The Marvel Cinematic Universe is like the most expensive Netflix series ever made.
We’re not supposed to binge watch the franchise, but the films are part of a larger, surprisingly firm fabric. “Avengers: Endgame” proved that anew, with often breathtaking results.
The “X-Men” saga is another matter entirely. Most of the films in this non-MCU series pack plenty of entertainment and some fiber-rich food for thought. You could stumble into one and not be lost as to the big picture, though.
Prejudice is bad. Mutant powers are cool!
The saga stumbled, big time, with 2017’s “X-Men: Apocalypse.” And the buzz greeting “Dark Phoenix,” reportedly the last film in the current “X” lineup, couldn’t be more toxic.
The film itself is something else entirely. It’s an old-school treat that demands only a cursory knowledge of the franchise. It delivers the superhero thrills we crave, far better than anything served up in the tepid “Captain Marvel.” “Dark Phoenix” also reminds us why the MCU approach trumps all in today’s competitive climate.
The story begins in the 1990s. The X-Men, led by Professor X, AKA Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, always stellar) take a call from the President (neither Clinton nor Bush) to rescue astronauts on a doomed space mission.
The trek exposes the group’s Jean Grey (“Game of Throne’s” Sophie Turner) to a strange entity that amplifies her already potent powers. She returns to earth unharmed, but she isn’t sure how to corral her new abilities.
That struggle upends the uneasy peace struck by Xavier’s mutants, now seen with less suspicion by the public. The new, improved Jean also catch the eye of a mysterious alien who commandeer a human (Jessica Chastain, good choice!) to investigate.
What do these creatures want? Can Professor X keep Jean under control, or will her spiraling powers pose a threat to the team … and perhaps mankind as well?
And where’s Wolverine?
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The sequel’s name and plot connect to a classic Marvel Comics story line, one first told to few fans’ satisfaction in “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006). The details have been changed, again, but some of the core elements remain.
Suffice to say this version won’t be deemed a “classic” by anyone any time soon. Still, it’s a sturdy enough eco-skeleton to build a sequel around.
FAST FACT: Michael Fassbender is an A-lister today, but back in 2008 he starred in a feisty British shocker called “Eden Lake.” The riveting film earned an Empire Award nomination.
Turner’s Jean is given far more to do here than in her last X-jaunt. She’s a strong actress, although one saddled with repetitive lines throughout the film.
“I … can’t control this … I might hurt someone …”
We get it. The script veers from generic to wise, the latter when McAvoy is on screen.
One insane exception?
A random “grrrl power” moment that is so dumb, and so poorly conceived, it’s like a parody of the modern woke experience.
Still, the narrative moves forward with few hiccups, and the supporting players are impressive despite the thin material. Jennifer Lawrence gets less screen time than usual here, but she’s still imposing. So, too is Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, one of the best assets these X stories possess.
He’s got that bad boy glimmer lurking at all times, and it’s glorious when he lets it out.
The action sequences, from first-time helmer Simon Kinberg, pop as they should. They don’t pack the grandeur of the “Avengers” films, but that’s a pretty high bar to meet.
So where’s the signature Quicksilver moment? The film doesn’t know what to do with Evan Peters’ hero, a highlight of recent X-affairs.
“Dark Phoenix” arrives at a critical point in superhero cinema. The movie likely ends the current line of “X-Men” features. So why do the stakes here feel so … modest?
There’s little here that will shock or surprise viewers. It’s just … a sequel that delivers in modest ways. Fans have come to expect so much more from modern superhero fare.
HiT or Miss: “Dark Phoenix” is neither the bust all that pre-release hype suggests nor a superhero smash worthy of the MCU’s best.