Film Review - Dark Phoenix

This image released by Twentieth Century Fox shows Sophie Turner in a scene from “Dark Phoenix.”

Dark Phoenix

★★★½

Rated PG-13, 113 minutes. Opens Friday.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: The X-Men timeline doesn’t make a lick of sense. Reality and continuity bit the dust for this franchise a long time ago, and it continues to become more and more undone and puzzling with each film. Characters have died, come back and died all over again. They age, are digitally de-aged and recast. Stories have been erased and rewritten, but still, have just as many problems as before.

If you can’t ignore the fact that 42-year-old Michael Fassbender is just eight years away, in this franchise’s reality, from looking like Sir Ian McKellen, you best move along. Unless he’s discovered Paul Rudd’s secret of eternal life, Fassbender’s Magneto is a stretch for a dude who survived the Holocaust and looks like he’s in his 40s in the 1990s. It’s also a stretch that Mageneto’s sole purpose is to go into hiding at the end of each movie because of his differences with others, only to come out of his shell when the script calls for it. And the wheels on the bus go round and round.

That said, who cares? I am not emotionally invested in the X-Men movies (save for Logan) like the Marvel movies. 20th Century Fox didn’t have someone like Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige calling the shots and making sure most of the holes were patched up before sending it out into the world.

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Nicholas Hoult, Michael Fassbender, Andrew Stehlin, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tye Sheridan and Kota Eberhardt appear in “Dark Phoenix.”

The X-Men movies are best watched as individual films. Don’t try to connect them, even if they make an effort to do so. If you can do that — if you can put logic aside — Dark Phoenix is an impressive popcorn spectacle that offers a surprisingly contemplative conclusion to Fox’s 20-year run with the characters.

Set in 1992, Dark Phoenix somewhat picks up after the events of X-Men: Apocalypse, the series’ worst outing. (Yep. That is my opinion, man.) The story centers on Jean Grey/Phoenix (an awkward Sophie Turner of Game of Thrones fame) as she reveals herself to be the most powerful mutant ever. She and the X-Men — including Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique, Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast and Tye Sheridan as Scott Summers/Cyclops, among others — are tasked with saving a space mission gone awry. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) wants to prove once and for all that mutants and humans can coexist.

Professor X’s mutant crew make the jump to space and notice some cosmic matter floating around a whirling spaceship. Each of them uses their powers to stabilize the situation, but Jean can’t escape her fate of absorbing this cosmic force. And if we’ve learned anything from sci-fi movies (like Spider-Man 3 and the alien Venom goop), any otherworldly substances aren’t a good thing.

The mission is a success and the world loves them, but, no surprise, something is wrong with Jean. The mutants are celebrating at a party (that’s playing music too advanced for 1992, but whatever) when all of a sudden Jean loses control. She becomes increasingly unstable as all her personal demons come flooding in to create the X-Men’s greatest threat.

What’s cool about Dark Phoenix is how it doesn’t entirely fall on the ongoing war between mutants and humans. Most of these movies concern one pissed off mutant who wants the humans to perish so mutants can have world peace. X2 followed the same idea as to its predecessor, but it built upon that by adding a fascinating layer soaked in social issues. The X-Men franchise is at its best when it has material that exists between the lines. Dark Phoenix isn’t as thickly plastered in social commentary as X2, but the concept of how a lie can destroy people’s lives isn’t so alien. Perhaps there has been someone in your life that you’ve kept the truth from because you knew it would tear them apart. It sounds so minute, but this movie explores the consequences of such a thought, and how it goes about it is a refreshing change in direction for its characters.

Film Review - Dark Phoenix

This image released by Twentieth Century Fox shows Sophie Turner and Jessica Chastain, left, in a scene from “Dark Phoenix.” 

Professor X has always been shown as someone who thinks he’s beyond reproach. He’s the voice of reason. Very rarely do we get to see him vulnerable and wrestling with his selfish desires. In Dark Phoenix, ironically, we get further inside his head to understand his desperation. We learn how an argument could be made that he’s more villainous than Magneto. The relationship between Professor X and Magneto continues to be the single best ingredient of this franchise, and you will (or should, rather) cherish how things evolve for both of them, especially Magneto.

Fassbender continues to outperform everyone. He turns every scene he’s in up a notch. His handling of a character’s death doesn’t feel forced or clumsy at all. He reacts as any normal human being would and always finds a way to bring gravity to such a supernatural story. His heart beats in this franchise and his presence conquerors all, most notably in the action scenes.

The action scenes in Dark Phoenix are more impressive than they have ever been in this series. Maybe it’s producer Simon Kinberg stepping in the director’s chair for the first time, or perhaps it was found in the reshoots. (Dark Phoenix supposedly tested terribly after it screened last year.) Either way, there are enough fan moments to keep you smiling from beginning to end. There is one sequence involving Magneto on a train that’s as good as the iconic Darth Vader scene in Rogue One. Almost every character gets their moment to flex. It’s like the filmmakers finally got a whiff of our wishes and wanted to go out with a bang.

Where the film burns its potential is with its subplots. In Dark Phoenix, we are dealing with a new set of characters (including Jessica Chastain’s mysterious role) who want to harness Jean’s powers. Their inclusion admittedly broadens the scope and isn’t awful, but it doesn’t amount to anything exceptional. I much rather would have preferred the story focus on the already-established characters trying to correct the course. They didn’t need to bring any more chaos to the mixture. Eliminating these beings would have been an opportunity to back the screenwriters into a corner to create more explosive character moments and emotional resonance.

As Jean, Turner’s performance doesn’t hold a flame to Famke Janssen’s portrayal of the character in the original three X-Men films. In the first quarter of Dark Phoenix, there’s a romantic scene she shares with Sheridan’s Scott. It’s about as cringe-inducingly awkward as this season of The Bachelorette. All you want to do is crawl out of your own skin and hide. Both Turner and Sheridan have proved themselves capable in other roles, but it’s difficult to buy them as young lovers. They show more command in the intense moments, however. You believe Scott’s feathers are ruffled when he, out of nowhere, drops the film’s one f-bomb.

Dark Phoenix isn’t a perfect cinematic creature. It’s messy, yes, but it’s not dull. The action causes it to soar above the other X-Men movies while the story’s lack of motivation keeps it perched — it rests around the middle. I enjoyed it and will happily watch it again. No burn notice necessary.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work here, on FreshFiction.tv and on RottenTomatoes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

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