Dark Phoenix is a dismal end to X-Men as we know them
The quality of the X-Men movies has ebbed and flowed over the past 20 years since the original X-Men debuted in 2000. But whether they were good, bad, or somewhere in between, they've all had a reason for being, something that cannot be said for the latest (and last?) entry, Dark Phoenix.
The film finds the core X-Men group — Professor X (James McAvoy), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) — getting into the business of space rescue in the early '90s after a space shuttle is overtaken by a mysterious force. During said rescue, Jean becomes infected with the force, greatly loosening her already tenuous control of her powers.
Turns out that force is coveted by an alien race that has been tracking it through the universe, one which can take on human forms, as Vuk (Jessica Chastain) does to one unfortunate soul. After a tragic incident, mutants around the world, including Magneto (Michael Fassbender), must decide if Jean is worth saving or if she must be eliminated to save the rest of them.
Writer/director Simon Kinberg, taking the reins after writing a handful of other films in the series, has delivered perhaps the least exciting X-Men film. The beats of the story seem more dutiful than anything else, both in making sure each popular character has at least something to do and in trying to pay homage to the popular Dark Phoenix saga from the comic books.
The biggest problem is that the film doesn't build up any kind of true enmity. Jean does end up doing some reprehensible things, but it's clear that it's due to a force she cannot control, so any anger directed her way by certain characters holds no water. Despite their stated nefarious plans, the alien race never feels like a true menace. It's almost as if Kinberg threw them in as an afterthought so that there would be more than just mutant-on-mutant violence.
Previous X-Men movies have been successful in using metaphors to relate to the real world, but this film makes only a cursory attempt at that. The fragile relationship between mutants and humans is damaged by Jean's outbursts, but Kinberg does not do a good job of demonstrating that they would cause as much as harm as they do.
What pleasure there is to be had in Dark Phoenix is from the performances of the actors who know their characters well by now. McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, Hoult, and others give gravity to actions that would otherwise be considered ridiculous. It's just too bad the story doesn't live up to their talents.
With Disney's purchase of 20th Century Fox, the future of the X-Men series is up in the air. If this is to be the final film in its current incarnation, it's an unfortunate end to characters that essentially started the movie superhero boom.