When Bryan Singer’s X-Men opened twenty years ago, few expected a mid-budget superhero team-up to spawn two direct sequels, spin-offs, a reboot, and three sequels to the reboot (not to mention re-energizing the superhero genre), but it did, but like all good things – or all things in general – it had to come to an end, but nothing then or now said it had to end with a flaccid, turgid, ultimately pointless entry like the much-delayed, less-than-anticipated Dark Phoenix. A second go-round in bringing Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s classic comic-book storyline to the big screen – Dark Phoenix drops the “mutant cure” storyline that undermined and ultimately neutered Brett Ratner’s -Men: The Last Stand thirteen years ago – replacing it with a woefully underwritten, under-motivated central arc, Jean Grey’s transformation from troubled mutant with telekinetic and psychokinetic powers, to a rage-filled superpowered, near godlike super-mutant, but repeatedly fails to make her – and by extension, Dark Phoenix: the Movie – intrinsically or organically compelling, let alone passably watchable. Another missed opportunity, another misfire isn’t how nostalgia-prone X-fans wanted to see the series end before the Disney Industrial Complex folds the X-Men into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that’s what Dark Phoenix delivers.
A surface-deep exploration of (pop) psychological trauma and the consequences thereof – in practically every definition of those words – Dark Phoenix opens in the X-Men’s version of 1975, with a preteen Jean Grey, unaware of the extent of her superpowers, inadvertently causing the car accident that leaves her parents dead and Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) at her hospital door. Xavier promises Jean the equivalent of a family at his School for Gifted Youngsters. Jean only has to trust Xavier’s word. She does, but that decision and Xavier’s underlying motivation – paternalistically protecting Jean from certain knowledge of her role in her parents’ deaths – haunts both Jean and Xavier throughout Dark Phoenix. When we catch up with Jean Grey as a twenty-something adult (played by Sophie Turner, Game of Thrones), she’s a full member of the Xavier-led X-Men (and X-Women). And with the events of First Class, Days of Future Past, and Age of Apocalypse behind them, the world no longer hates or fears the X-Men like it once did: It celebrates and elevates them into humanity’s protectors and saviors. It treats them like rock stars or celebrities. That doesn’t last, of course. Dark Phoenix would have a merciful running time of 30 minutes otherwise.
After a public mission to save stranded astronauts in earth orbit leads to Jean almost losing her life – but gaining it due to the awesome cosmic powers of the “Dark Phoenix” – Jean begins to show signs of impending godhood. She becomes increasingly irritable, overly emotional, and almost literally explodes at an outdoor celebration, sending her X-mates into unconsciousness. When she wakes, she realizes something’s not right and decides to go on a hunt to uncover her buried past (insert multiple yawns here). In a nod to previous iterations and variations of the Dark Phoenix Saga, Xavier emerges, if not as an outright (super) villain, then a problematic superhero or anti-hero, making command decisions for the X-Men and X-Women under his charge, even if they mean robbing them of their agency and individuality. And when they challenge him, he plays the gaslight game. (With his telepathic powers, he’s the ultimate gaslighter.) An out-of-control Jean functions as plot engine and superficial (super) villain, but the underlying villain in Dark Phoenix isn’t even human: It’s Vuk (Jessica Chastain), an alien from some distant star with an obvious agenda and an army of minions at her disposal. Vuk apparently shares Xavier’s desire to control Jean and Jean’s powers for the usual reasons (world/galaxy conquest, etc.) and not out of legitimate concern for Jean’s personal safety or her agency.
Dark Phoenix has little, if any of the scale, scope, or spectacle of even lesser Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, a clear sign that the X-Men’s time has come and gone (at least in their current incarnation). And with marginal character development outside of the Big Three (Xavier, Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto [Michael Fassbender] and Raven / Mystique [Jennifer Lawrence]) and half-disinterested, paycheck-collecting performances up and down the cast list, the secondary X-Men don’t stand out. They fade into the background or function primarily as props for uninventive, unimaginative set pieces. One set piece unfolds in and around a Central Park mansion before switching to an ultra high-tech train that literally and all too predictably goes off the rails (a perfect time for a nap or two). They’re nothing we haven’t seen before and not just on the big screen. Considering production delays and a completely redone third act (possibly more), it’s shocking how perfunctory and small the set pieces repeatedly feel. And with nothing related to character or story to engage or hook moviegoers (forget the MCU’s taken-for-granted grace notes or the seemingly effortless mix of drama and humor, often simultaneously), Dark Phoenix eventually tips into forgettable, unremarkable sub-mediocrity. It’s a sad, unfortunate end for a superhero franchise that started so promisingly twenty years ago.