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X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)

DIRECTOR: Simon Kinberg

CAST: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Sophie Turner, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, Jennifer Lawrence, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp, Jessica Chastain

REVIEW:

For his directorial debut, screenwriter Simon Kinberg has fulfilled a long-harbored wish to take a second stab at the Dark Phoenix storyline he previously tackled as co-writer of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, dissatisfied with the final product (which was directed by Brett Ratner). For fans of the X-Men comics, the Dark Phoenix storyline, written by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Dave Cockrum and running from the late 1970s into 1980, is regarded as one of the comics’ great narrative arcs (in addition to The Last Stand, it has also previously been adapted twice for animated television series). I’m not prepared to say a two hour movie has entirely done justice to a comic storyline which ran for years (reportedly Kinberg initially wanted to tell the storyline across two movies, but the studio declined), but comic book and film are different mediums. In its own right, Dark Phoenix has breathed a little more life into the loose reboot young X-Men series (began with 2011’s First Class and spun off into an alternate timeline by 2014’s Days of Future Past), more compelling than its immediate predecessor, the laborious Apocalypse and overall a better, if rushed and abridged, adaptation of the source material and the Dark Phoenix storyline than The Last Stand.

After an opening prologue in 1975, in which child Jean Grey’s lack of control over her telekinetic powers leaves her orphaned in a car accident, the movie takes place in 1992 (for those keeping track, continuing the decade-jumping pattern, from First Class‘ 1962 to Days of Future Past‘s 1973, to Apocalypse‘s 1983). In the alternate timeline created by the events of Days of Future Past, things are brighter for mutantkind, with the X-Men—these days consisting of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee)—hailed as heroes when they come to the rescue of a space shuttle. But something goes very awry during the rescue mission, when Jean absorbs the energy of a cosmic entity dubbed The Phoenix, which amps up her powers beyond her ability to control them. When a confrontation with her teammates has tragic consequences, the tormented Jean seeks the help of the semi-retired Magneto (Michael Fassbender), but he’s not thrilled about her arrival and the trouble she brings. And meanwhile, another party is interested in Jean, a group of shapeshifting aliens led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain), who wants to harness Jean’s power for herself.

In his directorial debut, Kinberg handles big flashy special effects and fight scenes with assurance, and there are enough of them to not let audience members’ attentions wander, including the shuttle rescue mission, the first skirmish between the X-Men and a newly amped-up Jean, a confrontation with soldiers in which Magneto’s powers are pitted against Jean’s, a street battle pitting Magneto’s gang against the X-Men with Jean and Vuk in the middle, and a climactic train ambush forcing everyone to join forces against Vuk’s minions. The conflict and infighting Jean’s wrestle with the dark side causes within the X-Men means some characters jump ship from one “side” to another over the course of the movie. As is often the case, Magneto shifts with the circumstances between an enemy and an uneasy ally. And while, perhaps inevitably, Dark Phoenix recycles some plot elements from The Last Stand—including a flashback to young Jean’s telekinesis, and the “blocks” Xavier perhaps ill-advisedly placed in her mind—Kinberg’s script is a better adaptation of the source material than the one he co-wrote in 2006 with Zak Penn and Brett Ratner, incorporating The Phoenix as a cosmic entity.

Perhaps it’s because of the conflicted relationships onhand, but some of the performances feel a little meatier this time. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, playing frenemies Charles and Erik for the fourth time, are their usual reliable selves, although Magneto doesn’t get as much screentime or as central of a role as in First Class or Days of Future Past, and doesn’t get the chance to really command the screen. McAvoy gets to vary up his portrayal a little by playing Xavier this time as a somewhat morally ambiguous figure whose actions, while well-intentioned, are sometimes self-righteous and manipulative. Sophie Turner, who was a little wooden in her first outing as Jean, is stronger here, aided by a script that makes Jean a little more torn between her good intentions (appealed to by Xavier and her teammates) and the darker impulses egged on by Jessica Chastain’s Vuk like the devil on her shoulder. As her boyfriend Cyclops, Tye Sheridan doesn’t get much to do, but then Cyclops has always gotten short shrift in this film franchise (and at least he’s not peremptorily killed off five minutes into the movie, as befell James Marsden the last time a version of Jean Grey went nuclear). Nicholas Hoult gets a strongly-acted confrontation with McAvoy, while his ex-girlfriend (onscreen and off) Jennifer Lawrence, who’s been visibly mentally checked out of this series for a while, gets to leave the party early. Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Alexandra Shipp are onhand for their powers and action sequences, and have a handful of lines between them. The biggest newcomer, a white-haired Jessica Chastain, is coolly, elegantly sinister, albeit a little underwritten.

Dark Phoenix is imperfect, but most of its flaws—short shrift given to the way mutants are viewed by the wider world and the various shifting allegiances—are the result of a years-long comic storyline being squeezed into one two hour movie. On its own merits, it serves up enough of a steady supply of action, with a little heart and commentary about family, power and responsibility, and listening to one’s better angels, to be a worthy (final?) outing for the longest-running comic book film franchise (since 2000).

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