Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. In this entry, we discuss the ending of Dark Phoenix.
Nineteen years. It’s all been building to this. Simon Kinberg joined Zak Penn as co-writer on X-Men: The Last Stand, worked his way to producer on X-Men: First Class, and made his way to the Dark Phoenix director’s chair. The franchise began life cherrypicking characters and plots from the comics (a little Weapon X here, a chunk of Joss Whedon’s Gifted there), but with the success of the MCU and the superhero genre as a whole, the X-Men movies got bolder with Days of Future Past and Apocalypse. Not necessarily better, but bolder. The cinematic wave that they helped unleash grew into a tsunami, dominating box office, studio concern, and pop culture conversation.
Dark Phoenix is Kinberg going back to one of the most popular comic book storylines of all time and giving it a second go after bungling it miserably during his first X-assignment. The only thing competing with fan anticipation is fan doubt. Despite being one of the firsts to the market, the franchise’s shaky history of quality and seemingly apathetic attitude towards continuity has fostered distrust in their audience. Not to mention how the acquisition of 21st Century Fox by The Walt Disney Company preoccupies any thought circling Dark Phoenix.
So, with arms crossed, the X-audience enters the theater hoping for some validation regarding one of their most beloved characters. We don’t need an exact replica of the comic book; we just need something recognizable. If we can’t get that, then we need something that at least satisfies the characters established from the previous adaptations. That’s not a big ask.
The good news is that the ending of Dark Phoenix is most certainly an ending. At least, as 20th Century Fox is concerned. There is no post-credits tag; no tease of The New Mutants dangling above the Disney meat-grinder. This era of X-Men is officially over. Of course, whatever Disney has in store for their inevitable reboot may contain a Dark Phoenix or two, and the climax of Kinberg’s movie might hint at a successor for Jean Grey’s fiery space bird.
As we approach the film’s climax, the X-Men have shattered. The revelation that Professor X (James McAvoy) not only placed psychic barriers upon a young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) but also kept the whereabouts of her still-living father secret drove his most-prized student insane. Coupled with her sudden intake of a cosmic force (not actually named The Phoenix Force in the movie) during a NASA rescue mission, Jean erupts in a mental storm of rage leading to the impalement of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). This killing turns Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) against the headmaster, propelling him into the vengeful arms of Magneto (Michael Fassbender).
Professor X, the forever optimist, believes he can purge Jean Grey of her galactic parasite while McCoy and Magneto are looking to rip her limb from limb. It’s a moot point because Grey has transcended humanity and entered godhood with a little help from her new alien friend Vuk (Jessica Chastain). She is one of the last survivors of the D’Bari, which had their homeworld decimated by the Phoenix Force many years earlier (in the comic book, Jean under the spell of the Phoenix Force was responsible for their destruction).
After quickly dispatching her one-time teammates, Jean allows Vuk to siphon some of the cosmic power from her being. A squad of MCU soldiers (the Mutant Control Unit, not Marvel Cinematic Universe Soldiers – but don’t worry, those guys are on their way * snort * ) detain the X-Men by strapping them with power-dampening collars. Shackled inside a prisoner train, Professor X’s deflated students wallow in defeat while Jean Grey is strapped to a special gurney in another car.
Not fully satisfied with the bits of Phoenix Force she ripped from Jean Grey, Vuk and her shapeshifting D’Bari warriors attack the train. The MCU are no match for their numbers, and one dying guard releases the X-Men from their restraints. Even with their many gifts, the mutants struggle to contain the alien invasion. With a simple thought, Jean frees herself from her prison bed and goes to work. She pulls the train from its tracks and hurls the cars spinning through the air. As she protected herself as a child using a psychic shield during her car crash origin, Jean guards her friends against harm.
On the ground, Jean goes full-The Last Stand, evaporating the attacking D’Bari into molecular dust. Vuk attempts to remove the rest of the Phoenix Force from Jean using one mighty hug. The two zip into space where Vuk randomly tells Jean that her emotions are her weakness. “Emotions are my strength,” Jean replies and shreds Vuk’s biology into nothingness. Jean and the Phoenix are now one, surpassing whatever human understanding of existence. Effectively, she’s dead to the eyes of the X-Men.
Back on Earth, Professor X’s center of learning is rechristened the Jean Grey School for the Gifted. Sorry, Mystique, we didn’t love you enough. Don’t worry though; Hank McCoy will place a stock photo of you on his desk. Charles Xavier attempts to enjoy a Parisian vacation, but his afternoon tea is interrupted by a Magneto demanding another game of chess. The two dads will never escape the delight of metaphorically sacrificing pawns to gain the upper hand on each other. The camera pans skyward and we see the Phoenix Force fluttering in the atmosphere.
There is more of the Dark Phoenix comic in the film than I anticipated. We got aliens. Not Shi’ar, but D’Bari. There is no genocide to wrack Jean Grey with grief, but Mystique’s murder is a solid stand-in. The Phoenix Force is never explained as anything more than all-powerful, acting as a steroid to Jean’s already immense telekinetic and telepathic abilities. The terror sparked in the X-Men by Jean’s godhood resonates, but it’s used as little more than an excuse to perpetuate the mutant civil war that’s recycled in every cinematic excursion.
Nineteen years and here we are. It’s not an ending for Hugh Jackman (that was Logan). It’s not an ending for Professor X (that was also Logan). It’s not an ending for Magneto (that was Days of Future Past). It’s maybe an ending for Jean Grey. She’s risen above her friends and now looks down upon the lowly life below. If we thought there were more X-Men films in this timeline’s future, we might believe that her Phoenix Force would enter the body of the pink fauxhawked kid we see running down the hallways of the school near the end of the film. That’s Quentin Quire, and he’s a real handful.
Instead, we’re left with Professor X and Magneto playing chess again. Their never-ending duel tracks with fifty+ years of comic book continuity, but these last nineteen years of cinema were kinda exhausting. The 20th Century Fox-men movies (my term, trademarking now) were a series of fits and starts. The Last Stand falters, First Class reboots, Days of Future Past jumbles, Apocalypse ignores, Dark Phoenix sputters. It’s over. Cool, cool, cool. At least we got Logan and Deadpool outta this whole mess.
The 20th Century Fox-men movies (yep, definitely keeping this term) replicate the exercise of comic book fandom. When the hunger for a rewatch strikes you, what films will you pop into your player? The first two most likely. Maybe you’ll jump over to First Class. Jam in the Deadpools. Continue to obsess over Logan. When I revisit the X-Men comics, it’s not like I re-read everything written since 1963. I pick and choose. I ignore what doesn’t work for me and digest what does. That’s how it should be, and Dark Phoenix maintains that tradition. Bright side?