Dark Phoenix

If Dark Phoenix had been released shortly after the first X-Men movie back in 2000, it probably would have seemed awesome. The official Marvel Cinematic Universe, with rich plotting and characterization developed over the course of more than twenty installments, makes it somewhat antiquated, though. Despite being based on one of the seminal story arcs in the X-Men comics universe, the movie feels a day late and a dollar short.

During a mission to rescue the crew of the space shuttle, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbs the energy from what appears to be a solar flare. Rather than killing her, it somehow makes her stronger, as Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) discovers once they're back on Earth. There is one unfortunate side effect: when angry, Jean cannot control the power, leading to people, including a fellow mutant, getting hurt or killed. When she realizes that Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has kept a secret from her since childhood, she goes off the deep end.

Dark Phoenix basically has two halves, one better than the other. The story of Jean attempting to learn how to manage her rage in the face of a seeming betrayal by Charles is relatively in line with the rest of the X-Men franchise. Where it goes and what Jean learns is admittedly cliched, yet there are compelling moments of drama along the way. Fueling them is the idea that, for all his good intentions, Charles' ego may have gotten the better of him. He just might have emotionally wounded someone who he was trying to save. Turner and McAvoy have some strong scenes together as their characters clash.

That's the good half. The (far) weaker half involves Vuk (Jessica Chastain), a shape-shifting alien who comes looking for Jean. The character is haphazardly introduced, to the point where it's really not clear who she is or what she wants until more than halfway into the film. Vuk and her fellow aliens are never fully integrated into the main plot. They feel shoved in to create the opportunity for action scenes. Chastain is, obviously, a phenomenally talented actress. Why she was cast in a role that writer/director Simon Kinberg is apparently disinterested in developing is a mystery. Every time Jean's personal story starts to achieve momentum, the Vuk subplot comes in and grinds it to a halt. Chastain could play a great villain, if only given fleshed-out material with which to work.

As far as the action scenes, they're scattershot. Kinberg stages several of them – including a telepathic showdown between Jean and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) – in a cheesy way that makes everyone look silly. The climactic battle on a train is much better. All the X-Men get to use their respective powers in a collaborative fashion. It's exciting, and the first time Dark Phoenix totally gives us what we expect from the series, adventure-wise.

Mining the Chris Claremont/John Byrne Dark Phoenix Saga for this movie was a solid idea. But to measure up to other superhero films – particularly those of the MCU – it needed to be a lot more focused and substantially more in-depth than it is. If nothing else, Dark Phoenix is passably entertaining for devoted fans, and at least a step up from X-Men: Apocalypse.

out of four

Dark Phoenix is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.