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Since the first X-Men hit theaters nearly 20 years ago, the franchise has used modern American history and iconography to its advantage. The climax of the original film takes place at the Statue of Liberty, while X-Men: First Class unfolds during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Dark Phoenix, the latest film in this ongoing saga, has none of that ambition. Making his directorial debut, longtime franchise screenwriter Simon Kinberg rushes through a bizarre, evocative storyline from the original comics. If the impressive ensemble cast seems unsure what they’re doing with this material, then soon the audience will share their malaise.
It’s set in 1992, and unfortunately the X-Men—a group of mutant superheroes led by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy)—have little interest in the grunge revolution. In fact, Kinberg’s approach has little sense of time or place. This is a small-scale X-Men film, with personalities and interpersonal drama at the forefront. During a mission into outer space, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is exposed to a strange solar flare. Jennifer Lawrence halfheartedly reprises her role as Mystique, the team’s moral center, and she thinks Xavier has more interest in accolades than the safety of his team. She is right, of course, just not in a way she could have anticipated: The solar flare is actually a sentient form of sophisticated energy, and it imbues Jean with dangerous new powers.
Jean’s transition from shy young woman to a psychotic human-alien hybrid unfolds like the world’s deadliest coming-of-age story. She learns a lot about her past, including secrets that Charles hid from her, except all these revelations have little emotional impact. It does not help that 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand essentially had the same premise—also written by Kinberg—but now he uses the alternate timeline from X-Men: Days of Future Past as an excuse to revisit it. All the beats are the same, with various characters pleading with Jean to reign in her path of destruction. At least Kinberg is capable of psychedelic imagery that’s an evocative break from the near-constant sense of routine.
The action in Dark Phoenix has little sense of scope. What should be an important action sequence, for example, unfolds on an anonymous block of Manhattan facing the park. Few of the mutants use their powers in creative ways, except for Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who can teleport at will. This film has gone through production hiccups and delays—it was originally supposed to be released last November—so there is a dispiriting sense that this is an attempt to salvage something from all those setbacks. Another key sequence unfolds on a train, perhaps because its segmented structure gives Kinberg and his team an opportunity to focus on only a couple characters at once, instead of on a massive battle. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, although it is unclear why the X-Men are on the train in the first place.
Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has always been the most interesting character in these films because he has a skeptical view of humanity. Fassbender has little opportunity to express that complexity, and at one point changes his mind so quickly that the script pauses so he can explain himself. Even Jessica Chastain, an actor known for her flinty intelligence, struggles with a villain role that has murky motivations. No actor appears all too thrilled to be here, and not just because many of them must wear extensive blue makeup. At their best, X-Men films could serve as an allegory for the civil rights movement or encroaching nationalism. This one is little more than commentary on itself.
In the original Phoenix saga from the comic books, Jean Grey devours an entire star, which then destroys an entire planet and causes the death of billions. If Dark Phoenix cannot find inspiration from the events of the 1990s, at least it could have replicated the massive scale of a bonkers space opera. Unsure what kind of film he wants to make, Kinberg instead rushes from one act to the next, almost like he is in a race to distance himself from it. Now that this timeline is about to catch up with the events of the original film, maybe it is time to take a break from the X-Men entirely. Charles Xavier, Magneto, and Jean Grey are durable characters, but our patience for them is not.
Dark Phoenix opens Friday in theaters everywhere.