“DARK PHOENIX” — 3 stars — Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence; PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images and brief strong language); in general release; running time: 113 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Even before sitting down to watch the movie, you get the feeling “Dark Phoenix” is going to be pretty polarizing. Not so much in a “love it/hate it” way, or quite to the level of “Last Jedi,” but in more of a fan expectation vs. reality kind of way.
One big reason for this is that Simon Kinberg's film is the second attempt to bring a popular comic book story arc into a big screen “X-Men” film, and the first one didn’t go so well. “Dark Phoenix” is a vastly different film than “The Last Stand” (2006), but Kinberg’s moody, melodramatic effort is still a pretty serious departure from the comic book source material. Overall, it’s much better than the last “X-Men” film, 2016's “Apocalypse,” but not near as good as “Days of Future Past” (2014).
“Dark Phoenix” sticks with characters (and actors) who have been in play since “First Class” rebooted the series in 2011, and more importantly, since “Future Past” rebooted the timeline, erasing “The Last Stand” from the official canon and giving Kinberg and Co. a clean slate.
The story is set in 1992, and mutants are living in relative harmony with the general human population — enough so that when a U.S. space shuttle runs into trouble, the government is perfectly happy to send in the perfectly happy to oblige X-Men to save the day.
Unfortunately, said mission goes south, and in the process of rescuing the stranded astronauts, 20-something up-and-comer Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is exposed to what everyone assumes is some kind of solar flare. The assumption is quickly proven wrong as Jean starts having complications back home and wrestles to keep her own psychic mutation powers in check.
In the meantime, a group of shape-shifting alien invaders led by a cold, soulless wraith named Vuk (Jessica Chastain) arrives and hopes to use Jean’s power to claim the planet for themselves.
As Jean spirals out of control and falls under the influence of Vuk, the other mutants scramble to bring her back into the “good guy” fold. This effort is complicated by tensions between X-Men founder/leader Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), right-hand man Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and conflicted veteran Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), not to mention the addition of exiled “bad guy” mutant Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who leaves his island hippie commune thanks to some motivations that would constitute a little too much of a spoiler here.
Unlike “Last Stand,” “Dark Phoenix” is almost exclusively centered on Jean Grey’s Phoenix arc, and alien characters like Vuk are a nod toward the original comic storyline. It’s also interesting to note that “Dark Phoenix” has been penned by the same guy who did “Last Stand” 13 years ago. While some might see this as a rare second chance, it’s easy to assume unhappy fans will blame any shortcomings on the decision to bring Kinberg back.Comment on this story
There’s plenty of action and character development, but there’s also a lot of mood and brood. “Dark Phoenix” doesn’t drag, necessarily, but it is dialed up to 11 on the “heavy” meter, and for a film that presumably will close off the 20th Century Fox era of “X-Men” films, it serves as a pretty dour closing note. Dark and dour has its place, but even “Empire Strikes Back” eventually led into “Return of the Jedi.”
If “Dark Phoenix” had turned up halfway through the series, little here would have been an issue. But in context, Kinberg has produced a good movie that serves as an awkward series finale.
Rating explained: “Dark Phoenix” is rated PG-13 for some dark and violent action content, as well as scattered profanity, including a single use of the “F-word” that feels odd for a comic book movie.