Dark Phoenix brings Fox’s “X-Men” franchise to a frustratingly unsatisfactory close. The venerable comics arc turns into a studio-driven product that tries to do too many things. It’s a wasted opportunity that waves goodbye to a once-proud franchise with a middle finger.
On a mission to space, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) comes into a contact with a cosmic force of unstoppable power. As she struggles to understand her newfound abilities, the rest of the X-Men — Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and others — turn to leader Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) for guidance. They find themselves increasingly distrustful of his tactics. When Grey’s powers inadvertently lead to tragedy, the X-Men splinter as separate factions hunt down Grey for their own reasons. One of these is Vuk (Jessica Chastain), the leader of an alien unit who seeks Grey’s power for nefarious ends.
Here’s the thing: for about half of this two-hour movie, you might be convinced that it’s actually good. It’s certainly not the “Dark Phoenix” arc, but the movie does try to follow the spirit of the original story, if not exactly the plot. The scene in which an X-Men team member is killed is surprisingly emotional and effective.
But despite being called Dark Phoenix, the movie is arguably about Charles Xavier more than any other character. There are some great scenes that call Xavier out for putting young adults in mortal danger to further a pro-mutant agenda that he’s the face of. Xavier is racked with guilt over choices he’s made in his past, including something he did to Jean Grey as a child. This material is probably the strongest aspect of the movie (and we get one last, great Cerebro scene).
But unfortunately, despite starting out with a lot of promise, the movie goes off the rails and never recovers in the second half. Magneto enters the picture, and while Michael Fassbender gives a typically excellent performance, he adds virtually nothing to the plot. Furthermore, he’s apparently supposed to have a very deep, platonic connection with Jean Grey. But audiences have never seen or known about it, so their scenes together hold no weight. As usual, Fassbender is at his best playing off of McAvoy. But aside from an admittedly decent closing scene, the two barely interact.
And then there’s Jessica Chastain, playing a character who’s probably not what the marketing has made you think. She’s a great actress but horribly miscast here, and the material gives her nothing to work with. Her motivations make no sense, her evil plan is pointless, and Chastain’s lifeless performance does nothing to help.
Aside from Chastain, performances are good across the board. Sophie Turner improves upon her relatively lackluster debut in X-Men: Apocalypse. The rest of the new team (Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee) still seem too young for their roles, but do solid work nonetheless. Hoult and Lawrence are nice but underutilized, while McAvoy and Fassbender are the best actors in the movie. Evan Peters’ Quicksilver is barely in the movie, unfortunately.
Editing is choppy, evidence of a first-time filmmaker and a meddling studio. Visual effects are mostly fine, somewhat surprisingly. Hans Zimmer’s score is one of the movie’s few highlights. Costume design is also excellent, evoking classic X-Men comics and cartoons in a way previous movies never did. Production design is a bit of a letdown; the movie largely takes place in 1992 but you’d never know it if the movie didn’t tell you.