It has been eight years since “X-Men: First Class” was released, but nearly thirty years have passed when “Dark Phoenix” picks up. It’s the second super-hero film in three months that takes place in the ’90s, but while “Captain Marvel” reveled in nostalgia this conclusion to the First Class series wallows in melodrama.
The story retreads the events previously told in 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” and a collection of episodes in the ’90s animated X-Men series. Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) has long been considered one of the most powerful mutants on Earth. Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), fearing a lack of control, but a number of mental blocks in her as a child, effectively neutering her potential. Eventually, an encounter with a solar flare tears down those mental blocks and she becomes The Phoenix, a cliched representation of an over-emotional woman off her medication. There’s a great opportunity for a deep dive into how “absolute power, corrupts absolutely” but instead each version has taken a shortcut to the fury that “hell hath not.”
“Dark Phoenix” does differentiate itself in a few areas, but they do more to hurt the story than help it. In X-Men lore, including the climax of “X-Men: Apocalypse,” The Phoenix was a secondary personality of supreme power that was always a part of Jean. It was a traumatic event that triggered the emergence of this alter-ego. In this iteration, the solar flare she encounters is more akin to a sentient energy space monster. It’s her possession by this thing that makes her unstable, fuels her wrath, and is the MacGuffin that super-alien Vuk (Jessica Chastain) desires. Vuk does play a role in the original comic book saga, but it’s shockingly different than the pale woman in this movie. She exists now only as a plot device, her motives, abilities, and background largely ignored. Even when other main characters encounter her, she’s barely given a second glance. In a climactic moment, while pleading with Jean, Xavier asks Vuk, “What are you?” almost as an afterthought, when that should have been his first question! The script, written by director Simon Kinberg, has many of the characters acting in ways that don’t gell with the personalities we’ve come to know over the past eight years. A shy character finally has enough, but instead of fighting back, goes into full murder mode. Xavier’s ego hits monumental proportions, pushing him from a flawed hero into near villain territory. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) suddenly becomes one of the most level headed and compassionate characters, which would be more believable if we hadn’t watched him try to kill Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) back in “Days of Future Past.” The cast itself is amazing and the ensemble alone makes the First Class series more watchable. Unfortunately, the repetitious script, coupled with everyone knowing this is truly the last Xmen movie under Fox Studios, leads to a record number of teary-eyed emotional close-ups. Each character tries to have their moment, but it degrades into a montage of dramatic acting demos.
It’s no secret that “Dark Phoenix” had a long, difficult road to theatres. Massive reshoots were needed for the final act, mostly due to similarities with the climax in “Captain Marvel.” This included changing the ending to a long battle aboard a speeding government train. The extra time was well spent and it ends up being the best sequence in the movie. Additional time was also clearly spent on the special FX and CGI, a far cry from the cartoonish visuals in “Apocalypse.”
If you’re a fan of the series, it’s worth catching this ho-hum conclusion. Your eyes may tear up as well, if only because this is the first Xmen movie to not have an appearance by either Stan Lee or Hugh Jackman.