Warning: This article contains MAJOR spoilers for Dark Phoenix. Obviously. We have a spoiler free review for you here.
Dark Phoenix is the 12th film in the X-Men film franchise, and the second to last movie made under the 20th Century Fox umbrella before the Disney-Fox merger that will presumably bring the X-Men movies into the Marvel Studios fold.
As the last film in this category—New Mutants, set to be released in 2020—doesn’t focus on the “main” characters of the X-Men film franchise as we have come to know them, Dark Phoenix is tasked with not only wrapping up its own story, but the stories of the prequels and this era of X-Men on-screen storytelling as a whole. How does it do? Let’s break down this ending…
At the end of Dark Phoenix, Jean Grey uses her immense power to save her friends and the planet from Vuk, the representative of an alien race who had been wiped out by the Phoenix Force, and who hoped to use its power to create a new home for her people. She ascends into the sky to take out the power-hungry alien, seemingly sacrificing herself in the effort.
How does she do it? Apparently, through a combination of her own powers and the cosmic powers that she has absorbed, as well as the strength of her emotions. Frankly, the logic is all a bit muddled, as none of the aforementioned elements are articulately described or defined over the course of the film. What are Jean’s powers? What are the cosmic force’s powers? Does it matter? Dark Phoenix is not very interested in exploring these questions, and the ending suffers for it.
According to James McAvoy (via Yahoo Movies), the Dark Phoenix ending was changed via reshoots because of its similarity to the ending of another superhero movie that came out between Dark Phoenix‘s principal photography wrap in 2017 and its 2019 release. While McAvoy wouldn’t say which movie it was, most people assume he is referring to Captain Marvel, which also features a cosmically-powered young woman fighting to save her planet from alien invaders.
Like Carol Danvers, Jean Grey’s hero moment comes with the realization that her emotions have never been the thing holding her back or making her weak, but are rather a source of great power. While the exploration of this undervalued, traditionally feminine-coded theme is vital, unfortunately, Dark Phoenix doesn’t put in the actual storytelling work to sell it. For starters, it’s unclear when Jean goes into Phoenix mode to what degree, if any, her emotions are her own.
The “Emotions Are Strength” theme is an admirable one to explore, but it is one that is often shoehorned into female-centric films without doing the actual work of exploring how emotions can be a source of strength. In Dark Phoenix, Jean is depicted again and again as not being able to control her powers because of her inability to process her powerful emotions. When the film tries to tap into this underutilized theme in the climactic battle, it is a classic example of the movie telling us something, rather than showing it.
This might not be the last chance Jean Grey has to show us viewers that her emotions give her strength. Jean’s loved ones mourn her, not understanding that Jean hasn’t died, but has rather evolved. In the film’s final shot, we see the fiery outline of a massive phoenix in the sky, implying that Jean is still alive in some form. Jean has done what phoenixes do: risen from the ashes.
Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters has been renamed to recognize Jean’s sacrifice. It is now called Jean Grey’s School for Gifted Youngsters. There is comics precedent for this, as during a period when Wolverine was in charge, it was known as the Jean Grey Institute for Higher Learning.
This isn’t the only change that has been made at Jean Grey’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Apparently seeing that he and his habit of leading with his ego are not the best thing for the X-Men community right now, Charles Xavier has retired as headmaster of the school, replaced by Hank McCoy/Beast, an excellent choice.
Like Charles, Hank has been there since the formation of the school. Given Charles’ habit of swanning off to hang with the prez or to play chess with his best frenemy Erik, Hank is no doubt already in the habit of stepping in to take on some if not all of the headmaster duties should the need arise.
What is Charles doing with his retirement? Playing chess with Erik, of course. Erik finds Charles in Paris, where the latter is being melancholy and lonely at a cafe. Erik offers to save his life and give him a home (presumably in Genosha, the mutant homeland Erik has founded) in the same way Charles did for Erik when they met in First Class, when Erik was similarly lost. It’s an interesting reversal of fortunes: Charles finds himself without a community to center him, and Erik has done the work to build a community of his own.
Charles doesn’t explicitly take the offer, leaving his fate somewhat open-ended, but he does agree to a game of chess. The chess game is, of course, a callback to the many times these characters have played chess in the film franchise, which started in the very first film. X-Men ends with Charles visiting Erik in his plastic prison and beating him in a game of chess. In X-Men: The Last Stand, Erik demonstrates that he is getting some degree of his power back, making a metallic chess piece wobble.
In prequel reboot First Class, Charles and Erik’s chess play gets a backstory, too. The new friends play chess on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and again in Charles’ home while discussing what they will do with Shaw when they find him. In Days of Future Past, Erik and Charles play chess on the plane ride to Paris, a brief armistice in their turbulent, yet loving relationship.
Dark Phoenixis far from representing the best of this uneven, yet massively impressive and cinematically important X-Men era, but this final scene gets a lot right. If we couldn’t have a film that effectively paid tribute to the past almost two decades of on-screen storytelling, than atleast we could have this: two old friends playing chess together, one last time. It is an apt ending for this era of the X-Men story and the dynamic that has grounded an entire franchise.