X-Men: Dark Phoenix brings down the curtain on this decade’s iteration of the classic Marvel comics mutant ensemble. This time, writer/director Simon Kinberg seems to have taken to heart the old adage; “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”. The Dark Phoenix story from the comics was originally tackled in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, ending up in something of a damp squib. This time the results are a little better, but there are still flaws. Dark Phoenix isn’t the car crash or train crash some critics have stated (although the film literally contains both) but nor does it come anything close to the sublime level of Avengers: Endgame, which recently set a new bar for this sort of film.
The story focuses on Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) took under the wing of the X-Men as a child. The film opens well enough, with a space shuttle rescue that goes wrong, leading to Jean becoming possessed by a weird, never properly explained alien lifeforce that makes her the most powerful mutant on Earth – even more than Xavier and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). At the same time, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, a shape-shifting alien race, led by the Emperor Palpatine-esque Vuk (Jessica Chastain), want to bring Jean aka Phoenix under their control.
Revelations about what an increasingly arrogant Xavier has done to Jean’s mind, for her own good, provide an interesting character arc, and performances and direction are solid enough. There are also one or two arresting set pieces, but for me, the big flaw is the afore-mentioned aliens. Regardless of what was originally in the comics, I would have preferred Jean’s power to simply be natural, but dormant, unleashed through the trauma of what happens during the shuttle rescue, and leading to the walls of Xavier’s secrets and lies coming crashing down. The true climax of the film – for me at least – comes before the finale, in an important moment regarding Xavier and Jean’s minds. After that, there’s plenty of fodder for the action crowd, but the film then becomes entirely predictable from a dramatic standpoint. And we’re still no clearer on the vague purpose of Jessica Chastain and the aliens, beyond a pretty bland take-over-the-world type scenario. Presumably they could have achieved this with much less destruction and a bit more cunning and wit, given their shape-shifting abilities.
All that said, X-Men: Dark Phoenix is a still an entertaining watch. For one thing, there are some interesting mental illness metaphors in the way Jean speaks of not being able to control her powers and how she feels (and her subsequent anguish at the destruction she wreaks). Her abandonment, feelings of guilt, and self-punishment, may resonate on a metaphorical level, for some audiences. For the rest of us, it’s a decent, solid, mid-range superhero blockbuster.