Viewers may understandably feel a sense of déjà vu when watching Dark Phoenix, the 12th film in the X-Men franchise once spinoffs like Logan and the Deadpool are factored in. Written and directed by longtime series producer Simon Kinberg, the film adapts one of the most famous stories in the history of X-Men comics: the Dark Phoenix saga. Playing out over four years between 1976 and 1980 in issues written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, the storyline depicts the possession of longtime team member Jean Grey by the ultra-power cosmic force known as Phoenix. But even if you don’t know the comics, you might know the story since it provided fodder for the third X-Men movie, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. So why tell this story again?
Dark Phoenix suggests two possible answers. One is simply that the series has earned the right to a do-over, having generated enough goodwill by hitting the reset button with 2011’s X-Men: First Class, which ushered in a fresh-faced cast to play X-Men both familiar and new, and 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, which cleverly folded the new elements into the old continuity via time-travel and other bits of comic book trickery. After introducing a new Jean Grey (played by Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner) in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, why not take a second stab at the story, especially since Brett Ratner’s Last Stand (co-written by Kinberg) is, to put it mildly, not the most beloved entry in the X-Men film series?
The second, more compelling reason is to offer a take on the story so strikingly different in its approach that the previous version can be forgotten. In its best moments, Dark Phoenix comes admirably close to getting there. This time around, Kinberg goes darker and scarier, emphasizing the tragic elements of Jean’s story by recasting her origin as a story of betrayal and deception and her possession as a condition fueled by justifiable rage. The only problem: it all works better in concept than in execution.
The film opens with a harrowingly depicted car crash caused by young Jean’s psychic powers. The accident leaves her orphaned with nowhere to turn but the School For Gifted Youngsters that’s run by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). Fast-forwarding a few years past the ’80s era when 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse was set, Dark Phoenix finds an adult Jean seemingly thriving, alongside the other X-Men and various up-and-coming students, in a world that now sees them as heroes. Xavier even has a direct line to America’s president, conveyed by an Oval Office phone with an “X” on it, no less. Called on to rescue the space shuttle Endeavor after its astronauts are endangered by an apparent solar flare, Professor X doesn’t hesitate to send them into danger, though some team members, like Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), do hesitate.
Her concern is justified: in the course of a daring rescue, Jean is engulfed by a strange cosmic force. She recovers quickly enough and seems to emerge stronger for the experience. But those closest to her, like Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), notice a change. As the power grows within her, her manic confidence gives way to other emotions, particularly when she feels Xavier has betrayed her. Soon, her anger and new abilities are spinning calamitously out of control. When the powerful shapeshifting extraterrestrial D’Bari arrive, led by a creature that’s taken human form (Jessica Chastain), they tempt her to put those powers to even more destructive use. Soon, the future of Earth itself appears to be at risk.
Yet, for all the global stakes, the intimate moments are what make Dark Phoenix innovative. Working with cinematographer Mauro Fiore (a veteran of Avatar and several Antoine Fuqua movies), Kinberg creates a look that veers from dreamy (particularly in a lovely school party scene where a previously unseen comic book favorite provides musical accompaniment) to nightmarish in scenes of friends turning against each other and powers spinning out of control. At times, Dark Phoenix plays more like a psychological horror movie than a superhero film.
If only it were more effective at the horror. McAvoy has some unexpected moments exploring Xavier’s darker side — he’s clutching a drink for much of the film, and his success with integrating mutants into mainstream society has clearly gone to his head — but the new Jean and Scott haven’t been around long enough to get most viewers invested in their fates. They’re both well-cast, but neither actor made much of an impression in the overly busy Apocalypse. Here, Jean has barely a moment of normalcy before she’s possessed. Her transformation feels too rushed to matter.
That applies to most of the other X-Men as well. As gifted as Jennifer Lawrence is, she’s always been an odd fit for Raven, aka Mystique. And while Nicholas Hoult is still a charming Beast, he hasn’t been front and center in any of the films. For all of their virtues, the new batch of X-Men films hasn’t spent any significant time developing the characters that helped distinguish the series’s earliest entries.
The exceptions have been McAvoy’s Xavier and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, Xavier’s friend-turned-philosophical opponent. They still have a combustible chemistry, and the film makes both their points of view seem relatable. But Jean isn’t a character so much as a cosmic ping-pong ball, which is an odd choice for any film’s eponymous character. While Dark Phoenix manages a handful of memorable action set pieces (particularly a New York showdown and a sequence aboard a train), some big moments feel on loan from previous entries, including yet another slowed-down scene with super-speedster Quicksilver (Evan Peters) navigating a slowed-down world, and a showcase for Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to use his teleportation abilities. A dud of a climax, featuring some excessively on-the-nose dialogue summarizing Dark Phoenix’s central themes, doesn’t help either.
Still, Dark Phoenix deserves points for taking a new approach. Where Apocalypse felt like an attempt to beat the MCU movies at their own game, this one takes the road less traveled. Nineteen years after X-Men — the film most responsible for kicking off America’s current, seemingly never-ending hunger for superhero movies — it’s unclear how much further that road will stretch. The oft-delayed New Mutants remains on the horizon and presumably so does an as-yet-unannounced Deadpool movie. With Disney acquiring Fox, the future of these characters may belong within the MCU proper. That could open up new possibilities, but it would also mark the end of an era that, through all its ups and downs, has never been predictable.
Dark Phoenix has its issues, but at least they’re different issues from the ones hampering leaden films like X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s easy to cheer on the risk-taking impulse behind the new film. Kinberg could have opted for a back-to-basics heroes versus baddies approach. Instead, the film dives into the moral murk that’s been present from the series’s start — in particular, by questioning how Professor X operates, what he owes the people around him, and what responsible uses of power look like for any mutant. The X-Men and all of Marvel’s mutant characters have been defined as outcasts and misfits. Having them star in an oddball, ever-mutating series has made a weird sort of sense. While that series has had its misses, the superhero landscape will feel duller and more predictable if they leave it.