No film franchise fluctuates as wildly in quality, and audience satisfaction it seems, as 20th Century Fox’s X-Men series. The mutant superhero universe, based on the Marvel comics, was molded by director-producer Bryan Singer (X-Men and X2), mauled at the hands of Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand), then successfully re-molded by Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class).
Singer returned to the director’s chair for the first-rate X-Men: Days of Future Past, then followed that up with the laborious epic X-Men: Apocalypse, a movie not even Oscar Isaac could save. So, the pendulum naturally has swung back from the travesty that was Apocalypse to somewhere in the middle for the X-Men’s latest, Dark Phoenix (★★).
A leading collaborator throughout the series, Simon Kinberg — who wrote Apocalypse and The Last Stand, and has had a hand in practically every X-Men-related feature, including neo-Western masterpiece Logan — takes the helm for the first time as director. He also takes a second swing at the storyline that many fans believe he and Ratner screwed up back in ’06, the Dark Phoenix Saga, hands-down one of the most cherished plots in the Marvel canon.
The team’s powerful psychic Jean Grey, played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner, comes into contact with a cosmic entity that enhances her astounding telepathic and telekinetic abilities, with deadly consequences. As described by one awed onlooker, all Jean’s desire, rage, and trauma are unleashed.
Set mostly in 1992, Phoenix continues the period adventures of the First Class films, which have cast mutants Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), and Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) as the focal points of the team’s alternately familial and conflicted alliances. Although this time, Kinberg corrects what’s generally perceived to be the grave mistake of Last Stand, by placing Jean and her true love Scott Summers/Cyclops at the center of the story.
In the earlier iteration, the comics’ classic Jean and Scott romance fell victim to the popularity of hairy third wheel Wolverine and breakout star Hugh Jackman. Now, instead of Jean extinguishing Scott offscreen, the pair’s adamantine love connection anchors the action. And Jean’s fraying bonds with mentor Xavier form the basis for interfamilial friction.
Twenty years since the X-Men’s leading man first strode onscreen, the current Scott, Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One), comes closest to carving out a compelling character of the introverted, visor-wearing hero. That’s no slight to o.g. Cyclops James Marsden — Sheridan’s just given more to do in these movies. However, he and Jean are scripted on a dull rinse and repeat here, with Scott ever more desperate to help his girlfriend, who’s combusting before his shielded eyes, and Jean wearily echoing over and over, “I don’t know what’s happening to me.” Kinberg opts for having multiple characters explain what’s happening to Jean, rather than exploring far down the intriguing path of Jean understanding exactly what power flows through her.
The exceedingly simple plot, involving hostile alien refugees led by a witchy, white-haired Jessica Chastain, doesn’t cover much emotional ground. Dark Phoenix doesn’t sprawl across galaxies, but stays compactly honed in on the matter-obliterating, mind-reading problem at hand. That leaves room for previously underused or misused X-Men characters to grab more superhero shine. Someone, somewhere will be thrilled to see that Marvel’s disco-era mutant heroine Dazzler (Halston Sage) makes her long-awaited feature debut. Fans might be less thrilled that she contributes nothing more than party lighting. The film makes better use of Kodi Smit-McPhee’s frisky Nightcrawler and Nicholas Hoult’s solid Hank McCoy, aka the Beast.
Based on a fight sequence that appears designed for Wolverine, Hank probably benefits the most from the absence of series stalwart Jackman. But the movie could use some of the able Aussie’s physical intensity. Either the action sequences are muddily shot, or they’re not so persuasively acted and stunt coordinated, but they lack order, splendor, and excitement.
With the exception of a sharply edited space rescue that generates its own fierce momentum, the film’s other choppy action sequences generally devolve into montages of CGI-lit stares and gestures. Hans Zimmer’s score creates as much atmosphere as the special effects, and a great deal more than a few of the performances. While McAvoy and Fassbender seem still engaged by this material, at least one Oscar-winning X-actor looks thoroughly over running around in blue makeup and yellow contacts. Luckily that works out perfectly for the trajectory of her character.
Dark Phoenix is rated PG-13, and opens everywhere Friday, June 7. Visit www.fandango.com.