You can’t keep a good X-Men down. or a bad one, really; 12 films into a nearly two-decade-old franchise, Dark Phoenix rises from the ashes of 2016’s silly, bloated X-Men: Apocalypse — not a free bird, exactly, but better than what came before.
It also arrives in what is (depending on your age, your taste, and your general tolerance for wind machines) either a golden era or an interminable glut of superherodom at the American cineplex. The Avengers have only just dispatched their Endgame on the heels of Shazam! and Captain Marvel; the next Spider-Man and Wonder Woman are already on deck.
Phoenix doesn’t leave much room for X-Men neophytes; either you know why Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is Selsun blue and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is in a wheelchair, or you’ll have to Wikipedia it. What its early scenes do offer is an alternate history for Jean Grey (once played by Famke Janssen, now by Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner).
Set against screaming Banshees and claw-happy Wolverines, Jean always seemed like the reluctant warrior, a mutant who only used her powers (mind reading, telekinesis) because she had to. But on a mission to rescue a team of stranded astronauts, she is consumed in a cosmic flare — a sort of aurora borealis on steroids that seems to magnify her abilities exponentially, and malevolently. And you won’t like her when she’s angry.
Hints of a major character death already hang heavily over Phoenix, so it doesn’t come as a huge surprise when that moment arrives. What’s new is Jessica Chastain’s eerie portrayal of a shape-shifting alien who does not come in peace; with her pearly skin and translucent eyebrows, she looks like she’s cosplaying an ice cube. But her abilities are more than a fair match for Jean’s crackling rage — which the expressive Turner does her best to embody, though she seems doomed to spend most of the movie either on the run or involuntarily zapping things.
Simon Kinberg, who makes his feature directing debut after years as a series writer and producer, keeps the action lean, almost brisk. But unlike Deadpool, Thor: Ragnarok, or Captain Marvel, Phoenix doesn’t seem to have much interest in tweaking the tropes of the genre; though the film is largely set in 1992, there are no winky nods to Sir Mix-A-Lot or scrunchies or Crystal Pepsi.
It’s true that X-Men have never exactly been the party clowns of the Marvel Universe; their hero status has always been conditional to fearful humans, and the chosen family of mutants they’ve landed in is less choice than necessity. Why should they have to banter for us, too? Still, for what is being called a final installment, it all tends to feel both anticlimactic and a little grim in the end. Not that anything Marvel is ever really over; fans only have to hold their breath for horror spin-off The New Mutants, due next April. B