Is this really how it all ends? A ragged bit of doggerel to finish out the cinematic X-Men saga? Or at least this incarnation of same. What started as a trenchant study of human nature at its best and worst, as well as a scathingly good time at the movies has, with DARK PHOENIX, devolved into benighted effort that suffers from direction that is both obvious and flat, visual effects that are uninspired and lifeless, and writing that is all of the above and worse. Not even arresting performances from James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as frenemies Professor Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto, make this plodding effort endurable.
The focus of this installment is the origin story of troubled Jean Grey (Sophie Turner fresh from her Game of Thrones tour of duty). Scarred psychologically, if not physically, by accidentally killing her parents in a psychokinetic squabble over what station to play on the car radio, she is taken in by the kindly Dr. Xavier. Ever the cockeyed optimist, he is convinced he can heal her trauma at the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, and make Jean a productive member of the mutant community that he has successfully integrated into the culture as a whole. It all seems to be going well until the X-Men are called in to save the space shuttle from a solar flare, and said flare turns out to be something more dastardly (of course it does) that takes over Jean and makes her considerable powers even more potent and uncontrollable. Thus begins the struggle to keep Jean’s power in check (there’s volumes of feminist theory to be unpacked there), make sure her romance with Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), stays on track (another volume), and to save the planet from the aliens that have their own plans for that dastardly not solar flare. That they are led by an icy blond (Jessica Chastain sure-footed in mile-high spike heels) provides yet another volume, and forces us to ponder what people were thinking on a subconscious level while writing this.
Turner cries on cue, which is the most that the story asks of her when it is not requiring her to grimace with extreme prejudice, Sheridan looks as stricken as an abandoned beau can with a visor covering half his face, while Nicolas Hoult looks hapless as both the bespectacled human Hank McCoy and the bright blue, hirsute Beast, when Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) yearns to leave the Xavier School, where they all teach, for an inchoate idea of what to do next. Lawrence, a fine actress with a gift for the seemingly spontaneous connection with an audience, has never looked more bored on screen.
As for the action, there is a great deal of it, very little worth noting aside from a New York subway suddenly rising to
street-level. As for the special effects, they are blustery, but, ahem, pale beside the conundrum of wondering if Howard’s distracting lack of eyebrows was a make-up mishap under strong lights, or CGI. And then wondering why, whatever the reason, it was left that way. Particularly when contrasted, as it must be, with the way Turner’s are so definitively crafted in every scene, no matter what kerfuffle she has just ensued.
The best moment in DARK PHOENIX comes early one when Raven, confronting Xavier yet again, points out that it’s usually the women that save the men when the call to action arises, and asks him why they aren’t called the X-Women. That question is never answered, but hangs heavily in the air as this flick limps through its motions, and then retreats with a whimper, and a cliché.