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After years of X-mediocrities, it's a franchise farewell that's better than expected, without ever catching fire.
First, the good news: Dark Phoenix is a fairly watchable addition to a franchise that has felt stretched to breaking point. It boasts visual sass, the set pieces are mostly fun and the acting stands up as well as you’d expect with a charismatic cast well-grooved in the X-universe. In Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey and Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven, it has two nuanced female characters front and center—three, if you count Jessica Chastain’s ethereal alien-type creature Vuk, which is something that still can’t be said for too many superhero movies. It’s not nearly as good as Logan or X2, but it’s a whole lot better than the eyeball-poking affliction that was 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse.
On the flipside, it still feels like a fairly pointless retread of comis creators Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Dark Phoenix Saga, which we’ve already seen (and hated) in Brett Ratner’s 2006 disaster X-Men: The Last Stand. It bolts on a pallid alien invasion storyline that’s more X-Files than X-Men and is laden with lumpen dialogue about destiny and “controlling your inner power” that could have been lifted wholesale from a tai chi manual. Throw in a long delay of the release date and there’s the inescapable feeling of a franchise half-heartedly winding down before the inevitable reboot kicks in, with Disney (and the might of Marvel Studios) replacing 20th Century Fox at the wheel and meshing the mutants into its superhero pantheon.
Dark Phoenix introduces the serving X-Men as a kind of global 911 service, leaping into the X-Jet to rescue NASA astronauts who’ve been stranded in space after encountering a strange solar flare. It’s a good time to be a mutant: The public fête them as heroes, kids clutch Raven action figures and Professor X (James McAvoy) has a hotline to the president. But the mission goes awry and the telekinetic Jean Grey ends up absorbing the entire force of a space storm into her body. Cue the emergence of the titular Dark Phoenix, an amped-up version of Grey who boasts all the psychological balance of someone who’s basically inhaled a solar event. Following swiftly behind is a colonizing alien race (yes, another one) for whom she represents a secret weapon.
Screenwriter Simon Kinberg, who co-wrote X-Men: The Last Stand, does a much better job with the material second time out. He slims down the cast of mutants (farewell, Psylocke and Havok—we hardly knew ye or what ye did) and doesn’t overburden things with mind-bending timelines or multiple backstories that can make these films terrifying for the casual viewer. It’s relatability that makes the X-Men special—feeling like an outsider, for good and bad, is something we all connect with—and Kinberg injects enough of that DNA into the storyline of a woman wrestling with guilt and abandonment issues to keep things on track.
Turner gets to do more heavy lifting in the role than Famke Janssen ever did with her Grey, and she brings a stew of inner conflict and petulant rage as she broods on Professor X’s covert efforts to control her mind. There’s a potentially interesting subplot that has Raven accusing the professor of letting his ego cloud his judgment, though it’s undermined by a drowsy performance from Lawrence. By the time a newly peace-loving Magneto is introduced, the film is crying out for some of that trademark Michael Fassbender charisma. The usually soulful Chastain, meanwhile, is stranded in a particularly thankless plotline as the bleach-blonde, empty-eyed Vuk, a villain whose sole purpose is to give Grey an Important Moral Dilemma. By the time the inevitable CGI-heavy third-act face-off comes around, you’ll be praying for Mulder and Scully to take her in.