Amidst the two-decade-long noise that is superhero movies, there has always been a franchise willing to provide an alternative voice: X-Men. Defined by its nuanced characters and thoughtful discussions, this saga has constantly proven enjoyable, even during its lesser instalments. At least, it did, until now.
It’s the early Nineties, and relations between humans and mutants have never been better. The latter kind are now held in high-regard by an adoring public, and even have the support of the President of the United States (Brian d’Arcy James), to the point where a hotline has been established between the White House and Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Using this same means of communication, the President has called upon the services of the X-Men for an exospheric mission.
In the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere, the Space Shuttle Endeavour has lost all contact with NASA, and many are fearing the worst. The X-Men, using their purpose-built jet, fly to the last known location of the Endeavour, where they encounter the Shuttle spinning wildly and about to be consumed by a mysterious, cosmic cloud. To save the Endeavour’s crew, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbs the cloud with her powers, apparently suffering no side-effects as a result.
With their mission an undisputed success, the X-Men return to a hero’s welcome; but mere hours later, Jean’s mind is beginning to experience overstimulation, and resultingly struggles to control her abilities. Jean fears that her episodes will result in hurting the ones she loves – chiefly her boyfriend, Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) – so she flees Xavier’s School in an effort to contain her powers and seek guidance, which is eventually offered to her by a mysterious woman named Vuk (Jessica Chastain).
Although Dark Phoenix is very much Sophie Turner’s movie, she is not offered top-billing by the film’s credits, nor its promotional materials. That honour belongs to James McAvoy, who once more reprises his role as Professor Charles X. Xavier, in doing so offering an interpretation of the character not seen previously. Here, Charles is a cocky, arrogant figure who relishes in the success of his proteges, and believes himself infallible, to the point where he puts others in harm’s way.
McAvoy’s latest portrayal adds a complexity to the Professor and, from an emotional perspective, allows for some rather interesting conflict. Likewise, the dichotomic character of Jean Grey is fascinating to watch, as she constantly fights with her darker persona to make sense of her newfound, overwhelming talents. All of Grey’s scenes are anchored by Sophie Turner, who provides the strongest performance of the ensemble cast, and is given plenty of opportunity to promote her acting talents.
The other veterans of the X-Men series, regrettably, aren’t afforded the same luxury. Despite earning second billing, Michael Fassbender barely appears in Dark Phoenix, looking increasingly bored in the role of Magneto; Evan Peters is afforded no showstoppers as Quicksilver, gracelessly thrown aside during the first act; Alexandra Shipp is given very little to do as Storm, while her Apocalypse co-star Lana Condor – who played fan-favourite Jubilee – is nowhere to be seen.
The underutilisation of a talented cast is not the only disappointment with Dark Phoenix – there are plenty more, and they come thick and fast. For starters, the special effects are unconvincing and ugly, seemingly made on a shoestring budget; the set pieces lack excitement and pale in comparison to the film’s predecessors, as well as a certain other Marvel franchise; and the ending, which is meant to conclude the X-Men saga altogether, blatantly ignores the narrative built by the other movies.
While these factors alone are enough to leave viewers seething with rage, the most frustrating part of Dark Phoenix is Jessica Chastain’s bewildering, and totally unnecessary, antagonist. Her inclusion sees the film gain a tertiary storyline involving, of all things, aliens – that’s not a joke, Chastain’s character really is from outer-space – which can only be described as non-sensical. Furthermore, the film makes no effort to humanise her character, who is emotionless and unrelatable.
Save for the cast and some thought-provoking conflicts, there isn’t much this superhero film can offer. X-Men: Dark Phoenix is not just a monumental letdown; it’s an embarrassment to its blockbuster brethren, and an underwhelming conclusion to what was once considered a ground-breaking franchise.