Set one’s X-pectations low and each day be reborn. Here we have the sequel to 2016’s Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix, the 12th and all-but-officially-announced final film in Fox’s X-Men franchise. If you aren’t heading in completely devoid of all hope for Simon Kinberg’s X-movie being anything more than simply being better than Brett Ratner’s Last Stand or the aforementioned, nearly winked out of existence by its X-ecrable nature Apocalypse—to be anything more than a mainline X-Men corrective not directed by a seX criminal—you will get exactly what you knew in your heart you would get. If you value this X-perience at one (1) movie ticket, then you will find a neutral sort of satisfaction here. Sometimes one must have confidence one is correct. It helps push us from one day to the neXt.
In Dark Phoenix, Simon Kinberg again attempts—having co-penned Ratner’s 2006 garbage fire with Zac Penn, which first cast Famke Janssen as the hero in crisis—to adapt the 1980 comic book saga by Chris Claremont and John Byrne into a single film with little to no emotional scaffolding assembled by previous entries. Though ultra-uncanny teen telepath Jean Gray (Sophie Turner, fifth-billed as the titular character) disintegrated Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) back in the ’80s, now in 1992, Jean’s powers are still largely unquantifiable, meaning that over the ten years between films, Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) hasn’t made significant strides in helping his star pupil get her shit together. Granted, that’s a long process, anyone coming to terms with their metaphorical puberty, but for a franchise concerned with time travel and alternate timelines and merging the initial films with the post-First Class cast in a post-MCU cinematic world, Dark Phoenix fails spectacularly to grasp anything chronological.
Ostensibly set in the early ’90s, no aspect of the film, not its tone or art direction or language or music (except for a party scene introducing Dazzler, and even then it sounds more mid-2000s Apple commercial than anything), anchors Dark Phoenix in that era. Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) should both look much older than just south of 30. Magneto (early-40s Michael Fassbender), a child during the Holocaust, should not look like Michael Fassbender, separated only by eight years from the original 2000 X-Men Magneto, played by Ian McKellen, who looks his age. No one looks their age; Dark Phoenix, unlike its predecessors, strands the audience, unstuck in time.
Which isn’t to suggest a fight scene calibrated to No Doubt, but to remember that at least Apocalypse had Turner in a perm. In fact, Kinberg can’t seem to find any way to incorporate the ’90s into his story, so he jettisons all sense of time passed altogether. Which doesn’t matter—none of this matters—except that the X-Men franchise has derived, like the MCU and the DCEU, so much of its sense of scale, its epic nature, from getting the audience to feel just how many decades and civilizations its universe spans. Instead, Kinberg, apparently doing his best to right previous monsters’ wrongs within a comics universe about which he obviously cares deeply, cuts the bloat of past installments down to one, making Dark Phoenix as hyper-focused as possible on Jean’s story. Unfortunately, the only ’90s-friendly aspect of the film is how it treats its ersatz protagonist: as the vessel through which the men in her life get to explore the darker sides of their superpowered nature.
Ten years post-Apocalypse, Charles Xavier now enjoys a world in which the X-Men are no longer shunned by society, in which he has a hotline straight to the President’s office, encouraging him to place his superhero team in more and more dangerous scenarios to keep the always-rising waves of anti-mutant hate at bay. Inevitably this arrangement goes awry when, attempting to save a NASA shuttle, the X-Men come face to cosmic cloud with a primeval space force that nearly kills Jean by inhabiting her. Once back on Earth, though Jean claims that she’s never felt better, Mystique isn’t so keen on Xavier’s recent starfucking, confronting him about his jerk-ass attitude and then confessing to Beast that she’s probably ready to quit this whole superhero thing. Lawrence, to her credit, appears to be doing her damnedest to transcend her contractual obligation, but when the only line that seems to spark her acting chops is a pathetically “feminist” jab (written by a man, of course) about how maybe their team should be called the “X-Women,” what with all the most powerful characters being ladies and the worst failures those of men, one can’t help but feel some relief in her early dismissal from the film.
Meanwhile, Jean can’t quite deal with the growing power inside her, her amplified mind-energy too much for even Cerebro. Xavier, of course, is worried about what that power will reveal in Jean’s head, since way back when, just as he was getting his School for Gifted Youngsters off the impeccably landscaped ground, he basically put up mind walls in young Jean’s subconscious to block out a trauma from her childhood he feared would destroy her. Jean’s new co-pilot—which the film only refers to as the “Phoenix” due to some clever PR—annihilates those barriers, showing Jean what Xavier kept from her and sending her to the “Dark” side. Enter Vuk (Jessica Chastain), a shape-shifting leader of the D’Bari, the film’s stand-ins for the Shi’ar, who’ve come to Earth to break-up a rich white people dinner party, take over said white peoples’ identities and find Jean. Apparently the Phoenix force sustains itself on eating stars or whatever, so Vuk explains in emotionless deadpan that their world was devoured and they’ve been tailing the cosmic force ever since. Chastain’s barely awake, bearing weird resemblance to the White Queen (last seen care of January Jones in First Class) in what one can only guess is a facile nod to the comics when the film is about the loosest adaptation imaginable. Otherwise, the D’Bari have whatever power suits them in a fight: shape-shifting, super strength, the unexplained telekinetic ability to twist a person’s rib cage. It all mostly means they can take a few bullets before backing down. They look like short Groots.
Regardless, Dark Phoenix was always destined to fail. Limiting the sprawling story to one main arc severely debilitates the original’s emotional resonance, but avoiding Apocalypse’s swollen plot and stakes-less character narratives means reigning in an essentially big saga and cutting all of its awe down to some rote CGI. To make this work in one movie is to deny the essence of the source text. Kinberg may have a knack, better than Singer’s even, for knowing how to use these mutants’ powers to transform an otherwise obligatory action scene into something that seriously connects to whatever scant emotional weight these characters are supposed to be shouldering. (Watching Nightcrawler [Kodi Smit-McPhee], especially, is a spectacle the film nails.) Michael Fassbender may be acting his beautiful face off. But there was no way Dark Phoenix could have been good. It’s not good. It’s better than Apocalypse and Last Stand. It’s X-actly what any of us should have X-pected.
Director: Simon Kinberg
Writer: Simon Kinberg
Starring: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Evan Peters
Release Date: June 7, 2019
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.