‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’ is the conclusion to the run of the X-Men series under Fox. It is also screenwriter Simon Kinberg’s directorial debut, after writing the past few X-Men films. I find this the most enjoyable (disclaimer: I didn’t like most of the X-Men films of the past) and that’s mainly because of Sophie Turner’s portrayal of Jean Grey as she becomes the titular Dark Phoenix.
As the final film in a franchise that is said to have begun in ‘X-Men: First Class,’ the film feels like it lacks a certain sense of continuity. It begins immediately with a NASA team lost in space because of solar flares, and the President of the United States calls upon Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) to send his X-Men to space to save them. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) fears that the mission is too dangerous and that Charles is putting mutant lives at risk for human lives.
During the mission, Jean is left at the NASA Space Station to be consumed by the supposed solar flare but manages to survive the vacuum of space, and the X-Men returns as heroes on earth. But the solar flare, which is not a solar flare, has changed Jean and made her stronger. And as she begins to change, some beings show up with great interest in Jean and the power that she had absorbed.
The jump from ‘X-Men: Age of Apocalypse’ to this film is huge. I don’t remember much from the last film but this argument between Mystique and Professor X seems new to me as this idea that the X-Men are no longer feared but accepted, and as heroes. From the comics to most of the film adaptations, mutants have always been “feared and hated” and this sudden shift is fresh and adds a new dynamic to the narrative, but it is unprepared and quite jarring.
The relationships of the characters also feel unjustified. There’s a lot of talk about love, friendship, and family, but I cannot seem to really remember any scene in this film and in the previous ones that really dramatizes these feelings, except for maybe Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean (Sophie Turner) and maybe Charles and Mystique. I even forgot that Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) had feelings for Mystique as well.
It’s this sheer number of characters that bogs down the film’s pacing because it tries to instill the film with a lot of strong emotions. But it boils down to a lot of talking and expression of feeling, and not actually giving us any real scene to really show us that these feelings come from a concrete place. Most of the plot revolves around Jean being afraid of losing control -- getting mad, getting scared, being all-powerful -- and the other characters arguing about what is best for Jean.
Yes, there are a lot of amazing moments when the mutants are displaying their powers. Lots of scenes and it's great, with Jean most especially. There’s a really good fight scene in New York between two factions of mutants -- those that want to kill Jean and those that want to save her. There's great action and usage of abilities but at the end, it’s hard to feel anything like tension or fear because the film makes no investment to concretize the character’s relationship to each other except for Cyclops and Jean.
And the mysterious beings, lead by Jessica Chastain, feels completely under developed, like they were added in to create an antagonist to keep Jean’s storyline from making her completely the bad guy, which wouldn’t have been so bad. But instead, we have another element to deal with that we are neither afraid of nor do we ever really understand, because they just pop up from nowhere and it’s hard to follow.
Honestly, I just saw this film for Sophie Turner, who manages to find the pathos in the character and makes it come to life. She can carry a movie and even when the script has her just repeating out loud her conflict, she makes it look amazingly cool. It’s not just her features and her statuesque frame -- Turner manages to make it feel real and manages to deliver the lines without it sounding contrived.
It’s a big movie and heavy with emotion, but it doesn’t land its emotional beats because it takes for granted that we understand the relationships of all these characters. This is a case where it needed to show more than tell. It needed to dramatize these relationships rather than just have characters say it all the time. Actions, not words. It’s big. It’s got amazing displays of super powers but it feels hollow.