Dark Phoenix **

Sophie Turner is all dressed up with nowhere to go in this lackluster and dour “X-Men” adventure that too often relegates its protagonist to second fiddle to her (predominantly male) counterparts and pushes viewers away from her emotional journey, capping off the iconic mutants' 20th Century Fox-produced franchise on a maddeningly perfunctory note. 

Is it worth $10?  No 

It wants to spread its wings and glide above other comic book-based tentpoles' more juvenile storylines, but “Dark Phoenix,” the final chapter of the long-running “X-Men” franchise, merely ekes out an uninspired mishmash of material considerably better handled in prior entries. It's a shame, considering it possesses all the ingredients for satisfying summer multiplex fare.

But that good time at the movies promised by the series' 12th entry (if you count the snarky “Deadpool” films) is going to have to wait. Instead of eliciting elation from viewers, “Dark Phoenix” amounts to an attractively lensed wallow in frustration. Making his feature directing debut, longtime “X-Men” screenwriter Simon Kinberg ostensibly focuses on Jean Grey (“Game of Thrones'” Sophie Turner), leader Charles Xavier's powerful right hand and a beacon of goodness who stands in sharp contrast to other mutants' impulse to rebel against a human race that hasn't always treated them with kindness.

The film starts with a brief prologue, set in 1975, that dramatizes a familiar scene: a young child riding in a car with her parents. Kinberg is aware we know what's about to happen, so he intriguingly stages the tragedy, not as the expected deus ex machina development, but as the outcome of a child mutant's inability to control her abilities. This is the right call: we see the fatal car crash from young Jean's point of view, thus allowing viewers to step inside her head. It's a measure that's representative of what makes the franchise stand out from other, more action-oriented comic book tentpoles: a willingness to explore psychological trauma and moral ambiguity where other filmmakers just see rigid shades of good and evil.

Kinberg also wisely establishes the film's emotional core as the bond between Jean and Charles (James McAvoy), who comes to her aid and offers her a home at his mutant academy. “You are not broken,” he tells her as they stand before the Wayne Manor-esque property, and our inner outcast beams. These connections, Kinberg reminds us, are why we hold the “X-Men” films in such high esteem, despite the uneven quality of the series as a whole.

But as “Dark Phoenix” jumps to 1992, the filmmaker appears duty bound to spread his focus to the other mutants. A team led by Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, brusquely hitting her marks) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), better known as their mutant aliases Mystique and Beast, jets off to save the crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour from what appears to be a dangerous solar flare. Complications arise when Jean is momentarily left behind during the rescue mission and absorbs the flare.

The undertaking causes an already growing rift between Raven and Charles to reach a breaking point. Meanwhile, a shape-shifting alien race led by the casually cruel Vuk (a white-haired Jessica Chastain) descends on Earth in search of the power collected inside Jean. Notice anything, or anyone, missing here? If you say Jean herself, you get a gold star. In weaving his narrative across multiple characters, including returning antihero Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Kinberg loses sight of his main heroine. Her evolving relationship with Charles becomes diluted by all the other narrative strands the filmmaker attempts to juggle. The results are a listless, almost businesslike approach to world-building that lacks the singular imprint that Bryan Singer, the director who helped launch the franchise, gave the material. And for a time period rife with storytelling possibilities, the new film also lacks the political awareness Matthew Vaughn brought to the table in “X-Men: First Class,” the 2011 prequel/reboot that introduced much of the current cast (and, alongside Singer's “X2: X-Men United,” remains the best film in the franchise).


But what takes down “Dark Phoenix” goes beyond a lack of interest in the sociopolitical realities of the 1990s. Kinberg is committed to exploring Jean's inner torment, but by placing the burden of grappling with the ripple effects of her newly acquired power on other, more established characters, he takes the film away from her. The director ends up mansplaining the character's problems in a way that almost feels abstract. It ends up becoming more about Charles' guilt than Jean's, which makes the film feel more plot-driven, shackled as it is by its commitments to close out the franchise before the iconic characters are handed over to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Credit is due to the film's tip-top cast, who, for the most part, refuse to phone in their performances. And just when you're about to give up on the movie's by-the-numbers action, Kinberg unleashes a climactic showdown on board a train that's among the most accomplished the series has seen.

Alas, it all amounts to window dressing that's unable to cover up “Phoenix's” central failing. If “X2” used the mutants' otherness as a metaphor for the LGBTQ coming out process, and “First Class” deftly inserted the characters' into Cold War espionage, this elegiac but unremarkable send-off could well be seen as striking parallels between Jean's power and clinical depression. But it's the audience who ultimately ends up feeling depressed, mostly by the lack of imagination on display. Coming off the end of HBO's “Game of Thrones,” Turner was clearly ready for a showcase worthy of her talents. But “Dark Phoenix” lets her down, and by extension, us as well.

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