It is clear from the outset of what is roughly the first 13 minutes of Dark Phoenix that it is attempting to be a different kind of X-Men movie. Described for months by writer-director Simon Kinberg and producer Hutch Parker as something more “intimate” and emotionally dramatic than 2016’s bombastic X-Men: Apocalypse, it was only when the first action sequence of Dark Phoenix was screened at New York Comic Con that the effect they’re going for became truly apparent.
Opening on footage of a space shuttle launch in disarray (and that may still be in post-production development as, unless I’m mistaken, real archival footage of a NASA launch was used), the beginning of the film centers on the brink of a national disaster in Earth’s orbit. The sequence obviously pulls influence from X-Men #101, the issue which introduced Jean Grey’s alternate personality, the Phoenix (then not so dark), however everything about the way the sequence is treated by Kinberg’s film is evocative of the real-life space shuttle Challenger tragedy in 1986 (the film is set in 1992)… except now with superheroes coming to the rescue.
While we were not shown the opening credits, which apparently will set the stage as to what the X-Men have been up to in the nine years since Apocalypse’s setting, it becomes quickly apparent that Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters have become the toast of American life, mostly because his X-Men are now heralded as the superheroes they’re often depicted as in the comics. This is a notable departure from the way the X-Men were always depicted as a covert, paramilitary unit operating without the government’s consent in the Bryan Singer X-Men movies, but it is in-keeping with many other variations of X-comic book lore, and perhaps more aptly is comparable to the way the Avengers are usually depicted as everyone’s hero to lean on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Indeed, those comparisons are very visible with how the X-Men are treated in Dark Phoenix. For instance, after the film’s fictional Space Shuttle Endeavor loses contact with Houston, the faceless President of the United States reaches for an X-Phone with a line directly to Charles Xavier. These are the familiar beats of most superhero media, if not necessarily the X-Men franchise, yet where Dark Phoenix is clearly attempting to differ is in an aspect that Kinberg later emphasized during a NYCC Q&A as one of the director’s most important duties: tone.
The general tone of Dark Phoenix’s X-Men introduction is that of almost a thriller as much as an adventure. Genuinely, I suspect many comic book fans will be surprised how much they’ll enjoy seeing the X-Men act like regular heroes ready to fly into the blue yonder and beyond because they’re heroes, and not because they’re trying to save mutantkind. But while this is certainly more traditional superhero territory, there is very little in the way of self-referential humor intended to alleviate tension or create a sense of a knowing smirk at its own silliness, which generally is the modus operandi of MCU superhero movies, especially during the first act.
Returning a bit to the gusto of X-Men: First Class, Kinberg also seems to want to imbue a sense of earnestness to the material. So when realizing astronauts are in trouble, stakes are placed on the tightly edited sequence by Nicholas Hoult’s Beast, who immediately tells Charles that he doesn’t believe the X-jet is safe to travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Yet when the president calls, Charles overrides that decision and the X-Men are soon launching off to space to the first strings of Hans Zimmer’s take on an X-Men theme.
The music is audibly different from the more traditionally triumphant John Ottman theme in the past several X-films. Sounding in a single pass to my layman’s ear more than a bit like Interstellar, complete with a haunting ticking refrain that is more chorus here, Zimmer’s music could (and may) be recorded on an organ with the way it reaches with a rising sense of doom and uncertainty as the X-Men travel into space.
From the jump, Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique is unquestionably the leader of the team, barking orders like a drill sergeant for the X-Men and emphasizing their safety before boarding the ship. While the film is titled Dark Phoenix, we only get a hint of the emphasis on Sophie Turner’s heroine during this buildup. She is revealed to be the one of the “next generation” to have the closest intuition of how Lawrence’s Mystique is really feeling, stating “I don’t have to read your mind” to know that Raven thinks this mission might be a bad idea.
However, for comic fans, it is remarkably refreshing the way that Jean and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) are framed during this whole opening action sequence. While I’ve always been a fan of Famke Janssen and James Marsden’s take of the characters in the older films, they were usually treated as two-thirds of a love triangle existing solely to be interrupted by Hugh Jackman’s Logan. Here, Jean and Scott are simply shot and interact… like Jean and Scott, and Turner and Sheridan have chemistry.
But the scene-stealer during the opening sequence, before things get cosmic, remains Evan Peters’ Quicksilver. Once in space, the action sequence begins borrowing from the visuals of Gravity, complete with the rotating chaos of a disintegrating space shuttle (it’s been thrown into disarray by a passing solar flare). Cyclops is asked to stop the space shuttle’s out of control rotations by shooting an optic beam through what appears to be a cannon on the X-jet designed for his eyes. Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) then teleports himself and Quicksilver over to save the astronauts, which features the only sense of real humor during these 13 minutes, even if it is of an organic nature. Quicksilver quickly rounds up all the astronauts for teleport back to the X-jet, and when a second trip becomes necessary, Peter even creates in his zippy fashion a makeshift space suit for Kurt (the shuttle is becoming more unstable).
They must port back to the shuttle because Peter missed the NASA commander in the airlock. Fearing it’s too dangerous, Raven wants to cut their losses, but Charles overrides her from Cerebro. Charles also commands that Jean join Kurt this time, saying her telekinesis can hold the space shuttle together. However, if you know the general direction of a “Dark Phoenix” story, you can guess things fall apart quickly and due to the turbulence caused by the solar flare finally bearing down on the shuttle, Jean winds up getting left behind. A terrified Cyclops, and infuriated Raven, watch on as the shuttle with Jean is destroyed… but Jean is not.
While the special effects we viewed were not finished, the concept includes a bit already teased in the Dark Phoenix teaser where the solar rays envelope and are then consumed by Jean Grey’s body, almost like the spirits of antiquity passing through Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Notably this does not appear to be the scene teased in the first images of Dark Phoenix from earlier in the year (Jean neither turns into the Phoenix in this scene or incinerates her clothes). She simply floats in space after the shuttles fades away, rather miraculously alive and asleep despite not having any way to breathe in a vacuum.
Kurt is sent to retrieve an unconscious Jean, who awakes in Cyclops’ arms with a slight reddish flame in her pupils. They are then spirited back to Xavier’s school where the X-Men are treated as conquering heroes by the enraptured student body (Beast and Mystique are for no discernable reason in their “human” forms). Outwardly, no one treats it as too big of a deal that Jean Grey should be dead, although Charles asks Hank to give her a full medical examination.
Yet inside of Charles’ office, Raven chews Charles out, saying Jean should be dead and that Xavier is too concerned with the good publicity these kind of stunts create, even at the risk of their lives. Charles surprisingly and freely admits that this is the case, because as long as the X-Men are treated as international heroes (we are treated to fans from around the world cheering the X-jet as it lands with the astronauts safely back at Cape Canaveral), it means the popular imagination sees mutants as benevolent gods instead of monsters.
The 13-minute tease then ends with Raven getting what is easily the best line of the evening, “The way the women keep saving everyone around here, you should think about changing the name to X-Women.” While much of the dialogue has Kinberg’s familiar directness, it cannot be overstated how much Jennifer Lawrence clearly enjoyed saying this zinger. She deliciously leans into it in a way that makes it perfect for 2018. And surely 2019 too.
As a whole, these 13 minutes were an impressive corrector over the Dark Phoenix trailer from last month. Whereas that footage relied on the familiar narrative beats of the X-Men franchise as a whole, watching these scenes tonight gave me a much greater appreciation about what differences Dark Phoenix is bringing to the material.
Other than Matthew Vaughn’s First Class, no X-Men movie I can recall has treated the X-Men as so simply and altruistically heroic, nor quite as attuned in their teamwork. Yet the emphasis on trying to create earnest suspense, even with brightly colored superheroes in space, also lets the movie stand somewhat apart from the familiar territory treaded by so many other superhero movies flooding the market right now. Assuming there is more of this—and we actually get some images embracing the grandeur one associates with Jean Grey’s fiery alter-ego (who still remains somewhat hidden in this opening act as she is in the first teaser trailer)—it could scratch a niche that superhero movie fans may not necessarily be aware is itching.
During the Q&A after the footage, Kinberg and Parker pointed toward Logan as the biggest (but still abstract) influence on the film, and in a vague sense that seems accurate. In addition to Dark Phoenix’s vision of the X-Men in all their beloved glory explaining why they were so revered in Logan’s grim vision of the future (they were again as publicly visible as ghosts in the original movies), there seems to be a desire to emphasize dramatic elements more grounded in characters’ psychologies. Kinberg revealed an interesting anecdote about Jessica Chastain’s still unnamed extraterrestrial villain (she does not appear in the footage), stating she compares her character to a veterinarian who is tasked with explaining to an owner why their beloved dog needs to be put down.
Sophie Turner similarly came onstage during the Q&A and revealed a strong desire to “get it right.” Turner said that Kinberg first approached her six months before production on Dark Phoenix began and told her that it would essentially be her movie, and that she spent much of the time since then “educating herself” on mental illness and schizophrenia. She says during some of her downtime, she even would walk around set with a recording in her ear that attempts to recreate the sensation of being schizophrenic and having voices in your head. Turner, who alongside Sheridan sat on the steps of a movie theater aisle to watch the 13-minute footage, insists she thinks they will do the comics’ “Dark Phoenix Saga” justice.
We’re hoping she is right when she goes the full cosmic on June 7.
Read and download the Den of Geek NYCC 2018 Special Edition Magazine right here!