Movie Review: ‘Dark Phoenix’ marks lackluster swan song for Fox’s ‘X-Men’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'X-Men: Dark Phoenix' (Jason Fraley)

It’s been nearly two decades since 20th Century Fox launched Hollywood’s modern superhero obsession with “X-Men” (2000), complete with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Halle Berry’s Storm, James Marsden’s Cyclops, Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier and Ian McKellen’s Magneto.

A decade later, “X-Men: First Class” (2011) rebirthed the franchise with a prequel cast of James McAvoy’s Professor Xavier, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique. Its best entry “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014) combined past and present via time travel, while “Logan” (2017) gave Jackman a final bow in a world where mutants are nearly extinct.

Now, after 12 installments, Fox delivers its final chapter in “Dark Phoenix,” a film that is solid enough on its own genre terms but feels underwhelming as a culminating chapter for the Fox brand before Disney inevitably reboots the entire thing with a clean slate and brand new cast.

The story opens with Young Jean Grey (Summer Fontana) riding in her car with her parents, testing out her telepathic powers to tragic effect. Years later, Adult Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) trains at the Mutant Academy under the guidance of Professor Xavier (James McAvoy). One fateful night, she and the X-Men save a space shuttle from a deadly solar flare, but the rescue mission unexpectedly gives Grey cosmic powers that threaten to bring out her dark side.

The Phoenix was my favorite storyline from the ’90s animated TV series “X-Men” (1992-1997). Likewise, it remains a favorite of comic-book fans since Chris Claremont and John Byrne first published it in 1980. However, it’s a tricky arc to pull off within the confines of a two-hour movie, not only because it’s so dense, but because the protagonist is also the antagonist.

Despite Turner’s commanding screen presence, her Jean Grey turn is not particularly likable. Perhaps I never forgave Sansa’s early Joffrey alliance in “Game of Thrones” (2011-2019), but here Turner takes a page from Emilia Clarke’s late-season Daenerys Targaryen for collateral damage. It’s odd to see a beloved X-Men trainee suddenly destroying the U.S. military and killing her allies. Yes, that’s the point of this complex story, but it makes her frustrating as she repeatedly lashes out and passes out, needing to be strapped down to save her from herself.

There are glimmers where she rises to the level of a feminist idol like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, at one point inspiring J-Law to quip, “Maybe we should call it the X-Women.” But central characters are supposed to be active agents driving the plot. Instead, Jean Grey spends Act Two as a helpless rag doll caught in a mental tug-of-war between Professor X, played by McAvoy with fascinating moral ambiguity, and the evil alien Vuk, deliciously played by Jessica Chastain with hollow eyes, androgynous makeup and sinister dialogue delivery.

McAvoy and Chastain alone make the film worthwhile, particularly a wheelchair stunt that will make you say, “Wow, I didn’t think I’d ever see that.” As such, “Dark Phoenix” is getting unfairly savaged on Rotten Tomatoes with a 23 percent critics rating. It’s not that bad. The 43 percent rating on Metacritic is much closer to the film’s actual quality, but still a tad too low. After you see it, you’ll walk out shrugging that it’s every bit as enjoyable — if not more so — than the lackluster “X3: The Last Stand” (2006) and the disappointing “X-Men: Apocalypse” (2016).

Mostly, it’s an excuse to see our favorite cast members one last time. It’s your last chance to cheer Fassbender bending metal as Magneto, Tye Sheridan shooting eye flames as Cyclops, Jennifer Lawrence kicking blue butt as Mystique, Nicholas Hoult cleverly strategizing as Beast, Alexandra Shipp conjuring wind as Storm, Kodi Smit-McPhee whipping tail as Nightcrawler, and Evan Peters whisking past slow-motion humans as Quicksilver, whose 2014 bullet-time sequence to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” remains the most hilarious gag in the series.

Longtime producer Simon Kinberg makes his directorial debut, playing all the hits with action that is easy to follow. The opening space rescue mission will make you lean forward on the edge of your seat, while the midpoint battle on a military base will make you jolt back to avoid the deadly propellers of a helicopter. It all builds to a rousing climax on a high-speed train.

Unlike “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), however, the falling action of Act Three doesn’t feel like enough to close out the franchise, as Turner narrates a montage at the Mutant Academy: “This isn’t the end of the X-Men, it’s the beginning.” By the time we see the phoenix symbol in the sky, we gather that she has transcended humanity, but if the chronology is correct, how does she get back to her grounded mutant state as Famke Janssen from the original series?

It’s too much story to tell in one chapter while also trying to wrap up two decades worth of material. The Phoenix storyline should have been built over the past few installments, rather than cramming it all here at the end. “X-Men” fans might find it a nostalgic final ride, enjoyable on its own terms, it’s just not the conclusion you’d want from Fox before the Disney reboot.

In other words, it’s hard to sell “phoenix rising” when it’s a franchise falling.

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