REVIEW / SUPERHERO ACTION
X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX (PG13)
114 minutes/Now showing/3 stars
The story: Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) sends the X-Men team into space to save astronauts from a craft in distress. Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) accomplishes the near-impossible and is hailed as a hero on Earth. But in space, she was exposed to a powerful force, one that increased her psychic powers beyond anything Xavier or the others can control. That power is sought after by aliens, led by one who has taken human form (played by Jessica Chastain).
X-Men movies run on simple fuel - mutants solve problems and mutants also create problems. There are no dark dimensions or galactic portals from which unkillable villains can emerge. Mutant abilities come from genetics, not stones of infinite power.
That simplicity has always been a strength. X-Men movies are easy to follow as you do not have to head into the cinema already steeped in comic-book myth.
There is an integrity to the X-Men world. It has a built-in preventative to the problem that plagues too many science-fiction and fantasy works - the ex machina solution, when magic is summoned to conveniently fix a problem caused by magic.
That changed somewhat with X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), with its giant-size unstoppable male villain. While the big baddie is technically a mutant, his presence jerked the story in the direction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe formula. It cracked the internal coherence of the world the previous films had set up and it was also one of the least satisfying works in the series.
Dark Phoenix is a return to the human-scale X-Men form of old. This one has mutant-on-mutant conflict, the pain of hiding one's true self to get along with others and, of course, living with that Spider-Man rule, "with great power comes great responsibility".
Bryan Singer, the now-disgraced Hollywood personality who helmed many of the X-Men films, gave the franchise its characteristic groundedness, emotional impact and fluid action sequences.
Simon Kinberg, a veteran X-Men writer and producer sitting in the director's chair for the first time, keeps the Singer flame alive, at least in the battle scenes that put the focus on clarity of action.
There is a great deal less clarity, however, in the emotional spaces occupied by Turner's Grey and Chastain's alien.
Grey, when overwhelmed by the Phoenix personality, is understandably conflicted and confused, but the presentation of it feels unsatisfyingly incomplete.
It is made worse when the alien enters the picture, seeking to take Phoenix under her wing while at the same time stealing her power. The story wants nuanced interplay between the two women, but it tries too hard to force the issue, leading to a great deal of time-wasting movement and dialogue.
Turner is generally good in her role, but it would have been better if she had given it more range - being anguished all the time can get tiring for audiences.