“Dark Phoenix” climaxes with a literal jolting train wreck. It seems to go on forever, a farrago of X-Men superpowers deployed — lightning zaps, heat-vision scorching, bad-guy bodies levitated and hurled hither and yon — as train cars are ripped, rent and crushed. When it’s over, Our Heroes are left standing in a field of rubble.
It’s a fitting finale for a picture that’s a figurative train wreck as well.
“Phoenix” is a joyless addition to the long-running “X-Men” franchise — 12 movies over 18 years — and one is left with the impression that the series has been too long at the fair.
Performances feel enervated, particularly in the case of Michael Fassbender, who plays Magneto, and Jennifer Lawrence, as the blue-hued shape-shifter Mystique. Lawrence has said she wants to move on from the role, and now she will. And she should. The juice has been squeezed out of her with respect to the part.
Though the movie takes its title from the well-known “Dark Phoenix Saga” from the X-Men comic books, writer-director Simon Kinberg diverges significantly from the source material. The villainous Mastermind and the so-called M’Kraan Crystal, key elements in the comic, are nowhere to be found.
Telepath and telekinetic-enabled Jean Grey (“Game of Thrones” star Sophie Turner) falls prey to a malevolent alien energy force while trying to rescue the crew of a disabled space shuttle and turns to the dark side. She flies into superpowered rages, wreaks havoc on her surroundings and, worst of all, kills a key member of the X team, thereby sowing dissension in the ranks. Some of her former colleagues, notably Magneto, want to kill her. Others, notably Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), main man of the X-Men, wants to deprogram and save her.
In the early going, Kinberg, in his directorial debut (though he has written three previous “X” movies), dives deep into the group’s dynamics, showing how the professor tampered with Jean’s mind during her childhood to block a traumatic memory. Xavier’s role as X-Men leader comes in for some long-deferred criticism from Mystique, who observes that “you put us in danger, Charles” while he sits back at headquarters in his wheelchair. And she delivers the cutting observation, “the women are always saving the men around here.”
Xavier, who fancies himself an all-wise do-gooder (he fiddled with Jean’s memories for her own good, he claims) comes to be seen by other members of the group as a self-aggrandiizer who has fallen in love with his fame. His reckoning is eye-opening and anguish-producing for him. In a plot with actual alien villains around, principally a glammed-up Jessica Chastain in stilettos and an ash-blond hairstyle (outer-space shape-shifters have a killer fashion sense), it’s Xavier who turns out to be the main bad guy, unintentionally to be sure.
It’s the women who are all-powerful in this picture — Mystique, Chastain’s alien and Jean — with Jean’s growing power threatening to wreck the planet.
“Phoenix” goes off the rails in the second half when Kinberg piles fight scene atop CG-enhanced fight scene, backed by Hans Zimmer’s oppressive pounding score, until the picture devolves into a chaotic mess.
The makers have indicated “Phoenix” is the culmination of the franchise’s long run. If true, it was definitely overdue.
★★ “Dark Phoenix,” with Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Jessica Chastain. Written and directed by Simon Kinberg. 114 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images and brief strong language. Opens June 7 at multiple theaters.