Somewhere hidden in the ashes of Dark Phoenix, a good movie exists. But unlike the mythical bird that Jean Grey’s (Sophie Turner) alter ego is named after, that film never emerges. Dark Phoenix is not a bad movie in the same way as some of its predecessors in the X-Men franchise are; instead, this latest installment stands as a bland adaptation with flickers of potential that never catch fire.
Sophie Turner and James McAvoy do their best to elevate a weak script. Turner sells her character’s conflicted nature and does enough to make her transformation feel tragic. Likewise, as jarring as some of Charles Xavier’s character beats are, McAvoy commits to them and just barely makes them convincing. Unfortunately, the majority of their castmates essentially sleepwalk through the film. This criticism is especially true for Jessica Chastain in her role as Vuk. While her character is one of the flattest villains in recent memory and she’s forced to contend with some truly wooden dialogue, I had hoped the two-time Oscar nominee would be able to salvage the role she was given. Sadly, Chastain’s scenes represent a blackhole that consumes and extinguishes what energy the movie has.
Even worse, Chastain’s character and her mission are completely unnecessary for advancing the main plot. Dark Phoenix doesn’t juggle as many superfluous plot points as X-Men: The Last Stand (the franchise’s previous attempt to adapt this comic storyline), but director/writer Simon Kinberg’s incessant need to divert from the meat of the film’s primary conflict is baffling.
At its core, Dark Phoenix desperately wants to explore Jean Grey’s traumatic history and how her tremendous powers relate to that trauma. The movie is at its strongest when it becomes that character study and delves into questions about repression and the ethics of shielding people from the truth. These elements easily outshine the rest of the story and occasionally breathe life into the movie. And yet, the film refuses to fully commit to these ideas and instead recycles themes like revenge and prejudice that the franchise has already tackled to much better results.
Like the title character, the script is at war with itself. Despite being the twelfth film in the franchise, Dark Phoenix introduces elements that actively contradict the status quo established in this universe and shoehorns in major moments of world building without any foundation. Given those issues, the film’s fatal flaw is all the more egregious: Dark Phoenix is often flat-out boring.
There are glimmers of promise seen in Dark Phoenix. Sophie Turner, for her part, makes Jean’s story emotionally relevant and nuanced. The script and directing unfortunately fail her, and that failure may be this franchise’s most disappointing turn. If this film (in addition to the repeatedly delayed New Mutants) truly is the end of the X-Men as we know them, then Dark Phoenix is an uneven conclusion to an uneven but sometimes extraordinary cinematic universe.