When the current crop of Marvel movies came to an end with Endgame, it was a proper cinematic event, the culmination of a decade’s worth of groundwork. It felt like it mattered. X-Men: Dark Phoenix attempts a similar trick but ends up proving, once again, that the Marvel magic is difficult to replicate.
It starts promisingly, with the strongest opening of an X-Men film since 2011’s soft reboot First Class. James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier is impressively multi-layered, his altruistic vision for his X-Men muddied by the corrupting influence of fame, power and alcohol. The retired Magneto (Michael Fassbender), meanwhile, is reimagined as a semi-benevolent anti-hero, world-weary and broken, living off the grid in a kind of junkyard utopia. And Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant – as ever – hogging the movie’s best moments as Mystique, who sees straight through her brother Xavier’s bluster about the importance of good optics in the quest for mutant acceptance.
When the President calls asking for Xavier’s help rescuing a bunch of stranded astronauts, he doesn’t think twice about putting his students in harm’s way, and the resulting mission infects star pupil Jean Grey with the malevolent cosmic power that’s haunted the franchise like a bad smell since 2006’s X-Men: Last Stand. She can’t control the power, and the resulting destruction leads to confrontation with those annoying humans, destroying everything Xavier set out to do.
And herein lies the problem: there’s nothing new here. The franchise has become a tedious oscillation between two states: the X-Men being feared and hated, or the X-Men having saved the world and being loved and adored. It’s a radio frequency broadcast on a Mobius strip, endlessly cycling the same old ideas. Accepting those who are different is a fine message, but it’s the same one from the first X-Men film almost 20 years ago. It’s all too angsty, too emo.
The problems are exacerbated by a lack of a solid antagonist. In the first reel we’re introduced to a bunch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style aliens who are chasing the aforementioned cosmic force. One of them takes the form of Jessica Chastain’s dinner party host; her defining characteristics are speaking slowly and not blinking. They feel tacked on, utterly disposable, and when the inevitable CGI showdown takes place, it lacks any emotional weight (it also lasts far, far too long).
Dark Phoenix limps home, closing on a strange and disappointing chapter in X-Men history. There are hints that the franchise may now head into new territory, perhaps drawing on the work of comic writers like Grant Morrison and Jason Aaron. I hope so: it desperately needs the oxygen of fresh ideas.