James C. Clay // Film Critic
The X-MEN film series has a running total of seven entries (not counting three Wolverine films), and they’ve always found their voice as something more than just smash-and-grab superhero action. The themes were socially relevant and brought a level of prestige to the genre when it was just coming of age in the 21st century. Some have been a mixed bag, and others have been downright memorable, but with the release of DARK PHOENIX, the franchise was on life support in terms of quality and overall demand from fans.
Splicing apart the plot to catch up is nearly impossible as the plot mechanics have added many characters, time hops and swerves that it would bake your noodle if you decided to go down that road. With DARK PHOENIX, long-time writer and producer Simon Kinberg steps in to tell the story of Jean Grey’s (Sophie Turner) transformation into the titular all-powerful mutant. The result is an often contemplative inner struggle that finds stumbles in its plot mechanics, yet is visually-arresting and provides a complete arc for a multitude of characters.
The X-Men franchise has always had prestige casting right from jump street. If the Marvel Cinematic Universe has their movie stars, the X-Men franchise has a wealth of Oscar-caliber actors that often bring emotional stakes to the surface when the narrative beats hit a lull. We pick up in 1992, with the X-Men controls in the hands of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy. He’s at the high point in his career: He fields calls from the President of the United States, accepts prestigious awards at banquets, and mutant/human relations has never been better. While things may see rose-colored from the outside, on the inside of X-Men headquarters, there is turmoil caused by hubris that is tearing the team apart.
During a rescue mission, Jean Grey gets caught in a solar flare that should have killed her but amplifies her telekinetic powers. After a fatal skirmish outside of her childhood home, she flees to pay a visit to Eric Lehnsherr, aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender), on his secluded island of misfit mutants. This, of course, puts the best of enemies Professor X and Magneto in opposition yet again.
The film moves fast through her progression and never fully reckons with how her powers and emotions mean to who she is as a person, and unfortunately, Turner’s performance doesn’t reflect any emotional stakes either. Jean is on the outs with her boyfriend Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). She’s lost trust (and rightfully so) in her mentor Professor X and longs to reconnect with her estranged father (Scott Shepard).
Inexplicably, a legion of alien beings, led by Vux (Jessica Chastain), invade Earth to harness the power of the Phoenix in an attempt to take over our world. Initially, the promise of Chastain and Turner acting alongside one another has the potential to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, but the results, sadly, disappoint. For a film title DARK PHOENIX, the agency of its titular character is rooted in her relationship with three male characters. The optics on this may be well-intentioned but are problematic at best.
Despite the muddled story of Phoenix, the film’s action set pieces are well choreographed and edited into montages of visual splendor that add stakes to a movie that otherwise would be lacking. Kinberg is a more than adept action director who brings a cerebral and psychology the film that, by the end, earns its redemptive arcs.
DARK PHOENIX is going to be one of the more divisive blockbusters this summer. It has many problems but finds success by diving deeper into the intimate relationships of its characters.