We've been here before. For whatever reason, X-Men movie franchises seem completely unable to move away from Jean Grey's ultimate downfall as the Dark Phoenix. It happened back in 2006 with X-Men: The Last Stand and it's happening now with X-Men: Dark Phoenix. But were any lessons learned from the first time around?
The answer is an unfortunate but resounding: No.
Clocking in at a few minutes shy of two hours, Dark Phoenix certainly doesn't seem like it should be a movie that overstays its welcome--by the conventions of the superhero genre it should have another forty-five minutes at the very least. Yet, somehow, it manages to make all but a scant handful of scenes feel inexorable, inexplicably boring. It drags on listlessly, completely unsure what to do with any of its characters--not even Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), the titular "Phoenix" of Dark Phoenix has any real clarity or purpose. She's got a new power now, and it's causing her psychic mutation to go haywire. That's about as complicated or nuanced as things get.
Meanwhile, the rest of the cast putters around just as directionlessly. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has a handful of zingers ("You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women") directed at her childhood friend/adoptive brother, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) who, at some point of screen, has taken a full-on pivot from well-meaning-but-doomed altruist to fame-grubbing asshole for no discernable reason. Sure, this incarnation of Xavier might be a little more faithful to his comic book self but it simply doesn't track--and makes absolutely no effort to track--back to the McAvoy version of the character we've spent three prior films getting to know. Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) is there, but really only to emote awkwardly at Jean whenever the camera is on him. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is around, too, but only for a handful of scenes--none of them managing to capture what made the character memorable or funny in previous films.
Magneto (Michael Fassbender) would be the most baffling of the lot, flip-flopping his motivations and emotional realities seemingly at random and in the middle of his scenes, but that dubious honor has to go to Jessica Chastain, whose character apparently does get named a grand total of once, and is otherwise never directly addressed again--so good luck trying to remember it when you leave the theater, and god help you if you're like me and happened to miss the throwaway line the first time around.
Name confusion aside, Chastain plays a villainous alien who wants the power--don't call it the "Phoenix Force," the movie never does--that resides within Jean. There's some vague exposition about how the power would help resurrect their race or terraform the Earth or something but it never quite becomes clear how or why just like it never becomes clear what role Jean plays in any of this. There are other aliens on Earth, too, but they all look like humans--presumably to save on that VFX and makeup budget--and Chastain is apparently their leader--or maybe some sort of princess? Who knows--the movie certainly doesn't seem to care, so why should we?
The end result is an absolutely baffling sequence of inexplicably drawn out scenes wherein various physic mutants scrunch up their faces at the camera while objects fly around them and buildings crunch and collapse. They occasionally monologue to one another about learning important life lessons, or about being scared of their own power, or about recovering from trauma, but they may as well be talking about the weather for all the impact it has.
There are, of course, other mutants whose powers aren't mentally based--but the movie doesn't seem to have any idea what to do with them. Storm (Alexandra Shipp) is back, but instead of being able to control the weather on a god-like scale, she spends the majority of her time on screen zapping people with lightning fingers like Raiden from Mortal Kombat. Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) makes a return, too, with his iconic "BAMF" teleportation inexplicably dubbed over with what honest-to-god sounds like a totally unaltered whip crack sound effect. He has a handful of neat fighting moments, but only really gets to shine for less than a minute at the very end.
Chances are, at about the halfway mark, you'll find yourself desperately wondering when the movie is going to put itself out of its misery--or, at best, wondering what the point of any of this is. Not even the major set-piece battles that bring familiar mutants together to showcase their powers feel like they have any real point or purpose outside of, well, being major set-piece battles to bring familiar mutants together.
It's hard to really pinpoint just where everything started going wrong. You could blame it on the cast being too large, or the script trying to juggle too many things, or the narrative not really knowing what it wanted to say or how it wanted to say it, but the reality is it doesn't really matter. The sum of Dark Phoenix's parts is a mess--a mess that, at the end of the day, might have a handful of pretty okay fight scenes and some well-tailored costumes, but still a mess. Sure, it may be slightly closer to adapting the actual Dark Phoenix Saga source material than 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand, but only by default.