The Dark Phoenix Saga I always found to be the most confusing of X-Men arcs when I watched it on the animated series. The good news is that this theatrical adaptation does away with a lot of excesses, filtering out all the extra sci-fi silliness and favoring a firmer focus on a feminist narrative akin to a compelling horror film. In that filtration, however, Dark Phoenix boils itself down to a film so base in its tale of seeking truth and being yourself with all the bluntness of Beast ripping aliens to shreds.
Taking place after the events of X-Men: Apocalypse, we catch up with the X-Men now in the 1990s with the remaining few characters from X-Men: First Class looking surprisingly young for having spanned four decades. Despite their health, there’s trouble within the school of gifted mutants that houses the X-Men. While the mutants at the moment have a positive public image, all is not well within the ranks. Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is the most vocal, seeing the moral cracks in the plans of the school’s leader Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). This isn’t just Raven waxing once more about how much she wants to go running right back to Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) for the villain thrills. She has major doubts not just about how Xavier runs his school, but how he treats the lacking female presence.
She’s right to be skeptical of Xavier’s nature, what with his psychic powers that scramble anyone’s brains. It turns out he has a bit of a dark secret when it comes to the powerful psychic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), a troubled mutant who he took into his school at a young age. And it’s a secret that will quickly rise to the surface when the alien energy of the Dark Phoenix descends upon Earth and inhabits Jean’s body, making her far more powerful and dangerous than she already was. Feeling lied to and shunned by humans and mutants alike, Jean heads down a dark and depressing path of trying to find her place in the world.
From such a setting, there’s an obvious female revenge plot at play that offers up some interesting drama. It’s just too bad it’s presented in the form of melodrama, where characters speak in such exposition composure, outright stating feelings rather than let them naturally ooze into a story of mutants and aliens. Because, oh yes, there are aliens thrown into the mix as well, with Jessica Chastain leading a secret army of intergalactic shapeshifters who really want that Dark Phoenix power, choosing to win initially through clever manipulation.
This is such a frustrating film for having such an interesting premise that stumbles all over itself. Raven’s bitterness feels warranted and real, but is delivered with the clumsy line of her stating that the X-Men should be called X-Women for the female mutants being the most useful on missions. Jean’s rage is also compelling but unfortunately falls into emotions worn on the sleeve. Then again, the same can be said for everyone else who speaks directly as though every scene has them stuck in mission talk. The furry Beast (Nicholas Hoult) has a romantic devotion to Raven that only seems to come across briefly in the picture to drive him. The laser-eyed Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) also doesn’t have much time to show his feelings for Jean, relegating his love to the holding of the shoulder and a timid grin at feeling outmatched by such a woman. Erik Lehnsherr is also a bit of a snooze as the sometimes-ally mutant, his magnetic rage easily induced with a bit of pathos to get him going.
It’s not all misfiring melodrama, however, as the third act does boast some boldly creative mutant action. The climactic sequence on the train is the ultimate showdown of mutants versus aliens with all the mutants using their powers to creatively violent effect. Since they’re dealing with aliens that apparently took a cue from The Terminator for indestructible bodies, characters such as the tailed demon Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) can use that demonic tail for more than just decoration. And yet the build-up to these brilliant scenes lacks that emotional punch saw better driven in the likes of Days of Future Past and Logan.
Dark Phoenix effectively marks the last of the X-Men prequel films and it’s a very milquetoast note to go out on. Whereas the previous films usually had a sense of place and grace, this film proceeds so passively through what should’ve been an aggressive female revenge picture, sadly held back and given blockbuster artificiality. What great thrills the action brings still feels hampered by a better story that could’ve been, so lost in its muddled structure we don’t even gain a sense of the picture existing in the 1990s or better understanding the human/mutant politics of the times. The flames feel weak for this final film that closes out the X-Men era with more of a whimper than the wild blaze it deserved to be.