X-Men: Dark Phoenix review: 'Slips into risible silliness early and often'
Sic transit gloria mundi. It’s not often you get to use Latin in a film review, but that well-worn phrase seems apt in this case.
Dark Phoenix marks the effective end of Fox’s X-Men franchise, which stretches back 12 films and almost 20 years, and includes some memorable moments. At their best the X-Men films had a strong emotional core, finely honed comic sensibilities and an interesting subtext about diversity and inclusion that was ahead of its time: the mutants, you see, were the outcasts, and oppressed viewers from sundry minorities could - and did - empathise.
The Hamlet of the whole enterprise was Wolverine, a tortured, moody soul lumped from birth with powers he never wanted and prone to suicidal strops. In the 2017 film Logan, an aged Wolverine limped across dystopian America with a gravely ill Charles Xavier, hotly pursued by many enemies. Tackling head on such knotty themes as ageing and mortality, it was the most grown up superhero film ever, Shakespeare with a dash of CGI.
From those dizzy heights, the X-Men franchise plummets to Earth with a dull thud in this daft and muddled coda. The original trilogy chronicled the battle for the soul of mutants between two charismatic leaders with diametrically opposing views. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) was a peace and love guru who believed that man and mutant could co-exist in harmony: Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen) expected nothing but cruelty from humans, and formed a quasi-terrorist organisation to defend his kind.
When those films ended, Fox and Marvel plunged cannily back in time for this series of prequels, with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender playing the young Xavier and Lehnsherr respectively. They started well, ingeniously melding the travails of mutants with real historical events: the Cuban Missile Crisis in X-Men: First Class (2011), Watergate in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014).
That latter film saw them go back in time to avert a grim future in which weaponised robots would wipe the mutants out. They succeeded, but in doing so have altered the course of history in unpredictable ways.
Dark Phoenix is set in 1992, and while Charles Xavier is cosying up to the US government and trying to make mutants lovable, Erik Lehnsherr has retreated grumpily to a kind of mutant hippie colony in the woods.
Jane Grey (Sophie Turner) is the most promising of the young mutants at Xavier’s school. He took her in after she accidentally killed both her parents, and she’s grown up into a powerful telekinetic warrior. When a NASA Space Shuttle gets into difficulty in Earth’s outer orbit, Xavier sends up a mutant team that includes Jane, Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan).
While rescuing the astronauts, Jane confronts and ingests an apparent solar flare. She returns to Earth intact but greatly changed, possessing a vast power that overwhelms her whenever she gets emotional. This will lead to major problems, and meanwhile a sinister, shape-shifting group of aliens have arrived on our planet looking to extract Jane’s newfound gifts. Led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain, drained of all colour, her hair dyed an unfortunate shade of silvery white), they will prove a powerful adversary for the mutants, who must (as usual) unite if they’re to survive.
As soon as the aliens began talking in a subtitled language, I realised we were in trouble. It’s not hard for these superhero yarns to slip into risible silliness, and Dark Phoenix does so early and often. There’s a stiffness in the screenplay, a gloomy inevitability to the plot, and Sophie Turner (late of Game of Thrones) may be slightly miscast as the young Jane Grey.
The CGI effects are overused, and at times seem oddly perfunctory, and while there are several very decent actors on display, they don’t get many opportunities to shine. Michael Fassbender isn’t on screen enough, Jennifer Lawrence looks like she’d rather be somewhere else, and Jessica Chastain’s role requires her to behave like a dead-eyed automaton.
By the time the credits rolled, I felt a bit like a dead-eyed automaton myself. At least it’s all over, I thought, but of course these superhero franchises never actually end. Disney, which has taken over Fox, will next year release what they’re promising will be the final final X-Men film, The New Mutants. On this evidence, we won’t be getting too excited about it.
Also releasing this week:Papi Chulo review: 'Looks fantastic but gets out of its depth' Late Night review: 'Has a certain charm, and Emma Thompson gives it socks' Gloria Bell review: 'Julianne Moore is magnificent'