Fox's X-Men franchise has always been a little polarizing. From beloved installments like X2: X-Men United, X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past to the long-derided X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: Apocalypse, the film series is either big hit or extreme miss with fans. Unlike its predecessors, though, Dark Phoenix finds itself in the middle ground as a tidy, inoffensive little movie that gets the job done nicely in spite of some noticeable flaws.
Despite the huge scope of the comic book storyline, Dark Phoenix approaches the source material with a laser focus. Yes, the story involves a destructive cosmic force, but the stakes feel much more personal here than in perhaps any other X-Men film to date. This is a story about Jean Grey and her friends. The drama derives from her dark descent into rage and pain and the way the people who love her respond to that. Even as the team is besieged by a government all-too-willing to turn on them and a bizarre alien menace, those threats feel secondary to the conflict brewing between the X-Men themselves.
This is where Dark Phoenix succeeds. For maybe the first time in the franchise, the X-Men feel less like a team -- a bunch of people pushed together due to circumstance -- and more like a family. The film invites the viewer to care because the characters do; these people aren't fighting for survival so much as they're fighting for (and sometimes with) each other. Dark Phoenix's primary thrust about found family and friendship is sure to win audiences over.
However, Dark Phoenix is perhaps less effective in this regard than it could have been due to the timing of its release. The film does not exist in a vacuum; indeed, this is the fourth film since the soft reboot that was First Class and only the second in which characters like Jean, Scott Summers, Storm and Nightcrawler appear. While Apocalypse introduced this younger generation, it hardly gave viewers a sense of who they are as a characters and how close they would become. With its time jump of nearly a decade, Dark Phoenix operates under the assumption you're familiar with the dynamics as established by the original trilogy.
So, while Dark Phoenix does a solid job of presenting these friendships on its own terms, the plot certainly doesn't feel like the culmination of a decade's worth of character building for Jean, Scott and their friends, especially in light of the time jump. Even though Jean is at the heart of this film, she isn't its most compelling aspect, but only because we hardly know her before her dark turn. Instead, characters who have been around longer -- like Charles Xavier and Beast -- end up with the meatier storylines. This is a shame, if only because it removes Jean from the center of her own story.
Nevertheless, Sophie Turner turns in a solid performance as Jean. She slips easily between grief and rage to confusion and remorse; her horror at what she is becoming is palpable. Likewise, the rest of the cast turns up to play. James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult stand out here as well, if only because the story demands a lot of their characters. However, they rise to the challenge with memorable performances. Jennifer Lawrence, on the other hand, appears to phone in her final appearance as Mystique; with a brief but understated role, she seems almost bored with the material and the result is dull and forgettable, bringing the fan-favorite character to a disappointing end.
As part of a franchise known for its complex villains, Dark Phoenix has a surprisingly flat antagonist. Jessica Chastain's character exists to be a driving force behind Jean's worst instincts, to lay down some exposition -- and as a reason for the X-Men to kick some bad guy butt, of course. Despite this, Chastain throws herself entirely into the role, and that makes her performance entirely enjoyable to watch. What's more, her character plays with the source material in a fun, intriguing way; her motivations are also interesting enough to be engaging. While Chastain's role won't be considered one of the more memorable villains in X-Men history, she manages to turn out an entertaining portrayal nonetheless.
Dark Phoenix has a smaller scope than previous X-Men films, but it isn't short on action or special effects. The movie makes good use of each mutant's individual powers, showing both the strengths and weaknesses of their abilities. The team works in tandem, proving that they made good on Apocalypse's promise to train as a unit, and -- as a result -- the fight sequences that are dynamic and fun to watch. Additionally, the Phoenix Force itself is gorgeous to behold, and the result of its union with Jean has a sort of destructive beauty to it.
Though Dark Phoenix is set in the 90s, the time period has little to no bearing on the plot or the characters. The film might as well have been set in present day. Where Apocalypse leaned into its 80s setting, embracing a decade that saw the rise of the X-Men's popularity, Dark Phoenix doesn't do much with the 90s despite its relevance to the franchise. As such, the time jump feels like a lost opportunity to have some fun with the decade.
In the end, Dark Phoenix is a step in the right direction for Fox's X-Men franchise. By embracing the found family aspect of the team, the film stands out from its predecessors in the best way possible. Because it leans into the friendship at the core of the X-Men, Dark Phoenix creates a genuine, earnest tone that is sure to please fans of the franchise and newcomers alike. This trickles down into just about every element of the film, from the performances to the action, and makes it a stronger film overall. However, the movie has noticeable flaws that will prevent it from achieving fan-favorite status like X2 and First Class.
Directed and written by Simon Kinberg, Dark Phoenix stars James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Holt, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters and Jessica Chastain. The film arrives June 7.