Delivering some of the best superhero action sequences this year, it's still just a middling movie.
Image: Jesssica Chastain and Sophie Turner in X-Men: Dark Phoenix. Source: 20th Century Fox.
Comic book fans – at least, the superhero ones – are traditionally obsessed with the idea that stories have to matter. If a story takes place outside continuity then it’s not part of the wider story; that means it doesn’t really count. Which is a problem for X-Men: Dark Phoenix, because with 20th Century Fox now sold to Disney, all Fox’s superhero movies are dead ends. There may or may not (probably not) be another Deadpool movie; the long-buried New Mutant spin-off will (probably) turn up in cinemas eventually. But these versions of the X-Men are finished. Whatever happens here will have no future ramifications.
Unfortunately, this isn’t used as an excuse to send the characters off in style a la Hugh Jackman’s Logan. Nor is it a chance to give fans the finger by ending on a cliffhanger, or even mess things up so badly that no possible follow-up could ever put the pieces back together. Instead it’s just a slightly better version of a classic comic-book story the X-Movies already told in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, where powerful psychic mutant Jean Grey (here played by Game of Thrones' Sophie Turner) turns bad after encountering the Phoenix Force, a mysterious space energy that dials her powers up to eleven.
Writer-director Simon Kinsberg was one of the writers on The Last Stand, and for his second stab at the story he sticks a little closer to the comic book version. It’s 1992, and when the space shuttle Endeavour gets into trouble, the President calls on Professor Charles Xavier (James McEvoy) to save the day. The X-Men – Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicolas Hoult), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) – get in their plane, blast into space, and save the day. Even Jean seems okay despite somehow absorbing a bizarre “solar flare”. But back on Earth she starts acting strangely, while elsewhere a group of alien shape-changers (led by one who changes into a blonde Jessica Chastain) have arrived to claim what they see as rightfully theirs.
The X-Men series has easily been the most variable long-running franchise in terms of quality, so it’s something of an achievement that this is neither near the best nor the worst of the run. Kinsberg has a clear passion for the material (he actively lobbied to take a second crack at it), yet for such a potentially epic and romantic story his blandly drawn characters mean that side of things rarely comes through.
Lawrence’s Raven is the sole stand-out early on, while for some reason the charmingly quippy Quicksilver is sidelined for much of the film; Michael Fassbender’s Magneto is given little to do but scowl, while Xavier’s (slightly, briefly) darker turn here has little impact. At least it’s clear that Turner can carry a movie on her own – even withstanding the fact that the most her character arc requires her to do is look flustered while CGI cracks appear in her face.
Where this film does work is in the action sequences. The big weakness of the current Marvel franchise is that just about everyone has roughly the same super-powers (can fight, is strong and/or can shoot energy beams); with the mutant X-Men being much more defined by their individual abilities, there’s a lot more scope to play around. Nightcrawler’s teleportation and Quicksilver’s super-speed make for some well-thought out sequences (the initial space shuttle rescue is in some ways the movie’s high-point), while Magneto gets to both hurl large metal objects around and make more subtle use of his magnetic powers and Professor X gets to… pull faces and make gestures (okay, the fights aren’t really his thing).
It’s ironic that while the main Marvel universe has largely become an extended soap opera, the X-Men – who were often decried as a soap opera in spandex during their 80s heyday – deliver some of the best super-hero sequences this year. Here’s hoping they get to keep that when the Disney Marvel versions inevitably hit the screens in a few years time; the last thing anyone needs is a bunch more generic tough guys in costumes.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix
Director: Simon Kinsberg
USA, 2019, 1hr 54min
Distributor: 20th Century Fox