holds. Nicholas Hoult is again Hank McCoy/Beast, a mutant with a beastly appearance and superhuman physical abilities and feelings for Mystique. Hank is bespectacled and a teacher at the school, quite convincing when he is shown as a human. Sophie Turner performs Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix, as a messed-up head turner, with both physical and mental power control issues, and does a creditable job. She emotes well and uses her eyes effectively.

Tye Sheridan is in the role of Scott Summer /Cyclops, who wears glasses permanently, because he is able to fire concussive optic beams, and his sympathy for Jean’s plight is palpable, though we never see his eyes. Alexandra Shipp is seen as Ororo Munroe/Storm, the African mutant who can control the weather, speaks with the established black American accent, and Jessica Chastain is chosen to play Vuk, the leader of shape-shifting alien race, known as D'Bari, looking vulnerable at times and turning clinical at crucial junctures.

Veteran Hans Zimmer’s musical score remains completely unobtrusive and yet delightfully appealing. India’s Central Board of Film Certification has passed the film for viewing by children only if accompanied by adults, i.e., with a UA rating. Duration-wise, 114 minutes appears a bit longer than necessary. On the one hand, it’s watchable, in the end, but certainly not among the top-ranked X-Man movies. So, on the other hand, it is nothing to marvel at, and you could give it a miss. After all, it deals with dissociative identity disorder, doesn’t it?

Rating: ** ½



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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