Taking a cue from Disney — which makes sense, given the Mouse’s involvement here — writer-director Simon Kinberg jarringly opens Dark Phoenix on a full-on Bambi note for 8-year-old Jean Gray, who has unique telekinetic and and telepathic abilities she’s not fully in control of. It’s seemingly impossible to draft up a superhero (or princess) backstory that involves some sort of loving, happy home life, and the reportedly final (whew!) installment of this long-drawn-out franchise is no exception. Young Jean wakes up in the hospital all alone, is told that she’s an orphan, and is quickly whisked off to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, where Professor X (James McAvoy) promises to help her and guide her. It can only get better for her from here, right?
Yeah, guess again. After the title sequence, we flash forward to 1992, where an older Jean (Sophie Turner, frankly a bit flat compared to her turn as Sansa Stark) is still living at the school and is a full-fledged part of the X-Men team. She’s got a loving boyfriend (Scott Summers, played by Tye Sheridan), she has more or less learned to control her powers — you know, regular teenage stuff, until a rescue mission to save an out-of-control space shuttle goes horribly wrong. Jean absorbs an entire solar flare into her body and miraculously survives, waking up feeling stronger than ever and earning her new name, Phoenix. Which all sounds great, except she soon begins to suspect that something isn’t right. Her mind is flooded with the childhood memories Professor X had long ago rewired her brain to suppress, and she begins to grapple with an important question: Is she supposed to be a hero or a villain?
That’s more or less the entire flimsy arc of the story, and while there were certainly many compelling topics that could have been intelligently examined here with regard to trauma and memory and PTSD, first-time director Kinberg says forget all that — there are trains to blow up, dammit! There’s also the fact that for a film that purports to be all about the backstory of Phoenix, Jean is sidelined for much of the film, allowing us very little access to the powerful emotions supposedly propelling her forward. Instead, we’re forced to listen to Professor X give very long, very earnest, very repetitive speeches about how wrong he was to withhold important details of Jean’s past from her; we’re also treated to some frankly pretty awful CGI battle sequences and a whole lot of flat, lazy dialogue that feels like it’s filler for a first draft. (There’s half-baked lip service to feminism, a whole lot of expository dialogue, and hardcore clunkers like “You might wanna change the name to X-Women!” — Jennifer Lawrence clearly couldn’t believe that one either.)
The out-and-out villains are a lot more fun here — a platinum-blonde Jessica Chastain, in particular, is pretty fantastic as the chief antagonist, shape-shifting alien Vuk, even if that underwritten, underexplained character’s whole vague subplot (something about harnessing the power that created the universe and destroyed her home planet?) is on the stupider side. Michael Fassbender, too, brings real swaggering menace to his role as Erik Lehnsherr (aka Magneto), who finds himself reluctantly teaming up with the X-Men this time around to help hunt down Jean after she finally goes haywire toward the center of the film and does something she can’t take back. Almost everyone else involved (especially the many mutants relegated to the background this go-around) seems to be counting down the minutes till the film is over and their contracts are up, and in that respect, the audience — diehards excluded, obviously — will largely be right there with them.