When X-Men was released, in 2000, the idea of a comic-book “cinematic universe” wasn’t even a glint in the eyes of Marvel executives. Superhero movies in general were a box-office gamble, the kind of project that stars and big directors tended to avoid. But in the 19 years since, the X-Men movie franchise (owned by 20th Century Fox) has released 12 films, seven in the main series and five Wolverine- and Deadpool-focused spin-offs. Some have been good, some absolutely awful, and plenty have fallen somewhere in the middle. X-Men: Dark Phoenix, which will likely be the last go-round with these characters before Disney’s merger with 20th Century Fox folds the enterprise into the former’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, makes for an underwhelming finale. The movie is a mostly bad, self-serious rehash of story arcs that have been put on film before.
More than anything, though, Dark Phoenix feels quaint. The X-Men series has none of the calibrated polish of the main Marvel movies, in which every post-credits scene and superstar cameo points toward a five-year road map of films designed to dominate at the box office. Dark Phoenix has stars such as Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender, and it has some spectacular-looking action sequences where superpowered mutants do glorious battle. But despite the epic nature of the story it’s adapting, the whole project comes off as chintzy and slapdash.
The film is set in 1992, ostensibly to satisfy the bizarre continuity that’s been haltingly laid out over the past six X-Men movies. In practice, all this means is that Fassbender, an actor in his early 40s, looks painfully implausible as Magneto, a character who survived the Holocaust and should be pushing 60 by now (not to mention that he’s supposed to be aging into Ian McKellen in the next few years). Such chronological messiness would be easy to forgive if it served any larger purpose, but it’s only a side effect of the many reinventions the X-Men have suffered as they’ve struggled to keep pace with the billion-dollar Avengers movies.
Dark Phoenix is a case in point. This is the second time the series has attempted to adapt what’s probably the most famous story line from the X-Men comics: the saga of an alien entity that inhabits the mind of the mutant Jean Grey and gives her incredible destructive power. The first go-round was the risible 2006 Brett Ratner film X-Men: The Last Stand, which indicated Jean Grey’s turn to darkness by dressing her in a particularly vile-looking corset. This time, Jean Grey is played by Sophie Turner of Game of Thrones, and her new personality is represented via a bunch of fiery, crackling lines that spread across her face. But the intended dramatic weight of her transformation is largely missing.
That’s partly because Turner’s time as the character has thus far amounted to a minor supporting role in the last X-Men movie, Apocalypse, which was the fourth in the series directed by Bryan Singer. He moved on to make Bohemian Rhapsody before being embroiled in controversy; Dark Phoenix is written and directed by Simon Kinberg, a longtime Hollywood screenwriter and producer graduating to his filmmaking debut. Kinberg has at his disposal a talented ensemble who have been absorbed into the series over various reboots, including Fassbender, Turner, Lawrence (as Mystique), James McAvoy (Charles Xavier), Nicholas Hoult (Beast), Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), and Alexandra Shipp (Storm). But these actors have never really managed to make those characters their own.
As a result, when Jean begins to wrestle with the awesome might of her new Phoenix powers, it’s hard to get too worked up about the death and destruction she starts dealing out. Sheridan, wearing Cyclops’s trademark red visor, affects a pained face as he begs Jean to turn away from evil, but his appeal to her love for him falls flat; the romance between the two characters was established by different actors, half a generation ago. The script leans on connections, such as a relationship between Beast and Mystique, that had essentially slipped my mind since the last X-Men entry, while other drastic developments (Magneto now leads an independent mutant country on a remote island) are introduced with no explanation whatsoever.
Much of the plotting is devoted to the ways that Xavier, a powerful telepath, manipulated Jean’s mind when she was young to protect her from herself. The rest of the X-Men are furious at him over this for about half the movie before they abruptly let him off the hook. Similarly sloppy are the motivations of the alien antagonist Vuk (Jessica Chastain), who manipulates Jean for reasons that are never made clear. Vuk exists mostly to nudge the action toward a few lazy set pieces, one of which follows our heroes as they bravely try to cross a New York City street. The final showdown is on an armored train that gets lifted several feet into the air, a far cry from the intergalactic battle on the moon that caps off the comic-book version of the story.
Kinberg’s narrative choices aren’t without foundation; everything he’s doing, plot-wise, in Dark Phoenix draws from the rich, decades-old history of the X-Men comics. But he’s pulling in elements from all over the timeline and lobbing them at an audience that probably lacks his encyclopedic knowledge. The overqualified cast do their best to inject some passion into the proceedings—Fassbender, in particular, is incapable of phoning it in—but the momentum drained out of these X-Men movies long ago. Dark Phoenix should serve as a fittingly perfunctory farewell.
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