So much offscreen baggage hangs over “Dark Phoenix” that it’s hard to address the movie on its own what’s-on-the-screen terms.
It’s a winding up of the “X Men: First Class” saga, the prequels that brought James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Alexandra Shipp and now Sophie Turner in as younger versions of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry and Famke Janssen‘s characters.
The story has to back-engineer itself into what we’ve already learned (for those of us who remember the “original” films) about each of them, especially super-mutant Jean Grey (Janssen then, Turner now). And for all that back-engineering, it has to stand on its own as a movie.
And Disney has bought Fox, retrieving more loose threads of the Marvel empire, and may want to retire this audience-weary franchise — or at least shelve it for a while.
So writer-director Simon Kinberg, who has “Sherlock Holmes” and “Fantastic Four” and earlier “X Men” scripts under his belt, had a lot to deal with, right up to day of release.
He’s delivered a movie of fraught emotions and slack-storytelling, epic effects and a narrative that struggles to not cover the same ground we’ve been over many times before, and fails.
The tone is right, the cast is game and it delivers the meat and potatoes that fans come to these pictures for. It just doesn’t give us much that we haven’t experienced in “Captain Marvel” or “Avengers Endgame.”
It’s also almost entirely humorless, the anti-“Deadpool/Spider-Man” or even “Shazam!”
It fails at the impossible task of making us care.
But man, those effects. A space shuttle disintegrates, mutants float skyward, aliens shape-shift and beams shoot out of eyes and fingertips, sure.
But there’s this liquid visual memory effect as Professor Xavier (McAvoy) probes the disturbed mind of problem “daughter” Jean Grey (Turner) that is breathtaking in its beauty, and the stop-time (“bullet time”) effects here on Next Level stunning.
Death in this universe is gripping and has meaning. It’s no “Avengers” afterthought.
So maybe, given the conditions, Kinberg made all he could of this somber biography of Jean Grey, the “Dark Phoenix” of the film’s title.
He takes us from the childhood car accident she caused that killed her parents to her maturing at Professor’s X’s cool school, her first love (Tye Sheridan is Cyclops), her friendship with the likes of Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), her heroism in that shuttle disaster.
But that’s the day she changed. Something happened in space, something that amplified her powers. There are aliens interested in that, and Jessica Chastain is their leader.
And Jean is starting to ask Xavier pointed questions, mistrust that Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) share.
Maybe the exiled Magneto (Fassbender) can help!
The X Men movies have all had a more theatrical feel, unnatural, portentous line-readings. It’s hard to be otherwise when you’re muttering about what a “primitive species” we humans are, with articulate mutants declaring they should take on “change the world so that we can live in it” as a mission statement.
This is Stan Lee’s ultimate “find peace and pride in being different” comic book series, so its more naturally touchy-feely than the others.
“Game of Thrones” veteran Turner doesn’t give us much to cling to in her performance, but she does get across the angst of somebody who may not carry the knowledge of her guilt, yet knows it’s there and that she must reckon with it.
McAvoy’s turn as Xavier this time has a little less Young Patrick Stewart in it, and the outsize concern he shows for what he’s “done to Jean” does set up Future Charles, if my memory of the original films is on the money.
It’s just that the whole affair feels winded, an argument — Will humans finally accept the mutants among us? — that’s exhausted everybody concerned, with many involved somehow knowing that those “Days of Future Past” are returning.
“Exhausted everybody concerned” could be said for the audience for this franchise, as well, or at least some of us.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language
Cast: James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender and Nicholas Hoult
Credits: Written and directed by Simon Kinberg. A Fox/Marvel release.