Critiquing an X-Men film is now all relative, given how increasingly hit and miss the series has become – but after the nadir of 2016’s Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix proves a pleasant surprise. While not hitting the heights of the best the franchise has to offer, this final instalment (in the Fox canon at least) is a return to some degree of form.
The strengths of Phoenix lie in how it embraces the themes that made the top-level X-Men movies so good – tolerance, otherness and self-worth – to create a more nuanced, character-driven piece. Despite the story’s cosmic trappings, long-time writer and first-time director Simon Kinberg grounds proceedings by focusing more on the dynamic within Professor Xavier’s school-cum-HQ rather than relying on a full-on CGI slug-fest (though that’s not entirely avoided).
The key to this film working, though, is the central performance of Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, and she graduates from Game of Thrones alumna to genuine movie star with aplomb. Turner sells both the enormous power and tortured soul of the possessed Jean and, in her scenes with James McAvoy, explores new depths to her character’s relationship with Xavier.
As with Oscar Isaac last time out, Jessica Chastain can’t prevent Dark Phoenix succumbing to that pesky superhero movie pitfall of a forgettable villain with questionable abilities and motives. Jennifer Lawrence is under-stretched as anti-hero Mystique becomes retconned and diluted almost beyond recognition, while Evan Peters’ Quicksilver isn’t sketched out as fully as previous instalments hinted.
Aside from the opening space shuttle rescue, the action set pieces are rather humdrum with little here we haven’t seen before; but Dark Phoenix succeeds in making us care about these characters, their relationships and their priorities again. Ultimately, this is mid-ranking mediocrity in the X-Men league table, but the series goes out on a relative high.
CAST: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters, Jessica Chastain
DIRECTOR: Simon Kinberg
WRITER: Simon Kinberg
SYNOPSIS: During a life-threatening rescue mission in space, Jean Grey is hit by a cosmic force that transforms her into one of the most powerful mutants of all. Wrestling with this increasingly unstable power as well as her own personal demons, Jean spirals out of control, tearing the X-Men family apart and threatening to destroy the very fabric of our planet.