Other than “not being an actual part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” I’m not sure why it is that X-Men seems to have struggled more than any other comic book franchise to successfully translate its iconic source material to the big screen. Dark Phoenix is the twelfth movie in that series’ expanded universe and the second pass at its perhaps most famous storyline, and its biggest accomplishment is, sadly, being a little better than most of the other movies.
Making his directing debut after participating in the writing of every X-Men film since The Last Stand, Simon Kinberg materially improves on the film cycle that threatened to flame out altogether with X-Men: Apocalypse, but foregrounding Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan in order to shift focus to a new class of characters - not to mention capitalize on their ascendant fame - only reinforces what a showcase the franchise has been for up-and-coming stars, even as it’s historically offered them so much less to do than what they’re capable of.
After rescuing her from institutionalization as a child after her latent telekinetic and telepathic powers cause a fatal accident, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) raises Jean Grey (Turner) at his School for Gifted Youngsters, shielding her from her most volatile impulses by erecting psychic “walls” in her brain. But in 1993, while attempting to rescue astronauts from a doomed mission in space, Jean accidentally absorbs an unknown cosmic force whose unimaginable power effectively obliterates those walls, amplifying her power while leaving her painfully vulnerable. Feeling betrayed and uncertain, she flees Xavier’s school, only to find herself at odds with both her former colleagues - including her lover, Scott Summers (Sheridan) - and the local authorities after her search for answers ends in destruction and death.
Fearing a shift in the world’s tenuous acceptance of mutants, Xavier becomes more desperate than ever to recapture Jean and restore the barriers that stabilize emotions and control her abilities. But when a mysterious, shape-shifting alien (Jessica Chastain) arrives on earth determined to claim the cosmic force raging inside Jean for its own species, Xavier brokers a desperate deal to work with his old adversary Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to find the confused young woman before her powers fall into the wrong hands, or worse, grow so intense that they destroy her before she’s able to learn how to manage them.
Although First Class showcased some of the young Charles Xavier’s bravado that he must have, I suppose, outgrown by the time Patrick Stewart portrayed the character in the series’ jumbled timeline, it’s extraordinarily difficult to understand where the Xavier in Dark Phoenix came from. Notwithstanding his choice to secretly impose mind control on one of his students, he is at the beginning of the film smug and adulation hungry - interested in volunteering the X-Men’s lives for a dumb and unnecessarily risky rescue plan that, even if it succeeded, would accomplish nothing but make the President pick up the phone more quickly when he calls.
Subsequently, Xavier spends most of the film insisting that whomever he’s talking to “has to listen,” or “has to trust him”, with absolutely none of the compassion or measured reasoning that has made him an enduring and beloved authority figure within this universe. In fact, the most satisfying moment in the film comes when Magneto interrupts one of his dozen pleas with, “You’re always sorry, and there’s always a speech. Nobody gives a shit.” That the character still has lessons to learn is not just an understandable but genuinely intriguing choice, but Kinberg of all people should recognize that these are so obvious that it doesn’t take a psychic to figure them out, and certainly not the most powerful one on earth.
Given the franchise’s many metaphorical underpinnings, and its often clumsy but astute updates to give each film contemporary relevance, it feels appropriate that Jean’s journey reflects the premise that women’s emotionality is a problem for men to solve, and as a result she must be protected from herself. But the movie does itself the disservice of making Jean an actual murderer multiple times over, legitimizing that patronizing viewpoint while exploring it at the expense of Xavier, who until now has consistently been its reservoir of compassion and patience.
Regardless, the established cast members - excluding Hoult, who’s busting his ass to lend his scenes the film’s only sincere emotions - could not seem much less bored than they do on screen, awaiting what is presumably the end of their run in these roles. Fassbender and Lawrence in particular sleepwalk through scenes, which feels fair given the repetition with which their characters have, say, discovered devastating betrayals, suffered unimaginable losses, decided to fight humanity which then becomes a fight for humanity, and finally, found some modicum of closure or solace that gets immediately erased in the next film.
Conversely, Turner has more than enough talent to carry the film, but other than a perfunctory, canonical familiarity, her character is simply not established well enough via this and Apocalypse for us to care deeply about what she goes through. The same is definitely the case for Sheridan’s Cyclops, the eternal milquetoast Baxter of the X-Men franchise whose only distinguishing characteristic is a pouty upper lip that hangs just below his visor. Meanwhile, Chastain plays a character with an identity somewhat similar to her predecessor Apocalyse’s - a menacing, power-seeking but already pretty much all-powerful being who speaks in cryptic one-liners - though thankfully unlike Oscar Isaac, at least she doesn’t have to wear comically hideous prosthetics.
Kinberg obviously knows these characters well, and he’s spent more than thirteen years bringing them to life on the screen; so why don’t we actively care more about them? Or why do their adventures always seem to follow such a repetitive, underwhelming pattern? In 2019, the year of Endgame, audiences not only will tolerate but have demonstrated a ravenous appetite for weird cosmic stories that take risks and throw the characters into new situations. So why does this obligation linger to explore only the most well-known stories that these characters experienced in the comics, but only after being adapted in the most unimaginative ways possible?
Of course, Kinberg’s film for all intents and purposes ends the franchise in its current iteration, as Disney absorbs Fox’s catalog and the lingering Marvel IP that wasn’t already folded into their own cinematic universe. And maybe that’s exactly what the X-Men needs - not Marvel’s protective gaze, mind you, but someone who hasn’t spent literal decades trying to get the same stories and characters right onscreen. Because ultimately, if Dark Phoenix underscores anything, it’s the enduring appeal of these characters; whether they’re proper X-Men movies or spinoffs, no matter how bad they get - and boy howdy, Apocalypse was unwatchable - people keep coming back for more. Kinberg and Fox have tried so many times to deliver stories that they think people want; and after twenty years, maybe it’s time to deliver the first one that somebody just thinks should be told.