Review of “Dark Phoenix”

Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) has been the ward of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) since a car crash caused by Jean’s powers killed her parents when she was eight in 1975. In 1992, the X-Men take on the rescue of the astronauts onboard the space shuttle Endeavour that’s been crippled by a solar flare. While Jean is on the shuttle, the solar flare strikes the shuttle which should have destroyed the space craft and killed Jean. However, Jean absorbs the energy that isn’t really a solar flare. On the ground, Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) gives Jean a medical exam and finds she is physically fine, but her mutant powers are off the scale. Meanwhile, during a dinner party, a woman hears her dog barking. She goes to investigate when she is attacked by aliens, one of them taking on her appearance. More aliens are with her and shapeshift into other human forms. They are a race called D’Bari and her name is Vuk (Jessica Chastain). They are looking for the energy Jean absorbed and plan on using it for evil purposes. That energy has changed Jean, overcoming mental blocks put in place by Xavier to protect her from her past and is causing her to hurt and kill those around her. Jean finds Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) at his protected island refuge for mutants, hoping to find a way to deal with her new power. When a military team arrives to capture Jean, she destroys one of their helicopters and has a tug of war with Erik over the other before he can push it away, saving all the soldiers from Jean. He tells her to leave as she is endangering his mutant enclave. Vuk finds Jean and tells her she can help her discover the truth about her abilities and that the X-Men fear her and will try to kill her.

With the purchase of 20th Century Fox by Disney, “Dark Phoenix” is the last X-Men film for a while. It is also the worst reviewed of the series with a 22% on Rotten Tomatoes and had the lowest opening weekend of the franchise with just $33 million. It was plagued by poor audience response in test screenings, reshoots, on-set script revisions and budget overruns. Projections put “Dark Phoenix” losing $100 million or so. It is by all measurements a complete failure…and yet, I liked it quite a bit.

The film has several good performances, including a brief appearance by a very young actress. Summer Fontana plays Jean Grey at the age of eight. She possesses a seriousness and maturity that is striking for someone of her young age. It may be the best performance in the film as it is the most memorable.

Sophie Turner and James McAvoy are also impressive in their final turns as Jean Grey and Charles Xavier respectively. Turner, once she is empowered by the cosmic energy, is in turns frightened and questioning, then powerful and aggressive. Jean is unsure of what has happened to her and Turner captures all Jean’s confusion. It’s like a child entering puberty and being unsure of what is happening to their body and mind. Jean is filled with power and when she uses it, people get hurt. Perhaps scaring Jean even more is she likes the feeling of losing control. Turner turns Jean’s switches in personality into believable moments as a woman with new gifts begins flexing her muscles, despite the consequences.

James McAvoy has a nice bit of character growth in “Dark Phoenix.” McAvoy’s Xavier enjoys the moment of acceptance the X-Men are getting, especially after Jean, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and the rest of the team save a space shuttle full of astronauts. Charles is getting congratulations calls from the President of the United States and good publicity for mutants on the news for a change. He’s basking in the warm glow of good feelings and it’s going to his head. He believes he’s doing everything for the betterment of mutants, but he’s also feeding his ego. Charles borders on smarmy when he’s dealing with VIP’s and he’s dismissive of Raven and Hank when they question his motives. McAvoy delivers a performance that leads the audience to dislike the character for perhaps the first time in the series. It’s a bold choice to turn a character from fatherly to bad step-fatherly in what is likely your last outing. McAvoy is always fun to watch, especially in “Dark Phoenix.”

There are numerous action scenes and they all work very well and look great. The scene of the X-Men saving the astronauts that really kicks off the story is an exciting start. Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler gets a chance to shine as a big part of the rescue. The bit of smoke or whatever that’s supposed to be left when Nightcrawler uses his power gets amped up this time and blocks the audience’s view at tense times to build suspense. Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops gets to blast his way into the action and play a major role. Evan Peters’ Quicksilver helps as well, despite the lack of gravity. The whole scene lets the audience know there are some impressive special effects to follow.

“Dark Phoenix” has a feeling of finality to it. It is the last entry in the 20th Century Fox version of the X-Men. While the Disney purchase of the studio was an unknown future when this film was being written, “Dark Phoenix” says goodbye to some characters and puts a period on other character’s relationships. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere else to go with this version of the characters and the film’s makers appear to know that. Many of the actors may also be at the end of their contracts and recasting might have been in the future if the Fox sale hadn’t happened. Looking at the reviews and the box office, perhaps it’s time for this version of the franchise to come to an end.

“Dark Phoenix” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, action, disturbing images, intense sci-fi violence and some gunplay. There are numerous fights and battles but very little blood. Gunfire is limited and is mostly aimed at aliens that are able to withstand it without injury. There are a couple of scenes when the aliens use a power to cave in people’s chests. Foul language is limited, but the film uses its one allowed “F-bomb.”

The X-Men have always been a metaphor for the struggles of minorities and the outsiders of society. Despite all the super heroics and special effects, “Dark Phoenix” continues this tradition. It even mirrors the apparent acceptance of the different and the backlash that inevitably happens. It’s an interesting view on society that I hope will be continued by the folks at Disney when the X-Men eventually make their appearance in the MCU. While this film hasn’t been welcomed with open arms, I enjoyed it, found it exciting both in the action and the visuals, and a good way to wrap up this version of the X-Men. Make up your own mind, but I liked it.

“Dark Phoenix” gets five stars.

I’ll be reviewing “Shaft” for WIMZ.com.

Also opening this week is “Men in Black: International.”

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