After 12 installments spread out over two decades, the X-Men franchise stumbles toward its close in Dark Phoenix. Played at an unmodulated level of subdued excitement that never quickens the pulse, longtime series producer Simon Kinberg’s directorial debut lacks the exclamation point fans have justifiably been hoping for at the end of a road that has embraced three prequels, related side routes with the Wolverine and Deadpool offspring and the reshoot-happy The New Mutants, now scheduled for release next April.
Curiosity and the desire for completion will draw the series faithful, but the creative inspiration and public excitement that once fed the series have demonstrably dissipated.
A whimper rather than a bang.
One crucial component of what made the property special in the first place has disappeared, that being the implicit social commentary of its leading characters being “different.” The opening scene of Bryan Singer’s original X-Men in 2000 was set in a concentration camp, which immediately established the central characters as endangered outcasts, and the best films in the series always emphasized the idea that they could never truly be part of society. This feeling is all but missing now, as is any sense of dramatic nuance or balance; everything is played at the same level of importance at a low heat.
Front and center here is Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, Game of Thrones), who was introduced to the series three years ago in X-Men: Apocalypse and here springboards the action when the young girl’s supernatural gifts cause a fatal car accident involving her parents and land her in the care of wheelchair-bound X-people ringleader, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). The man recognizes talent when he sees it, and Jean’s first hurrah comes a decade or so later when the scarlet-haired young woman is able to telepathically rescue an errant space shuttle when it’s about to burn up.
“The women are always saving the men around here,” gripes X-folk veteran Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, back for her fourth go-round in the franchise), and the film essentially settles in on a muted middle ground as Jean, helped along by Raven’s mentorship, discovers ever-greater powers in herself but remains conflicted as to how super she really wants to become. The drama, such as it is, centers on the extent to which her colleagues approve, or disapprove, of her burgeoning talents and the tensions that arise from her becoming more powerful than they are.
At its heart, this is a story about what an immeasurably talented woman chooses to do with her life; unfortunately, it doesn’t play like one, as Kinberg pitches his script in the most melodramatic direction possible while the exceptional impulses multiplying inside Jean grow as well as fester by the moment. Along with Xavier, those who intersect her orbit consist, most importantly, of Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult), whose reactions to developments prove of only mild dramatic interest compared with what they’ve been in previous chapters of the saga.
Shoving things in a more decisive direction is the arrival of another woman, the ingloriously named Vuk (Jessica Chastain), a sleek alien who lures the youngster toward the dark side by saying things like, “You’re stronger than you know. You’re special, Jean.” Before long, her powers ever-increasing, Jean accidentally kills someone close to her that eventually leads to a climax that should be a great deal more momentous than it is, given the film’s status as the presumed capstone to a monumentally remunerative series.
Compared with the conclusions of other major franchises — the most recent being Avengers: Endgame — this one seems distinctly minor league. The men who have anchored most of the X-Men outings are just spinning their wheels here, and while Jean’s central dilemma is certainly dramatic enough, and is most closely entwined with the actions of two other women, what should have registered as genuinely powerful instead plays out in a pretty low-key way. In no way does this feel like a fulsome, satisfying destination to a journey that started two decades ago and logged about 30 hours in the telling.
Production: Marvel/Kinberg Genre/Hutch Parker
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jessica Chastain
Director-screenwriter: Simon Kinberg
Producers: Simon Kinberg, Hutch Parker, Lauren Shuler-Donner, Todd Hallowell
Executive producers: Stan Lee, Josh McLaglen
Director of photography: Mauro Fiore
Production designer: Claude Pare
Costume designer: Daniel Orlandi
Editor: Lee Smith
Music: Hans Zimmer
Casting: Alyssa Weisberg, Kenyon Wells
Rated PG-13, 113 minutes