A superhero movie tends either to play to the fans or open itself up to the doubters, the disinterested, the casual. Disney’s “Avengers” films are skilled at casting a big net with wit and major stars; the DC releases from Warners opt for strained seriousness and weighty portents to try to appeal outside the box. Fox’s “X-Men” movies just assume you’re already on board and that you consider the doings of Professor Xavier and crew to be of global if not intergalactic importance.
So if you already know that “Dark Phoenix” is based on a classic Marvel Comics “X-Men” story line from 1980, and you already have a passing familiarity with mutant superheroes named Beast, Storm, Nightcrawler, and Cyclops, you may feel free to bump that rating up a star or more. If not, you are allowed and maybe even advised to sit this one out.
Billed as the final installment in the main “X-Men” film series (promises, promises), “Dark Phoenix” is an improvement over “X-Men: Apocalypse” (2016), a movie as headache-inducing as its title. The new film begins in 1975 with a horrific and graphically filmed car crash that orphans young Jean Grey and may give nightmares to the smallest audience members. Cut to 1992, and Jean (Sophie Turner) is now part of the X-Men under the guidance of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) as they prove to humanity that mutants are here to help, not harm.
During a team mission to rescue a stranded Space Shuttle, Jean absorbs a strange, pulsating “solar flare” and is reborn as Phoenix, a being of such immense powers she’s initially unsure what they even are. All Jean knows is that her emotions are running riot, her face is breaking out in flames, and she hates anyone telling her what to do, especially father figure Professor X.
That’s right, ”Dark Phoenix” is an extended metaphor for teen-girl rebellion, and for those of us who may have experienced adolescence from the parental side of the equation, it hits the nail pretty close to the head. True, the average high school sophomore doesn’t have the ability to level an entire suburban block with a twitch of her eyebrow, but not for lack of trying.
One of these tantrums results in the death of a Major Character, at which point a guilt-ridden Jean/Phoenix goes over to the other side and drops in on once-and-future villain Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who’s not enthusiastic about hosting a runaway with psycho-kinetic fireball powers. Also on the heroine’s trail is — say it with me now — Vuk, an extraterrestrial with evil intentions who has disguised her/him/itself as Jessica Chastain with a blond rinse.
One of the primary questions posed by “Dark Phoenix” is whether Sophie Turner will have a movie-star career now that “Game of Thrones” is finished or whether she will never not be Sansa to most audiences. The jury remains out. Turner ably conveys the confusion and misery of a young woman betrayed by her body, her friends, and her mentors, but she fails to make Jean Grey’s distress feel idiosyncratic and individual. She’s still a comic-book character, albeit a complex one.
And, to be fair, Turner is fighting uphill against a small army of costars — Tye Sheridan as Jean’s boyfriend, Cyclops (and, yes, it’s hard to forge an emotional contact with someone you can’t even make eye contact with), Jennifer Lawrence as shape-shifting Raven/Mystique, Nicholas Hoult as the big blue Beast, Kodi-Smit McPhee as the teleporting Nightcrawler, Evan Peters as the snarky speedster Quicksilver — not to mention the larger host of CGI pixellators covering the screen in make-believe eye candy.
“Dark Phoenix” isn’t content to keep the heroine’s identity crisis on an earthly basis but instead bills Jean as potentially the most powerful being in the entire universe. That grade inflation affects the movie as a whole, with punch-ups and action sequences that try to wow us silly and mostly wear us out. Again, if you’re already a dues-paying member of X-Men Nation, this won’t be a problem, and that rocketing runaway train finale is admittedly a nifty bit of good guys/bad guys/other guys 3-D chess. But for a series supposedly dedicated to the pleasure of superhero movies, “Dark Phoenix” somehow ends up illustrating their limits.
Written and directed by Simon Kinberg. Starring Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Tye Sheridan, Jessica Chastain. Boston theaters, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX, Reading and Natick. 113 minutes. PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language).