The latest X-Men adventure proves to be a familiar, if rather more sombre, affair

'X-Men: Dark Phoenix'

Source: Twentieth Century Fox

‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’

Dir/scr: Simon Kinberg. US. 2019. 113mins

The sombre Dark Phoenix proves to be a relatively modest instalment in the X-Men saga, spending equal time on intimate character drama and adrenalized action set pieces. Like with 2017’s Logan, the film seems to be a conscious attempt to break free of the bigger-is-better strategy that informed recent X-Men adventures such as Days Of Future Past and Apocalypse. But rather than being thought-provoking or streamlined, instead Dark Phoenix is a frustratingly anticlimactic, familiar tale of misunderstood mutants.

Despite the serious tone, Dark Phoenix mostly recycles the same themes and central conflicts at the heart of this franchise

Focusing on Jean Grey, whose accidental encounter with an intergalactic energy turns her dangerously all-powerful, this long-delayed sequel can’t help but feel like an afterthought in comparison to Marvel’s recent extravaganzas. If this is indeed the final iteration of these characters before being absorbed into Disney’s MCU juggernauts, then perhaps it’s fitting that they go out on a somewhat exhausted note.

Arriving in the UK on June 5 and the US two days later, this Fox offering has moved around the release calendar a few times and may have difficulty matching the box-office totals for Days Of Future Past ($748 million worldwide) and Apocalypse ($544 million). The star power of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain will no doubt help, but the betting is that X-Mania has waned.

The movie takes place in 1992, as Charles Xavier’s (McAvoy) fearless heroes fly into space to rescue an American space shuttle. During their mission, though, they’re attacked by a strange solar flare, which is absorbed by Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) who initially feels no different. But soon enough, she will discover uncontrollable enhanced powers that make her a menace to those around her.

Dark Phoenix draws from one of the most beloved storylines in the comics, which was previously referenced in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, and long-time X-Men writer/producer Simon Kinberg makes his directorial debut with this new instalment. Beautifully shot by Mauro Fiore and dynamically scored by Hans Zimmer, the film has significantly rousing moments, especially during a few exceptional action sequences — one involving a careening space shuttle and another involving a speeding train. And there’s a meaningful effort to make Jean’s troubling new powers, and her comrades’ uncertainty about her transformation, a pertinent metaphor for the challenges of grief, trauma and even mental illness.

Unfortunately, despite the serious tone, Dark Phoenix mostly recycles the same themes and central conflicts that have been at the heart of this franchise since 2000’s X-Men. Once again, honourable but shortsighted Charles will lock horns with the ferocious but mournful Magneto (Fassbender), both of whom must navigate a fragile cease-fire with an untrusting human population that fears them. Jean’s anxiety about being “strange” is just the latest iteration of a standard X-Men trope; what makes these mutants feel like outcasts is also what makes them special. Kinberg, who had his first X-Men writing credit on The Last Stand, clearly has an affinity for these psychically wounded superheroes, but their interpersonal dramas have lost their spark.

What adds fire to Dark Phoenix is Chastain’s wicked shape-shifter, a coldblooded alien singularly focused on tracking down Jean for her own nefarious purposes. Marching through action scenes in stilettos and never displaying an ounce of emotion, the Oscar-nominated actress is chillingly monstrous.

The returning stars, who have been in these roles for nearly a decade, display an easy command of their characters. Fassbender remains an elegantly moody Magneto, exhibiting the bruised humanity within this villain, while McAvoy continues to exude a paternal spirit as Charles Xavier. It’s a shame, then, that Kinberg’s screenplay requires Charles to behave in unconvincing, atypical ways — and that the story can’t find much for supporting players such as Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to do.

For all the film’s attempts to project a more feminist attitude — positioning Jean’s inner struggle as a commentary on the way that men marginalize and scorn “difficult” women — it largely comes across as lip service. Game Of Thrones star Turner gives us a Jean who’s still scarred from a painful childhood and now terrified by the powers coursing through her, but the character quickly becomes a plot device, setting in motion big fight scenes and laboured speeches about identity and self-confidence. Most every mutant makes it out alive in Dark Phoenix, but the sad truth is that this franchise’s life force feels like it’s giving out.

Production companies: Kinberg Genre, Hutch Parker Entertainment

Worldwide distribution: Fox

Producers: Simon Kinberg, Hutch Parker, Lauren Shuler Donner, Todd Hallowell

Production design: Claude Paré

Editing: Lee Smith

Cinematography: Mauro Fiore

Music: Hans Zimmer

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