In “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” it’s the ladies stirring mutant mayhem in the alleged franchise finale. But writer-director Simon Kinberg squanders his progressive platform with a script teeming with ho-hum havoc and obvious girl-power pandering. (“The women are always saving the men around here.”) If Kinberg thinks he’s drawn a story of female empowerment he should have provided a better fate for his trio of actresses in relaying the backstory of the telepathic and telekinetic Jean Grey (“Game of Thrones” fan favorite Sophie Turner).
With his first foray as a director, Kinberg never veers far from the superhero playbook. His script is comic-book de rigueur, hitting all the beats of an old-fashioned battle between good and evil. It opens with the rift between mutants and humans settled and Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) basking in his life’s dream of peaceful coexistence. His School for Gifted Children is thriving. He’s even got a direct hotline to the White House. When the president calls for help rescuing stranded astronauts, Charles dispatches his proteges: Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence); Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean.
Naturally, the daring mission goes awry. A cosmic entity corrupts Jean, triggering traumatic childhood memories Charles long ago wiped from her brain. But, wait, there’s more. This supernatural force of swirling pink electric bolts and jolts transforms Jean into the most powerful creature in the world (of course it does.) Except, Jean can’t control her abilities. Enter a wicked alien (Jessica Chastain) with an agenda. She sees Jean as the vessel to resurrect her otherworldly kind. “Game of Thrones” fans will get a kick seeing Turner go toe-to-toe with another white-haired foe like her character Sansa Stark did against Daenerys on TV. Chastain’s character indeed looks like a Targaryen and is just as crazy. She even speaks in a language that sounds like Dothraki.
Turner is called upon to be powerful and vulnerable when the script sends Jean rogue. Something awful happens. Eventually, she finds Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) running a sort-of commune for renegade mutants. Reluctantly, she enters the fray. The rest of the mutants are forced to be either Team Jean or Team Kill Jean.
The best parts of the “X-Men” films have been the amped up physicality (stopping speeding trains or a spinning spaceship) and creative battle scenes in which the mutants display their insane abilities such as telepathy, rapid healing, shape-shifting, lasers shooting from someone’s eyes, weather manipulation or genius-level intellect. The movies also promote individuality (this one opens with Turner in voiceover asking “Who are we?”) and self-love - all powerful and universal messages in this divisive social and political climate. Even armed with all that, “Dark Phoenix” never feels as intense or emotional as it intends. We’ve seen this warring amongst superheroes many times before: “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “Avengers: Infinity War.”
Kinberg’s screenplay is guilty of its fair share of lame lines: “Men can’t begin to comprehend what you are.” “Are you a scared little girl who answers to a man in the chair?” “You’re stronger than you know.” “You’re special.” And … you get the gist. Even with a hefty ensemble of Lawrence, Chastain, Turner, Fassbender and McAvoy, the story steers too close to the epic “Avengers: Endgame.” Any superhero flick arriving on the heels of that grand finale is going to feel, well, disappointing. So much for the joys of “X.”
Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“X-Men: Dark Phoenix”
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters and Jessica Chastain.
(PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language).