A human with the superpower of telepathy, she’s an empath and, for good and for evil, is also the physical manifestation of the cosmic Phoenix Force, “the spark that gave life to the Universe, the flame that will ultimately consume it.” Over the years she has been included on Top 100 Comic Book Heroes and Comic Book Villains lists and been killed off several times.
The action in “Dark Phoenix” begins with the X-Men team heralded as heroes by the public who once feared them. Professor X (James McAvoy) is a celebrity, featured on magazines, getting medals from the president. He sees their do-good work as a way to keep them safe. “It’s a means to an,” he says, “We are just one bad day away from them starting to see us as the enemy again.”
When a group of astronauts find themselves in trouble Prof X sends Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Grey and others to space on a daring rescue mission. During the operation Grey is hit by “pure and unimaginably powerful cosmic waves” that will eventually transmute her into the Dark Phoenix, a malevolent force with the potential to tear the world apart. The core of good inside Grey battles for supremacy until repressed pain and anger push her to the dark side. “You’re special, Jean,” says shapeshifting energy sponge Smith (Jessica Chastain), “and if you stop fighting that force inside you, if you embrace it, you will possess the very power of a god.”
The X-Men crew have been always been concerned with the greater good, doing what is best for the masses, but what happens when one of their own turns bad and needs to be stopped? That’s the question at the heart of “Dark Phoenix.” “When I lose control,” Grey says, “bad things happen to the people I love.”
At their best the “X-Men” movies are an ode to outsiders. Ripe with metaphor and nuance, they look at how society treats marginalized people. They also find the humanity in their outsider characters. Whether they have blue fur or can bend metal with their mind, their greatest superpowers are always qualities like forgiveness and loyalty.
Progressive ideas about acceptance are still at the heart of “Dark Phoenix” but all the nuance is consumed in a cosmic bonfire of CGI flames and the messaging is delivered with a mallet. “They can never understand you! What they can’t understand they fear and what they fear they seek to destroy!”
The film’s biggest (and only intentional laugh) comes with a good and timely line courtesy of Jennifer Lawrence. “The women are always saving the men around here,” says a huffy Mystique to Professor X. “You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women.”
Despite the pyro on display “Dark Phoenix” doesn’t catch fire. The tone is flat, passionless even as a hectic CGI-A-Thon of eye blistering action eats up much of the last reel. (MILD SPOILER AHEAD) Long-time fans may get a lump in their throats as one classic character makes their farewell but as Grey says, “emotions don’t make you weak, they make you strong.” Whether you’ll feel stronger or not after the end credits roll will depend on how much attached you are to the X-Men characters. If you’re not already a fan this lackluster movie is unlikely to convert you.