2 out of 5 stars.
2019 is the year that many iconic pop culture franchises are coming to a conclusion. But while 20th Century Fox’s live-action “X-Men” series has been around for longer than most of them—almost 20 years, in fact—it feels less like a bittersweet farewell and more like a sigh of relief to see it ending. The franchise has a troubled history that includes a few really solid films, a lot of very average films, and a few awful ones. The series has continuously tried to fix itself over the years, erasing events and jumbling timelines to the point where it’s difficult to keep things straight anymore. With the Walt Disney Company’s recent acquisition of Fox, “Dark Phoenix” is the final movie in that latter studio’s interpretation of these characters as we know them, and while it would be nice to say that they ended the series with a bang, “Dark Phoenix” hits an all new low.
“Dark Phoenix” is the directorial debut of Simon Kinberg, who has served as a writer on the “X-Men” movies since 2006’s “The Last Stand” (he wrote this movie as well). This movie is a further exploration of Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey, who was introduced in 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse.” Jean possesses powerful telekinetic abilities, and her struggle to control them resulted in her parents’ deaths in a car crash when she was eight years old. It was at that time that Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) took her under his wing. Fast forward seventeen years, and Jean is now a full-fledged member of the X-Men. But a mission in space goes awry, and Jean ends up absorbing energy from a solar flare. Rather than harm her, the energy makes her abilities even more powerful, and Jean finds herself losing control when the mental block Xavier placed in her mind all those years ago to help keep her bad feelings in check breaks down. Now the X-Men find themselves having to face off against one of their own, while at the same time Vuk (Jessica Chastain), the leader of an alien race called the D’Bari, look to use Jean’s new cosmic power for themselves.
If this plot sounds familiar, that’s because the “X-Men” film franchise has drawn from this storyline in the comics before. It was the basis of “The Last Stand,” the third film in the “X-Men” series, a film that is universally considered to be terrible, and a film that the events of “X-Men: Days of Future Past” essentially erased so the franchise could start fresh. So yeah, maybe resurrecting that plot yet again for the final film in the series wasn’t the best idea. The source material isn’t to blame; the exploration of Jean’s powers and her emotional state is an interesting one, but it isn’t executed well in the movies at all. While we did see her some in “Apocalypse,” we don’t see enough of Jean in “Dark Phoenix” when she isn’t being tormented by her mental abilities. She goes from a child struggling to control her powers to an adult struggling to control her powers, and the film never shows us her in a normal state for contrast. She goes to the dark side too quickly, and comes back from it quickly as well, not giving the viewer enough of a reason to care about what happens to her.
“Dark Phoenix” also presents some potentially intriguing issues, but never follows them through. The most engrossing sequences come early in the film, and mainly involve the X-Men interacting with each other. Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) ponders leaving the X-Men, disturbed by what she sees as Xavier overly catering to the non-mutants. But even though we find out that Xavier’s misguided intentions have caused him to do some questionable, and even some terrible things, there isn’t a whole lot of resolution. The introduction of the D’Bari detracts from the more interesting dynamic of Jean versus the X-Men, leading to a rather underwhelming climax (Michael Fassbender is back as Erik/Magneto and really gets to go to town, so at least there’s that). The film wraps up quickly without much indication as to what the current state of relations between humans and mutants are, or what the future of the X-Men could possibly be.
The script is often clunky, and unfortunately the actors seem to know it too, as many of them turn in lackluster performances. Chastain makes for a dull villain who is too robotic to be interesting, and Lawrence is made to deliver an especially cringe-worthy line of dialogue that is thrown in only to pander to female fans. There’s potential in Turner’s performance as Jean, but we never get to see it realized to its full potential. Also returning to the cast from previous installments are Nicholas Hoult as Hank/Beast, Tye Sheridan as Scott/Cyclops, Evan Peters as Peter/Quicksilver (there isn’t really a cool slo-mo scene in this one, sorry guys), Kodi Smit-McPhee as Kurt/Nightcrawler (more Nightcrawler action is one of the high points of this movie), and Alexandra Shipp as Storm.
If you’re looking for a diverting action movie to while away a couple of hours, then maybe “Dark Phoenix” will do the trick. But for the film that is supposed to be the end of an era for the X-Men, merely being diverting isn’t enough. It isn’t epic or emotional. While we can say many negative things about the “X-Men” movies, at least for the most part they took risks. The first “X-Men” was released in 2000, years before super-hero movies started to be a staple in cinema. The way it portrayed its characters and their backstories was unconventional and unexpected; even “Days of Future Past” can be considered a risk, as it brought together both the new and old casts to essentially erase the events of a previous movie. But “Dark Phoenix” doesn’t take nearly enough risks. It could have at least been weird and bad; rather, it’s merely below average, and that’s almost worse.
Runtime: 113 minutes. Rated PG-13.