Break out the hankies, 2019 is the year of sad goodbyes; to the Avengers, the Night Watch, the Skywalkers and to the latest incarnation of X-Men. Taking over from Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman and co in 2011’s X-Men: First Class, the stellar line-up, led by James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence, have had highs (Days Of Future Past) and lows (Apocalypse|). For their curtain call, long-time franchise writer-producer Simon Kinberg has taken perhaps the most-loved storyline from the comics, Chris Claremont/John Byrne’s 1980 Dark Phoenix saga (previously filmed as The Last Stand, aka The Vinnie Jones One), and directed an entry that’s enjoyable without ever catching fire.
It starts zippily enough. The X-Men are sent into space by the US government to save an imperilled space shuttle mission like an unfeasibly good-looking International Rescue. Job done, Jean Grey (Turner) is consumed by a cosmic entity that nearly kills her but ultimately enhances her abilities, making her all-powerful. She struggles to deal with her new found skillset and, under the malign influence of Jessica Chastain’s Palpatine-like mysterious alien, begins to act out, splintering the team to breaking point. Turner cuts an imposing figure but doesn’t make Jean’s internal conflicts affecting. Similarly, Chastain (we know she is evil because we can’t see her eyebrows) is an intimidating presence, but her unnamed extra-terrestrial remains ill-defined and unsatisfying.
The interesting dynamics give way to set-piece overload
Yet Dark Phoenix posits an interesting set-up — how do you treat a dysfunctional and dangerous family member? — and Kinberg and his cast for the first half at least mine the idea for good drama, playing nuances the characters have never displayed before. McAvoy’s Charles, now on magazine covers and with the President on speed dial, is an egotist, letting the success of his endeavours go to his slaphead and holding dark secrets about Jean’s past. Lawrence’s Raven is the voice of caution, picking Charles up on his hubris, decision-making and, in the film’s funniest moment, sexism. Fassbender’s Erik is running a mutant protection programme on a hippie commune living the rest of his life as an X-Schnook until a cataclysmic event lets the actor ham it up in vengeful mode. Perhaps the most affecting work is by Hoult as Hank, who etches a journey from loss to rage as the effects of Jean’s unravelling hit hard.
Inevitably, the interesting dynamics give way to set-piece overload — a psychic tug-of-war between Jean and Erik over a helicopter, a battle in a New York Subway carriage, and a last-reel showdown on a speeding train that sees every X-Dude get a moment in the sun — which Kinberg marshals with efficiency rather than brio. Which could probably apply to the film as a whole.