Set in 1992 when human and mutant relations are at their strongest, Simon Kinberg’s “Dark Phoenix” confronts the X-Men with their most destructive threat yet: a mutant who has – brace for impact – mutated. In this instance, the enemy in question is one of their own. Jean Grey, played with surmounting anguish and pain by the talented Sophie Turner, scorches Earth and her friendships after coming into contact with an alien cosmic energy above the planet’s atmosphere. This ancient entity unlocks secrets of Grey’s tragic past, with lies surfacing faster than Quicksilver’s (Evan Peters) speed. Before Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) can intervene, the prodigal telepath he saved as a child revolts with incendiary rage.
Pulling double duty as writer and director, Kinberg improves upon the ruinous “X-Men: Apocalypse” by capitulating to character drama over action extravaganza. In fact, withholding the mutant-versus-mutant confrontations until the final act only strengthens their intensity. For example, a visually exhilarating train sequence highlights the diversity of mutant abilities when unleashed in claustrophobic proximity.
While Magneto’s (Michael Fassbender) new band of followers aren’t memorable, the script intentionally marginalizes them so its titular antiheroine can rise above the rest. Those hoping for Storm (Alexandra Shipp) expanding beyond her single-defining power will be disappointed if not justifiably offended. The same goes for Quicksilver, a breakout star since “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” who is more blur than presence here. Even Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is utilized as a prop, prime for quick getaways and convenient disappearing acts.
Putting frustrations of fan-favorite sidelining aside, there’s enough evidence here to support the comic-lifted Dark Phoenix arc as the franchise’s most engrossing storyline. Ever since Jean Grey’s alter-ego awoke to save the X-Men from death in the spectacular “X2: X-Men United,” audiences salivated for more background on this exciting new identity. Less inherent than acquired in “Dark Phoenix,” Jean Grey’s evolution as a weapon of permanent erasure offers a surplus of surprises. Certain characters long perceived to be altruistic flash hubris and megalomaniac ambition. Likewise, those whose evil seemed fixed demonstrate more humanity and selflessness than ever imagined. The elasticity of the mutants’ moral fiber is on full display, subject to society’s skepticism and intolerance of their existence.
Jean Grey’s descent to darkness is a fascinating metaphor on the dangers of shielding childhood trauma. Enduring through a life-altering event must be processed, not avoided. Because of this memory circumvention, Grey was never given the opportunity to absolve herself of guilt and heartache. When her instability kicks into overdrive, her tractable mind is left to the mercy of Jessica Chastain’s mystery interloper. Discovering who Chastain’s character is proves equally enticing as her performance, which is frosty yet effortlessly domineering.
Ironically, the three characters that began this franchise anew – Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Xavier, and Magneto especially – are of less importance now, here “for old time’s sake” as the next generation of superheroes become the academy’s driving force. After three films, Lawrence finally connects with her shapeshifter mutant, exhibiting rational disapproval under shaky new circumstances. Her trust and devotion in her allies never wavers, even when her spirit becomes increasingly disheartened by Xavier’s reversed stance on mutant autonomy. Mystique and Xavier’s ideological differences mirror Iron Man and Captain America’s clashing in “Captain America: Civil War,” though here the schism is the catalyst to chaos, not the chaos itself.
Of all the returning players, it’s Tye Sheridan as Cyclops who improves the most. He emanates such pure devotion and love for Jean Grey that by film’s end, audiences are guaranteed to rethink their entire Jean Grey/Logan shipping preference. Sheridan emulates his older movie version the best among the young cast, perfectly mirroring James Marsden’s mannerisms and speech patterns. Despite Kinberg’s abundance of saccharine dialogue, Sheridan gives the greatest line-delivery of the film, a moment that’s sure to have fans erupt in communal exuberance. Epitomizing Cyclops’ ardent sense of loyalty from start to finish, Sheridan is the only participant who never forgets why the X-Men remain pop culture’s perennial superhero unit.
If this is truly the X-Men’s last stand — as seen through the creative lenses of 20th Century Fox — then Kinberg has given them a fitting sendoff. “Dark Phoenix” strays from MCU comparison, instead preferring to firmly live and breathe within its own encapsulated lore. While this installment struggles mightily with tonal execution, equitable character contribution, and inspired dialogue, it manages to maintain its formula of heyday success. “Dark Phoenix” is a flawed yet involving X-Men adventure that magnifies superhero psychology, one that is fragile and prone to ethical compromise if applied with enough social pressures.
“Dark Phoenix” opens in theaters on June 7.