X-Men: Dark Phoenix is really two different films: One is a deeply personal story about a young woman confronted with serious identity issues; the other is a big-budget, effects-laden superhero movie. While both are done well by first-time director Simon Kinberg (who also wrote the script), the former is the more interesting movie. The movie revolves around the Jean Grey character, played again by Game of Thrones alum Sophie Turner, who took on the role in the previous X-Men movie, Apocalypse. We first see her as an 8-year-old, when she wants her parents to change the station on the car radio. (It’s certainly no coincidence that the song playing is Glen Campbell’s classic “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.”) The disagreement sparks her telekinetic powers and causes the accident that orphaned her into the care of Professor Charles Xavier and his school for mutants.
Flashing forward 17 years to 1992, Jean is all grown up and a full-fledged member of the X-Men team, though she still lacks confidence in her superpowers. Sure enough, those powers are put to the test when the X-Men — now so revered that they have a Batphone-style hotline to the Oval Office — are called upon to rescue a crew of astronauts when the space shuttle is badly damaged by what appears to be a solar flare. Jean helps rescue the final astronaut from the shuttle’s cargo bay, but doesn’t make it out in time as the flare engulfs the shuttle. However, instead of being engulfed and destroyed by the flare, she seems to absorb its energy.
After the X-Men return to a heroes’ welcome on Earth, a medical exam reveals that Jean’s powers are now “off the charts.” But that amplification comes with two side effects: 1) Her psychic energy surges into dangerous Hulk-like territory when she experiences emotional trauma, and 2) Professor Xavier’s “mindscaping” (read: brainwashing) of the young Jean is undone, When she discovers that her father is alive and well, she runs off to visit him, hoping for a happy reunion and answers to the emotional problems that have plagued her since childhood. The reunion doesn’t go well, though; Jean flies into a rage that leaves a beloved X-Men team member dead, along with several police officers. The tragic outburst puts the X-Men on the government’s persona non grata list once again, and it’s at this point where the movie starts to mutate into its second skin.
While Jean continues to grapple with her increasingly violent emotional outbursts, we’ve discovered that the force driving them was no solar flare — it was a planet-destroying alien life force, and there’s a cadre of aliens trying to harness Jean’s power for their own means. Meanwhile, the X-Men are also after her; while some want to protect and help her, others seek vengeance for their dead ally. And, of course, now the U.S. military is after them, too, as the government once again wants all mutants seized and quarantined.
As those three storylines converge, the action ramps up, building to a climactic battle that, as is standard in superhero movies these days, is a CGI feast for the eyes.
It’s a testament to Kinberg’s love for this series and his characters that he’s able to wrap up both the emotional and superhero aspects of the film simultaneously. He’s been with the series since 2006’s The Last Stand, and this is the eighth X-Men movie he’s been involved with. As such, he went into his first directing gig knowing exactly what he wanted out of his actors; since many of the actors (including James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult, and Jennifer Lawrence) have played these characters before, it was easy for them to deliver. Called upon to bear the lion’s share of the film’s emotional weight as Jean Grey’s tortured soul takes her into Phoenix territory, Turner turns in an admirable performance. Jessica Chastain gives a decent amount of nuance to her alien character as she tries to nurture, then destroy the Phoenix, though we might have expected a little bit more from an actor of her considerable Oscar-nominated talents.
There’s no denying that the film is very well made. The only problem? The X-Men’s Marvel cousins, The Avengers, have set the bar high for superhero teams, and you can sense the stretching as Kinberg tries his best to reach that bar with his team of uniquely powered mutants. Between the quick cuts between fights, the bursts of CGI energy, and the massive destruction, the sound and fury unleashed in the battles become a bit disorienting, taking you out of what is otherwise a pretty intimate film (as far as superhero movies go).
It’s that intimate feel that ultimately makes X-Men: Dark Phoenix a worthwhile movie. As the Avengers series has proven, superhero movies don’t have to skimp on the emotional element to be powerful, and seeing a close-knit X-Men family torn apart from within certainly generates enough pathos to provide that storyline.