Dark Phoenix’s Big Death Was Terribly Handled
WARNING: Major spoilers for Dark Phoenix ahead.
Dark Phoenix killed Mystique very early on in the movie, but despite being the only major death, it was completely mishandled. Fox issued a soft reboot of the X-Men franchise in 2011 with the release of X-Men: First Class. The film introduced audiences to the young versions of the original X-Men characters with James McAvoy's Professor X, Michael Fassbender's Magento, Nicholas Hoult's Beast, and Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique. They have been the stars of the series since this point, while X-Men: Apocalypse introduced a new, young cast of familiar mutants: Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, Alexandra Shipp as Storm, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler.
In typical X-Men fashion, the relationship between Professor X and Magneto has been key to the most recent run of movies, but some have undoubtedly been surprised to see a character like Mystique receive so much screentime. Her increased role has not wholly been organic to the story, though, and was instead a move to push Lawrence more to the forefront as The Hunger Games franchise continued to grow, and she racked up Oscar nominations. Unfortunately, the handling of Mystique as a character and Lawrence's evident disinterest in continuing to play the part have been questioned in the most recent installments of the franchise.
This is why many were surprised to learn that Lawrence agreed to sign on for Dark Phoenix after her original three-picture X-Men movie deal ended with X-Men: Apocalypse. When audiences started to see the marketing for the movie, though, they began to understand why: the second trailer for Dark Phoenix heavily telegraphed that Mystique was going to die at the hands of Jean Grey. This belief was confirmed not too long after by writer/director Simon Kinberg, who said that they revealed this moment in the marketing to show that there were big stakes in his and the franchise's second attempt at telling The Dark Phoenix Saga.
As those who have seen Dark Phoenix know, Mystique does die, but the movie doesn't correctly handle the delivery and fallout of the moment.
Mystique's Dark Phoenix Death Makes Sense (Sort Of)
Dark Phoenix may not flawlessly execute Mystique's death - as we'll discuss later - but the idea, reasoning, and motivations for the moment do mostly make sense. From a storytelling standpoint, the death of an important character is a standard device used to raise the stakes of any story. This can come off as a cheap gimmick or an easy way to work around the lack of a proper build up, but that doesn't make it never useful. Superhero movies have already used this trope on several occasions, with Cyclops' death in X-Men: The Last Stand and Loki's death in Avengers: Infinity War showing the negative and positive outcomes.
For a story like The Dark Phoenix Saga, a major death does show that the lives of these heroes can be taken away and, in this case, is used to make Jean a more effective villain for the second act. It also fits with Mystique's four-movie arc and where her story needed to progress. In X-Men: Apocalypse, she became the face of the "mutant and proud" mantra and evolved into a leader of the X-Men team who was also a mentor to the young heroes. More so than others characters, her death means something for the younger heroes and the original class too. With Mystique out of the picture, the team splits, and the public begins to question whether or not mutants should have as much power as they do.
The other part of Mystique's death that makes sense is it being a suitable way to accommodate Lawrence's dwindling interest in the franchise. Not only was her contract up after X-Men: Apocalypse, but she wanted to stay out of the blue makeup as much as possible. Lawrence and the other First Class cast members may have returned to support Kinberg, but Lawrence may have also pushed for a limited role, forcing them into killing her.
Mystique's Death Is Rushed & Poorly Shown In Dark Phoenix
No matter how promising the setup, Dark Phoenix fumbles the execution of Mystique's death. The movie doesn't necessarily rush to get to that point in the story, but rather clumsily handles the scene itself once it arrives. Mystique walks up to try and calm down Jean (who is in the middle of a breakdown), and they only exchange a few words before Jean throws Mystique back into a pile of rubble. If an audience member isn't sure of what just happened, the reactions of Professor X and others make it clear. Oddly, Dark Phoenix doesn't communicate that visually; it is only after a series of cuts and close-ups of the actor's faces that Dark Phoenix reveals Mystique is impaled through the chest.
It's possible Kinberg couldn't show that much of what happened to her due to the MPAA and wanting to keep the movie PG-13 - similar to how the MPAA initially deemed Phil Coulson's death in The Avengers as too gruesome to show in a PG-13 film - but comes across as trying to hide her fate for added shock value. After all, Lawrence is one of the biggest actresses in Hollywood, so killing a character she's played three times before in the first 30 minutes would typically take audiences by surprise and be impactful regardless of how it was handled. Yet that handling of this scene - not helped by the marketing team teasing the death for months prior to release - robbed it of any real shock or emotional value.
Mystique's Death Has No Real Impact On Dark Phoenix's Plot Anyway
Even if Mystique's death was hidden from the marketing and better executed in the moment, there would still be the issue of the lack of impact it has. Dark Phoenix tries to show how the death affected various members of the X-Men, but most of the resulting story threads don't go anywhere: Cyclops and Storm momentarily do not agree; Professor X's handling of Jean's mind in the past is questioning; the kids at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters briefly mourn but don't even get to attend the small funeral; and Jean quickly cares more about controlling her power than struggling with what it enabled.
Dark Phoenix really spends the most time reflecting on Mystique's death with Hank McCoy and Magneto. Beast is the most upset and, when the rest of the team doesn't feel his anger, he goes to join forces with Erik. The two of them have a shared love for Mystique, and it doesn't take much from Beast to convince Magneto that Jean needs to die. All of this is used to set up the film's second act fight as Charles, Cyclops, Storm, and Nightcrawler try to save Jean, while Magneto, Beast, and a new, smaller Brotherhood tries to kill her. But even though the two sides may fight in the middle of New York, their opposing views on Jean are completely disregarded after that. Mainly, Dark Phoenix just used Mystique's death as a storytelling device to move other characters and the larger story forward, never taking the time to really consider what that would mean.
Instead, the characters all decide to protect Jean from the D'Bari alien race that wants the power of the Phoenix Force after being apprehended by the Mutant Containment Unit. This ensures that Mystique's death at the hands of Jean is completely forgotten about in the third act. Dark Phoenix's ending is particularly galling in this regard; the movie's epilogue sees Xavier's mutant school renamed after Jean and not after the teacher/mentor that she killed just a few days ago, all because she defeated the D'Bari and was believed to perish in the process.
How much of this was a result of Dark Phoenix's reshoots is unclear, but the end result is that Mystique's death, something that should be one of the movie's most important scenes, ends up as one of the X-Men movies' strangest instead.