Even in the context of Magneto elevating subway trains, X-Men: Dark Phoenix arrives with some heavy lifting to do. Not only does it land after another lit-up superhero and another franchise endgame: it also has to remedy writer/producer turned director Simon Kinberg’s earlier co-written riff on Chris Claremont’s comics saga, 2006’s brusque X-Men: The Last Stand. Atonement for 2016’s top-heavy X-Men: Apocalypse is another requirement. And, in addition, there’s the sizeable matter of concluding a 19-year film series, with its attendant emotional investments and crises on planet continuity.
Though Kinberg finds some canny ways to lighten that load to a manageable weight, the knock-on effect often feels frustratingly under-nourished. Dialogue, characters and themes alike frequently emerge half-realised, the cosmic scope of Claremont’s comic and the expansive dash of superior X-films whittled away. Despite some impressive set-pieces and committed showings from the (outgoing?) X-Men: First Class crew, X-Men: Days of Future Past’s pop-art pizzazz and Logan’s aggressive emotional wallop are absent, resulting in an often blunt franchise full-stop that only intermittently takes flight.
Kinberg’s smarter move is to counter the ill-balanced stodge of The Last Stand and Apocalypse with a tighter focus on Jean Grey. We begin in 1975, where young Jean manifests a latent urge to change the channel on her parents’ car radio… One tragedy later, the power of bullet-point plotting ushers us to 1992, where James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier dispatches a mutant team to save a space shuttle’s crew from a solar-flare encounter. This (impressively mounted) gamble nearly kills Jean (Sophie Turner); she survives, only to discover a new, mysterious force inside her – a force that makes her a target for some body-snatching aliens.
Sticking close to Jean, Kinberg anchors her fast-evolving rage in the realisation that Charles has tampered with her memories. A fresh screen take on Xavier emerges, arrogant and wide open to criticism from, especially, Jennifer Lawrence’s righteous Raven/Mystique. McAvoy makes the most of it, presenting a character of more facets than Glass’s Kevin Wendell Crumb without the gratuitous fireworks.
The real fireworks erupt in a confrontation with Jean, with fatal consequences for one X-favourite, a belly full of guilt for Grey and a divided determination to kill/save her from the X-crew. Michael Fassbender makes decently felt work of Erik ‘Magneto’ Lehnsherr here, again grief-wracked and tired of Charles’ apologetic speeches.
Although viewers might feel equally exhausted by Kinberg’s struggle to map new routes through old X-Men tensions, at least one decent speech wouldn’t have gone amiss. The humourless dialogue often splutters when it should sting or sparkle, flat exposition favoured over fizz and flavour. One casualty is Jessica Chastain, who brings T-1000-ish stealth-menace to her alien threat (killer MO, too) but suffers from nebulous motivations. Turner gets more to work with, ranging from confused to cosmically empowered, though she struggles to invest her powers and inner conflicts with the required dramatic oomph.
A train-based climactic scrap compensates, giving the mutants a chance to display some time-honoured team-work; hats off to Alexandra Shipp’s Storm and some frisky bamfing/tail-flicking takedowns from Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler. Hans Zimmer provides emotive back-up with a binding, Inception-ish score, though the finale itself offers only a deflating post-script, without the big feels of those other super-powered send-offs recently circulated. “Maybe it’s time for us to move on,” Raven suggests at one point. After this fond but fly-weight farewell to the FoX-Men years, it’s hard to dispute the need for a fresh start. Game on, Mr Feige.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix is out in cinemas on June 5.