The conclusion of the X-Men franchise was never going to be great, but it didn’t have to be this bad. Back when the first film came out in 2000, the idea of a series of sustained and even quality films based on comic books had not solidified—Superman, Batman, and Blade all started strong but saw diminishing returns in the sequels. Deadpool and Logan showed that this franchise can still pack a punch when filmmakers are allowed to run wild with the mythos, and in First Class, the chemistry among the younger cast members was evident. They could have gone for broke with nothing to lose before Disney acquired Fox and the characters with it. We did just witness the finale of a 10-year arc in Endgame that bent time and space. The ground was fertile for X-Men to get a redo of the series’ most celebrated storyline, the Dark Phoenix saga, that was wasted in The Last Stand.
The story picks up after the previous installment, Armageddon. The X-Men are seen as heroes after saving the world. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has the ear of the president, who calls a private line to give his gifted youngsters assignments, saving people from this or that calamity. On a mission to space (yes, space, even Quicksilver comments on how sudden this is), a mysterious force finds a host in Jean Gray (Sophie Turner). Her powers, already strong, become unstoppable, as her emotions become more uncontrollable, awakening past traumas concealed by Charles. As she wrestles with the combination of awakened anger and unlimited power, Charles must confront the dark consequences of paternalism that deprived her of emotional catharsis when it mattered. Along for the ride are Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique/Raven, Michael Fassbender as Erik/Magneto, Nicholas Hoult as Dr. McCoy/Beast, Tye Sheridan as Scott/Cyclops, Alexandra Shipp as Ororo/Storm, Kodi Smit-McPhee as Kurt/Nightcrawler, and Evan Peters as Peter/Quicksilver. Jessica Chastain is the villain, and the less said about that character, the better.
It’s a terrific premise for a story, one that cuts to the heart of what makes the X-Men so resonant. The metaphor of adolescence is barely concealed but effective nonetheless, and it was a massive hit in the comics. It’s been a long time coming: this was teased at the end of X2, and attempted (poorly) in The Last Stand. In Dark Phoenix, writer-director Simon Kinberg (a co-writer on The Last Stand) attempts to bring the cosmic scale of its narrative and deep anguish of its themes back in focus.
Kinberg’s love for the story is admirable, but unfortunately none of that made it to the screen. The actors look bored. The camera feels bored. Even the special effects seem boring, sparkling and exploding listlessly because they have rent to pay and blew their Captain Marvel audition. It’s astonishing that something so expensive can look so cheap, like a billionaire with a bad haircut. The dialogue is somehow both straightforward and confusing; everyone repeats the same platitudes about telling the truth and manipulating people’s emotions until someone dies/something blows up, then everyone says they’re sorry. Kinberg might actually love these characters too much, to the point that he has to soften every blow and make sure no one’s feelings are too hurt.
Even if Dark Phoenix had been better executed we’d still be faced with the Star Trek Into Darkness quandary of why we bothered resetting the timeline just to tell the same story all over again, but worse. Later this year sees the release of The New Mutants, supposedly a horror film and the last of Fox’s non-Disney films in this series. Even if it falls flat, it’s something different.
Dark Phoenix / PG-13, 116 minutes / Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056, drafthouse.com/charlottesville z Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213, regmovies.com z Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000, charlottesville.violetcrown.com z Check theater websites for listings.
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