Dark Phoenix represents not so much the end of an era as it does a mercy killing, and the late Fox Studios X-Men franchise ends with sound and fury punctuated by a fizzle. AIt makes more of an attempt to adapt Chris Claremont’s classic 1980 storyline than X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) did, and fails even more spectacularly.
The movie is set in 1992, and opens with the X-Men — and mutants as a whole — having at last earned some degree of trust from their human cousins, hailed as Avengers-level heroes to the world. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) even has a hotline to the White House for emergencies, such as when a space shuttle has a disastrous encounter with a cosmic phenomenon. The team flies into action and saves the day, nearly losing telepath Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) in the process.
Jean’s exposure to the cosmic entity sends her powers into overdrive and her mental scars, locked away in the recesses of her mind by Xavier, come bubbling to the surface. She becomes a threat to herself and everyone around her on an increasing scale as she loses more and more control of her emotions and her new abilities. Enter Vuk (Jessica Chastain), leader of a decimated alien empire, who seeks Jean’s power as a means to rebuild, starting with the invasion of Earth.
That’s really all there is to Dark Phoenix. It’s so thinly plotted that the 114-minute running time constitutes a minor miracle. Several of the characters are shoved into the background or dispensed with early on (sorry, Quicksilver and Mystique fans). Much of what happens does so out of plot necessity rather than actual storytelling, and the characters are one-note, often act out of character, or both. Even Turner, in the starring role and carrying much of the weight on her own, is given little to do beyond scowl and fret.
If there’s a saving grace to Dark Phoenix it’s that the best-frenemies relationship between Xavier and Magneto (and the chemistry between McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) still carries momentum. Their battle of ideals has been the spine of the series ever since The X-Men helped pave the way for the modern superhero genre way back in 2000. Magneto and his followers have established peace with humanity by living in seclusion on what amounts to a mutant reservation. Xavier has found a way to co-exist with humans via assimilation, but his means are often arrogant and questionable — after all, he sends children into dangerous situations and literally messes with people’s minds as a means to end.
Much like Captain Marvel, there are shades of superhero gaslighting and manipulation going on here as Dark Phoenix at last puts Xavier’s methods under the microscope while Vuk manipulates Jean in her own way. It’s a little compelling, but unfortunately producer-writer-director Simon Kinberg focuses more on half-baked angst and mediocre action set-pieces to propel the movie to an unearned conclusion.
It’s too bad Marvel didn’t acquire Fox faster and mothball the X-franchise sooner. In the meantime, fans will have to settle for (re-)reading the comics, (re-)watching the ’90s animated series’ adaptation, and dreaming of what could have been.