Review: ‘Dark Phoenix’ isn’t the revival the ‘X-Men’ series needed
The gifted English actress Sophie Turner has played with fire before — ice and fire, to be precise, in her career-making performance as Sansa Stark on “Game of Thrones.” That justly beloved series may not have concluded to everyone’s (or even anyone’s) satisfaction, but Turner’s fine-grained transformation was one of its more convincing victories. Her Sansa began the show as a naive, vulnerable teenager and ended it as a pillar of steel, a leader and tactician at the estimable peak of her powers.
I couldn’t help but flash back on all this amid the frenzied psychodrama of “Dark Phoenix,” in which Turner undergoes another dramatic pivot under very different if equally fantastical circumstances. If she deserved better than “Game of Thrones” finally gave her, she deserves even better here. Written and directed by Simon Kinberg, this muddled sequel to 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse” plays like a sigh of exhaustion from an increasingly rudderless blockbuster franchise.
That’s a shame, not least because the script happens to draw on one of the more memorable plotlines in the Marvel comic book annals. First published between 1976 and 1980, that story follows the adventures of Jean Grey, an amber-haired mutant with extraordinary telekinetic abilities who becomes possessed by a powerful, malevolent, all-consuming force. (Sounds like an awfully prescient metaphor for Disney’s recent merger with Fox, whose old studio logo appears at the start of this movie like a sad, soon-to-be-retired beacon.)
True to its title, the Phoenix saga has been adapted a few times already: It was rendered near-definitively by the 1990s Fox animated TV series, then dreadfully botched by the director Brett Ratner in 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” which Kinberg co-wrote. His latest attempt at bringing Phoenix to the screen is interesting almost in spite of its deficiencies. Amid all the clunky lines, the derivative plot turns and the surprisingly indifferent production values, you can sense this movie striving for something more sensitive and intimate than the usual blockbuster blowout.
It opens with shades of “Carrie” in 1975: An amber-haired young girl named Jean (Summer Fontana), who can read other people’s minds and move objects with her own, causes a grisly accident that leaves her orphaned and traumatized. She’s placed in the foster care of professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who encourages her to learn to control her powers and use them for the good of all humanity.
Flash-forward to 1992, with Jean (now Turner) firmly ensconced as one of the professor’s famous X-Men. She is joined by her adoring boyfriend, Scott/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) — she’s the apple of his energy-shooting eye — and the shapeshifting Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and the scholarly Hank (Nicholas Hoult), who occasionally revert to their respective blue-skinned avatars of Mystique and Beast. Mutant approval ratings are soaring, thanks to Charles’ expert public-relations efforts, the latest of which is a dangerous X-Men mission to rescue a crew of astronauts from a deadly solar flare.
Up in space, the time-slowing Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and the teleporting Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) occasion some deft visual-effects sleight of hand. But the ultimate price is paid by Jean, who comes into contact with the flare, absorbs its energy and, against all odds, survives. Maybe she shouldn’t have. What she brings back to Earth is an extraordinary concentration of cosmic energy that she can hardly control and that threatens to react with her long-buried childhood memories in especially volatile and destructive ways.
Like more than a few movies and TV shows of late, “Dark Phoenix” both celebrates and recoils from a spectacle of female power — a spectacle still capable of sending a shock wave or two through the male-dominated landscape of large-scale franchise filmmaking. What happens when an already formidable young woman suddenly has the ability to reduce her enemies to dust? If she is a survivor of past trauma, as so many action and fantasy figures are, will it affect her ability to wield her power responsibly?
The recent “Captain Marvel” answered that question with a matter-of-fact eye roll: She will harness that power, naturally, deal with her demons and go on to kick some serious intergalactic butt. “Game of Thrones,” to the chagrin of many, provided a more regressive response, even as the regrettably sidelined Sansa remained a mighty counterexample of what a courageous, compassionate woman in power could look like.
“Dark Phoenix” basically splits the difference between the two, even as it proves a lesser work than either. It urges you to both fear and fear for Jean, whose splintered psyche is literalized by the fiery cracks that open up in her face (a nice touch) whenever the Phoenix begins to stir within her. Kinberg ladles on the spooky-cheesy flashbacks and the Lady Macbeth references, and he gives Jean any number of arrogant, presumptuous and violent men to fend off along the way. They include Charles’ old metal-bending nemesis Magneto (Michael Fassbender), but also Charles himself, whose kindness and idealism are shown to conceal a ruthlessly manipulative, self-aggrandizing streak.
“The women are always saving the men around here; you might want to think about changing the name to X-Women,” Raven snarls at one point, a crowd-pleasing line designed to showcase the movie’s feminist bona fides. But not even Turner, with her radiant screen presence and her ability to make strength and vulnerability seem indistinguishable, can ultimately save “Dark Phoenix” from its own failures of imagination.
I say this with considerable affection for this long-running franchise, especially after the Phoenix-like resurgence promised by “X-Men: First Class” (2011) and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014). With their stories of powerful mutants joining forces to save humanity, the “X-Men” movies clearly anticipated — and to my mind, often outclassed — the elaborate group dynamics of the “Avengers” franchise. Their finest action scenes have always been dazzling displays of teamwork in action, reminders that true collaboration requires the harmonious interplay of Storm’s lightning bolts and Wolverine’s claws, and that victory is often a matter of finesse rather than brute force.
In “Dark Phoenix” you can sense Kinberg trying to summon that same finesse, to disappointing ends. He does pull off one diverting action sequence, set aboard a fast-moving train and goosed by an enjoyably bombastic Hans Zimmer score. Unfortunately, he also tries to explain the mysteries of the Phoenix with a dead-on-arrival subplot involving a race of alien body snatchers whose leader is played by an uncharacteristically listless Jessica Chastain. Her heavy-lidded gaze, presumably meant to suggest otherworldly detachment, merely holds up a mirror to the audience’s boredom.
Watch the first trailer for “Dark Phoenix."
Rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images and brief strong language
When: Opens Friday
Where: Wide release
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
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