After a while I started getting offended at how much “Dark Phoenix” assumed I remembered about the previous Teenage X-Men movies. Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), whose ill-defined powers include telekinesis and ESP, is paired up with laser-eyed Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), which sounds familiar. But hairy-blue Beast (Nicholas Hoult) is with blue shapeshifter Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) — because they’re both blue? — which doesn’t ring a bell at all. And then when something bad happens to Raven, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) takes it very personally, and it’s implied that there was once a romantic triangle there, and I will just take the movie’s word for it that it all happened in “X-Men: Apocalypse,” which came out three years and 175 superhero movies ago.
They rebooted the timeline in “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” allowing them to tell whatever stories they want without having to worry about whether they contradict the “X-Men” films of the early 2000s. Having gained this freedom, they are using it to tell boring stories with low stakes, this one written by franchise veteran Simon Kinberg, who’s also in the director’s chair for the first and probably last time (I’m kidding, he’s a man, he’ll be back). “Dark Phoenix,” based on what I gather was a popular story in the comic books, feels like a random mid-season episode of a long-running “X-Men” TV shows, with a whole soap opera’s cast of characters intermingling, not one of them doing anything noteworthy.
Jean’s origins are presented in flashback to 1976, where her inability to control her psychic powers leads to her parents’ deaths. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) shows up immediately to recruit the bereft 8-year-old, like a perv, and does some fiddling with her mind to help her block out the trauma. Later, in 1992 (when the rest of the film is set), she and the X-team — also including teleporting Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), speedy Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and weather-fondling Storm (Alexandra Shipp) — rescue a U.S. space shuttle from a mysterious blob of space energy, which Jean absorbs into her body. Everybody thinks that is real neat and treats Jean like a hero, but subsequently, nobody ever wonders what the space blob was. First it was mysterious and threatening; once Jean ate it, it was like, “Well, let us never speak of it again.”
Whatever it was, it made Jean’s ill-defined, hard-to-control powers even more ill-defined and hard to control, resulting in occasional blasts of energy that knock everybody down. Parallel to this, Raven is becoming disenchanted with Professor X’s benevolent dictatorship, particularly as she learns more about how he interfered with Jean’s life and brain. Despite being performed by charismatic actors, these internecine quarrels bore me to tears because the characters are so thinly written and we’ve been given so little reason to care. The noble Professor X is in the wrong here, but instead of humanizing him, his mistakes make him seem weak and foolish. Jean is a poor protagonist because she is mostly reacting to what befalls her rather than being proactive.
And it’s too bad, because Kinberg clearly put all his eggs in the “turmoil within the X-Men” basket. The external conflict — a race of alien shapeshifters led by Jessica Chastain wants the space blob Jean ingested in order to conquer Earth — is a rudimentary afterthought. The “saga” aspect of this long-running franchise (12 films in 19 years!) has become the focus more than the exciting superhero tales, and even as one for whom “you don’t need to be fixed because you’re not broken” narratives usually work like a charm, I just don’t care anymore. Sorry, X-persons.
C- (1 hr., 53 min.; )