By Jeff Strickler
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
The original title “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” has been officially shortened to just “Dark Phoenix.” The change is more than just a marketing move; it’s an indication of what’s ahead: the ultimate girl fight in which men are outmuscled, outmaneuvered and pretty much kicked out of the way.
After the first action scene in which the team is sent to rescue astronauts, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) points out to Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) that the females tended to the crucial stuff while the men just provided support. “Maybe you should change the name to X-Women,” she teases.
It’s not just a joke; it’s the setup to the rest of the story, which eventually leads to the genre’s requisite all-out battle between two immensely superpowered entities. The variation in this telling is that the combatants are both women, each more potent than the collective might of the men who are supposedly there to help them.
Phoenix is the nickname given to Jean Gray (Sophie Turner) after she’s nearly killed by a mysterious burst of solar energy during the space mission. But she’s not left unscathed: the energy burst inhabits her, leaving her unable to control her telekinetic powers. Things around her start exploding. Realizing that she has become a danger to everything and everyone near her, she takes flight.
The movie’s ads would have us believe that the bulk of the story is about the rest of the team trying to track down and, if necessary, kill Jean before her dark side does more damage. That does happen, with Magneto (Michael Fassbender) leading the team that’s trying to kill her, while Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Charles marshal the group hoping to save her.
While watching a little X-Men-on-X-Men combat is kind of fun, it’s also very short-lived. The whole “we’ve got to stop Jean” subplot lasts 20 minutes, if that.
The main plot involves a group of superpowered aliens that have been chasing the solar power surge across multiple galaxies ever since it destroyed their planet. Led by all-powerful Vuk (Jessica Chastain), it doesn’t take them long to connect the dots to Jean. While their respective supporters do battle on a lesser plane, Jean and Vuk square off in a winner-takes-all battle of superpowers.
(Apparently there’s a law in Hollywood that these confrontations must be as destructive as possible. This one takes place in New York City and involves everything from subway trains to buses. Do we sense an anti-mass transit vibe here?)
Turner, who joined the franchise in “X-Men: Apocalypse” but since has become better known for “Game of Thrones,” has the “don’t even think about messing with me” aura down pat. Chastain’s Vuk comes off as frighteningly heartless and soulless; she reports the destruction of her home planet with about as much emotion as you would expect if you’d asked her the time.
As for the pacing, the story moves along briskly. The special effects are adequately splashy; they’re entertaining but don’t bowl you over, a description that applies to the movie as a whole.
This is the 12th movie in the franchise. Normally, this far into a series, filmmakers don’t worry about bringing viewers up to speed on characters and their backgrounds, figuring that by now audiences consist almost entirely of repeat customers.
But director Simon Kinberg, either because he’s new to the director’s chair (although he did produce several of the earlier installments) or was concerned that Turner’s presence would attract an influx of “Throne” devotees, does a surprisingly good job of explaining who’s who without interrupting the flow of the narrative.
That being said, other than Turner, there isn’t a whole lot in “Dark Phoenix” to make non-fans want to race across town to buy tickets. It solidly delivers another chapter in a franchise that continues to chug along by providing what its fans want. There’s nothing more than that here, but, the good news is, nothing less, either.
3 out of four stars
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, including some gunplay, disturbing images and brief strong language.
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