Review: Dark days for X-Men in 'Dark Phoenix'

Beleaguered superheroes look bored in latest entry in long-winded series

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Tye Sheridan and Sophie Turner in "Dark Phoenix."

In "Dark Phoenix," there are fireballs, lasers and lightning bolts, but no sparks. 

The latest "X-Men" adventure — the 7th film in the franchise, not counting the three standalone “Wolverine” movies, and the third entry in the rebooted-with-younger-cast-members series within the series – is a sluggishly paced superhero debacle, where the actors look as bored as the audience.

Jennifer Lawrence, who signed on to the series right after “Winter’s Bone” made her an Oscar nominee but before “The Hunger Games” shot her to the moon, looks like she’d rather be just about anywhere else and all but hands in her character’s resignation on screen. Sophie Turner, who joined on as Jean Grey in 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse” and is the star here because, well, “Game of Thrones,” looks like’d prefer to be back in the North, sitting safely on her throne. Michael Fassbender’s Magneto character is off living in a commune and doesn’t show up until midway through the film, and looks genuinely bummed when the rest of the crew tracks him down. If being glum was a superpower, this cast would have it in spades.

And then there’s poor Jessica Chastain, who turns in a career-low performance as a shape-shifting alien who shows up to, who knows, take over the world or something. Chastain, a double Oscar nominee and one of our greatest living actresses, looks like she’s being held against her will after accepting that, following a string of high profile but underperforming roles, she’s had to join the ranks of the superhero world. Oh, to hear the conversations she and Lawrence must have had in their trailers on set.

“Dark Phoenix” opens with some ominous narration about who we are as a people and whether we can evolve, big questions the film pretends to ponder between explosions.

It’s 1975 and a young Grey is in the backseat of her parents’ car as they drive down a lonely roadway, a set-up that has never led to anything good in the history of movies. Grey is controlling the radio dial with her mind, tensions within the automobile are escalated – couldn’t they just have agreed on a station? – and soon enough, the car is hurtling through the air. Her parents are killed but Grey emerges unharmed, her powers of telepathy and telekinesis revealed.

Enter Professor X (James McAvoy), who brings Grey to his school for mutants to hone her powers. In time – the action picks back up in 1992 – she’s a full-fledged member of the X-Men, alongside Mystique (Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Storm (Alexandra Shipp, still without a whole lot to do), the wise-cracking Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and Grey's boyfriend, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan).

Tye Sheridan, from left, James McAvoy, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Alexandra Shipp in "Dark Phoenix."

When a group of astronauts face a danger in space, the X-Men get called into action by the U.S. President. “We’re doing space missions now. Cool,” quips one of the team members. Yep, cool.  

During the mission, Grey saves the day but absorbs a solar flare (oops), which deeply intensifies her psychic abilities. With her increased powers she learns an inconvenient truth about her parents’ car crash, which forces her to turn on Professor X and the rest of her squad. Soon enough Vuk (Chastain) and her crew of shape shifters want to harness her powers for evil.

The fate of the world is at stake, of course, because otherwise what are any of us doing here? Longtime “X-Men” screenwriter Simon Kinberg, making his feature film directorial debut, is tasked with bringing all of this together and making us care, but the weapons at his disposal are chiefly muddled action scenes where the “X-Men” take turns showing off their powers, which makes for constantly chaotic visuals masquerading as on-screen excitement.

Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from "Dark Phoenix."

Lawrence’s character makes a “you should think about changing the name to X-Women” reference, which seems contractually obligated in 2019. In a climactic battle, the words “your emotions make you weak” are spoken, like they were pulled straight from the Superhero Scripts for Dummies handbook. Was it mentioned there’s also a mutant who uses his hair braids as a weapon?

The final battle takes place aboard a moving train that feels like it’s headed nowhere. At this point, it’s a perfect metaphor for the “X-Men” series.

‘Dark Phoenix’


Rated PG-13: for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language

Running time: 114 minutes