The megafranchise we know as The Marvel Cinematic Universe reached an ending of sorts just a few weeks ago, and in the process was widely acclaimed for a decade of intricate, interwoven storytelling unlike anything we’d ever seen on the big screen before. The MCU is not the only game in town on that front, though. It’s not even the oldest. Back in 2000, Twentieth Century Fox launched “X-Men” and over nearly two decades and a dozen movies built their own often bumpy shared universe based on Marvel Comics’ popular mutant characters.
Now, with Disney’s purchase of many of Fox’s assets, including the film rights to the X-Men, that universe is coming to an end with “Dark Phoenix,” the fourth in a line of kinda-prequels-kinda-reboots in the X-Men timeline that kicked off with “X-Men: First Class” in 2011. The X-Men films have never ascended to the same levels of acclaim as the MCU, and their lack of focus on a longterm plan often left them scrambling to fill gaps in the timeline, but there is nonetheless a lot of fondness for these films and the characters who populate them. The X-Men films, in many ways, paved the way for the MCU, and gave comic book movie fans hope for things like spinoffs and team-ups in the early 2000s, when such things seemed much harder to pull off.
So it’s a shame it all had to end this way. Dreary, stunted, and joyless, “Dark Phoenix” is a pale imitation of the X-Men films at their best, and at worst an effort in which many of the key players barely even look like they’re trying.
It’s 1992, and the X-Men are national heroes, so much so that their leader Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) has a direct line to the president. This comes in handy when a Space Shuttle mission goes horribly wrong, and Xavier – who loves fame and power as much as he does helping young mutants – decides to use his tricked-out jet to send the team to space and save the astronauts. During the rescue, the telepathic and telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is hit by some strange cosmic cloud, and when the team gets back down to Earth something is different about her. Jean’s always struggled with controlling her power, but now everything feels dialed up to a degree that even she can’t fathom. This is good news for exactly one person: An alien shapeshifter (Jessica Chastain) who’s arrived on Earth looking for the very cosmic power Jean just absorbed into her body.
The film is heavily adapted from “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” perhaps the most famous X-Men comic book story of all time, and retains the central conflict of Jean struggling with a new and frightening power even as aliens and humans alike argue over her like she’s more weapon than human. The central theme might remain the same, but the emotional weight the comic series was able to inject into the saga (which is far more complex on the page than in writer/director Simon Kinberg’s film) simply by taking its time in monthly installments is absent here. The film has to not just tell us a Jean Grey story, but somehow rope in all the characters present in the previous film, “X-Men: Apocalypse” and build some kind of conflict that will allow some kind of big mutant battle, while also introducing a new alien threat that really does nothing other than provide fodder for another battle sequence late in the film. “Dark Phoenix” seems to be attempting to both scale down the cosmic scope of the original story and also expand itself beyond Jean’s personal sphere of friends and allies, and the result is a film that can’t ever settle into a rhythm. Characters arrive in places and do battle with each other simply because it feels like the script needs them to, and the climactic battle sequence feels less like something that was built up to and more like something that was simply waiting in line. It’s not a story. It’s a string events listed out in chronological order.
That’s a problem that can be worked around, though, if you’ve got a cast which can navigate the right emotional beats in a way that engages your audiences, but “Dark Phoenix” doesn’t even have that. Turner, McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender as Magneto are all working their hearts out to try and make the film land, but they’re stuck with a plodding script that gives them little room to run. Chastain, for all her talents, is wasted here as a stoic villain who’s too dull to be scary in an icy way. Then there’s Jennifer Lawrence, who’s basically sleepwalking in her final turn as the shapeshifting mutant Raven. Worst of all: No one seems to be having any fun. There’s not a deliberate joke in the whole movie, and the laughs that do come arrive when the filmmakers are attempting to be deadly serious.
So the X-Men franchise ends with a whimper, limping off into the sunset to ultimately be replaced by a glossy Marvel Studios reboot. It’s a shame, but not an entirely surprising one. “Dark Phoenix” is the end of a franchise that’s had to constantly scramble to reinvent itself over the course of 19 years, and there have been almost as many misses as hits. It would have been nice if the final film in the saga went out on a high note, but “Dark Phoenix” just can’t get there, and the best we can do is shrug.
‘Dark Phoenix’ is in theaters June 7.