The pervading suspicion surrounding X-Men: Dark Phoenix, twelfth in the X-franchise and last under an independent Fox, is that all involved have essentially given up. A fractured narrative is held together by the film’s dourly immersive tone but, while scattered set pieces amaze, a lack of cast conviction belies a disinterest behind the lens. As potentially the last time Fassbender and McAvoy and co. will carry their roles, this isn’t what you would call going out with a bang.
It doesn’t help, of course, that Dark Phoenix has long since felt like a grossly pointless use of $200m. The plot is, broadly speaking, little more than a rewrite of X-Men: The Last Stand’s much derided Jean Grey subplot from 2006, built on the back of the retcon reboot afforded the franchise by 2014’s Days of Future Past. It’s an expensive apology to fans by returning writer Simon Kinberg – directing now also – but not one that has especially piqued interest. Test audience indifference gave rise to a rush of reshoots in postproduction, which did only to drag back a release schedule that had failed to take account of a busy cast who had already moved on. With the X-Men now heading back to the Marvel mothership, a Spidey-esque reboot seems imminent. Is it any wonder Dark Phoenix has inspired quite so pitiful a display at the box office?
Following her Apocalypse debut, Game of Thrones’ star Sophie Turner returns as telekinetic, telepathic Jean Grey, formerly portrayed in maturity by Famke Janssen. Here, she’s taken in by Professor Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and his School for Gifted Youngsters after surviving a fatal car crash in 1975. A crash she inadvertently caused, not that Xavier has allowed her to remember. Seventeen years later, history repeats itself when, on an extraterrestrial mission to save six astronauts from solar flare destruction, Jean emerges from their exploding shuttle unscathed. Further still, the process sees Jean absorb the solar flare – if that’s what it really is. Her powers heighten, her old memories return and a deep set anger begins to stir volcanically within her. As she so eloquently tells Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) later: ‘when it comes, bad things happen’.
The quest to understand why Kinberg’s cast present as so chronically detached from the project needn’t go so much further than his script. Contractual obligations aside, it’s hard not to assume that with great scripts comes greater engagement. Whilst the plot itself isn’t so bad – certainly it benefits from more clarity than some recent X-Men episodes – to the line, this is risible material. Clunky dialogue weighs heavy on vague and halfhearted attempts to remind viewers that the franchise has significant potential for political commentary: ‘the women are always saving the men around here, you might want to think about changing the name to X-Women’. Clang. It comes to something when clichés – ‘your emotions make you weak’ – are forgivable because at least they ring more true than: ‘why did I do that?!’
Not everything kerflunks quite so catastrophically in the film but successes here do rather feel like pacemakers to keep the film going until audiences are permitted to forget the whole affair. Jessica Chastain does surprisingly well in the occasionally effective, often camp role of high-heeled alien ice-queen and it’s hard not to feel some endorphinous rush as she slinks into battle with a pumped up Fassbender. The film’s effects are as strong as can be found in any blockbuster going but attempts to inject character drama into proceedings are mixed, generally relying on angst over substance and never really achieving developed satisfaction. As grand finales go, Dark Phoenix isn’t exactly a whimper but the lethargy whiffs something awful.