Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) turns into Dark Phoenix for the first time on the new timeline in “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” but nonetheless, I’ve seen this story before. Granted, this is a more robust telling than the one in “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006), which was on the previous timeline. Jean’s possession by an evil cosmic force, based on the famous 1980 comic arc by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, was (weirdly) a B-plot in that movie; it gets all of the focus this time around.
But I’d be hard-pressed to find a superhero movie that’s more devoid of surprises. Jean gets possessed, struggles with that, and does bad things. Maybe someone coming in entirely cold to “X-Men” would find “Dark Phoenix” to be an understated masterpiece of Shakespearean tragedy, but turning-to-the-dark-side stories are so common now that this was dated before it was even released. Being delayed for a year didn’t help.
The “Dark Phoenix” saga remains a difficult story to tell on film. Jean does some voiceovers at the start and finish, but her journey is largely illustrated by Turner’s non-verbal acting; she’s not bad, but not mesmerizing. Jean is possessed against her will, but the Dark Phoenix is also drawing out Jean’s own buried anger (as teased in “Apocalypse,” before she is possessed), so it’s a similar to the old “Star Wars” conundrum about the Dark Side: Is it an outside force or an inner force?
The question of fault extends to other X-Men, and this is mildly intriguing because the cast is so good. Notably, Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) made a mistake years ago that means Jean’s Dark Phoenix possession is more dangerous than it otherwise would be. Beast (Nicholas Hoult) rips into Xavier for this, but we as viewers can see it was an honest mistake, so what is to be served by in-fighting among mutants?
Well, action scenes, for one. “Dark Phoenix” unfortunately does that common genre fallback wherein a rift between groups that should be on the same side – Xavier’s students and Magneto’s (Michael Fassbender) remote-island community — is a springboard for an action sequence. But the film also has genuine baddies in alien shapeshifters, led by a white-wigged Jessica Chastain as Vuk, who seek to corral the cosmic force residing inside Jean.
Writer-director Simon Kinberg doesn’t really care that “Dark Phoenix” is set in the 1990s. It’s not that this can’t be the ’90s, but coming out in the same year as “Captain Marvel,” it’s apparent that “Phoenix” does not lean into the time period trappings. This is disappointing, since it’s the capper to a quadrilogy of time-period movies, following “First Class” (1960s), “Days of Future Past” (1970s) and “Apocalypse” (1980s).
The technical style is good beyond that. Hans Zimmer provides a lot of bass in his score, but also pulls back to silence at times, mirroring Jean’s emotional swings and conflicts. And while some action sequences wouldn’t have to happen if the various factions could calm down for a moment, the sequences themselves are mostly outstanding, making use of everyone’s powers, from Quicksilver’s (Evan Peters) superspeed to Nightcrawler’s (Kodi Smit-McPhee) bampfing. When the X-Men rescue astronauts in the opening segment, it’s a master class in an experienced team doing their thing.
For better or worse, “Phoenix” is intent on zeroing in on Jean’s inner journey, so when father-figure Xavier and boyfriend Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) helplessly yell “Jean! No!,” they really are helpless. But the inner journey can play like a CGI light show if a viewer isn’t hooked. I’m reminded of “2001: A Space Odyssey” in how “Phoenix” wants to be a tragedy that transcends into something beautiful. But it’s stuck in its slick superhero shell. We see Jean break free and wish the film could do the same.
This is ultimately a middle-of-the-pack “X-Men” film, and a better portrayal of the “Dark Phoenix” saga than we got in “The Last Stand.” So you could do worse. The problem is that “Dark Phoenix” exists in a superhero-scape that includes the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so most viewers are very aware that they could do better.