One problem with the modern superhero film cycle is that most superhero comics stories are deemed too small for the big screen. Only existential crises, ideally for both our heroes and the world, are thought to justify movies' big budgets. Films like Spider-Man: Homecoming, in which the hero thwarts a gang of thieves, are the exception. More typical was Zack Snyder's decision to get on with "The Death of Superman" in only his second film using the venerable character. So it is with the slightly less venerable Jean Grey, a charter member of the Uncanny X-Men dating back to 1963. To judge from the movies, the only reason to put the erstwhile Marvel Girl on film is to retell Chris Claremont's long story arc in which Jean survives a space disaster and becomes a being of godlike power. You wouldn't know from the movies, however, that Claremont took more than thirty issues of the X-Men comic to get Jean to the point where, having undergone mental and emotional manipulation while increasingly craving to manifest her power, she becomes Dark Phoenix and threatens the entire civilized universe. Filmmakers -- or to be specific, writer Simon Kinberg -- prefer to cut to the chase and get Jean from Phoenix to Dark Phoenix as soon as possible. Interestingly, though, Kinberg, making his second try with the material and now directing as well, tries to steer clear of the familiar "power corrupts" trope that has made the Dark Phoenix Saga a template for so many more comics over the last forty years. That's not to say that he steers clear of cliche entirely, however.
To review, we're in the new reality created by Days of Future Past, the second film with the current core cast of James McAvoy (as Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender (as Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (as Raven aka Mystique) and Nicholas Hoult (as Hank "Beast" McCoy). The new continuity has reached the year 1992, eight years prior to the events and release date of the original X-Men movie, but the four principal actors appear to have aged little over the decades. In the early scenes we get the best illustration yet of how reality has altered in mutants' favor. In a world where there are, to our knowledge, no non-mutant heroes (depending on how you classify Deadpool), the X-Men are the only game in town when a U.S. space shuttle gets in trouble in orbit. The President of the United States can call for help on the X-Phone, and Charles Xavier will answer. And when the X-Men return, their mission accomplished, they're acclaimed as world heroes. Xavier in particular is lionized and decorated by the government, and yet somehow the universe itself recognizes that there's something wrong with this picture. When Jean (Sophie Turner), almost sacrificing her life to save the shuttle crew, becomes possessed by primal cosmic energies she can hardly control, it's as if the cosmos has risen in rebellion against the historic anomaly and to punish Charles for some fundamental hubris.
The nature of Xavier's hubris will be familiar to any regular viewer of superhero TV shows. I really should have known what was coming when the film opened with a flashback to Jean as a little girl arguing with her parents over the car radio and unconsciously manifesting telekinesis moments before a fatal wreck. We cut to Charles taking Jean in at his mansion, but the rest of the film will fill in crucial gaps. In the present, Jean will discover that her father survived the accident. From him, she'll learn that Dad basically gave her up to Charles Xavier, wanting nothing more to do with her after his wife's death. The film seems unclear on which is the worse sin: the father's abandonment of his daughter or the surrogate father's lie. The fatal combination of the two puts poor Jean into a lethal rage that at long last liberates Jennifer Lawrence from a series that long ago had stopped offering her anything but money.
What would you do if you suddenly had immense but uncontrollable power and you killed somebody? Of course, you'd go look up Magneto, since it was long ago decided that you can't have an X-Men film without their on-again, off-again nemesis. Good ol' Eric has gathered a bunch of mutants in some shantytown, where he warily welcomes the wandering, bloodstained Jean. The girl won't answer when asked whose blood that is, but Magneto will find out soon enough. Both he and Hank McCoy had old, strong feelings for Raven, so when Beast spills the beans, after Jean has skedaddled, they decide to take revenge, while the rest of the X-Men resolve to stop them.
So far so meh, but at least it's easily better than the previous mutant movie, X-Men Apocalypse. Unfortunately, the new film promptly repeats the old film's fatal mistake by introducing an utterly boring big bad. To be accurate, this character first appears earlier in the picture, but it's not until she encounters an increasingly frightened and angry Jean that we realize how bad she's going to be. If you think Jennifer Lawrence had been phoning in her mutant performances recently, wait until you see how Jessica Chastain does it. She sends hers by snail-mail. Long story short, she's an evil alien who leads an expeditionary force of superpowered refugees from a world previously destroyed by the entity that now possesses Jean Grey. These aliens hope to harness the "Phoenix" power to build a new world -- ideally, as it develops, on the corpse of our world. If they can get the disgruntled Grey to help out, fine. If not, they have ways of taking her power for themselves. In a way, I suppose, Chastain aims for actorly authenticity. Tasked with playing an emotionless alien, she pretty much nails it. The problem is, you start to believe that the actress herself is an emotionless alien, and the suspicion is no tribute to her work. She and her apparently infinite supply of soldiers have no interesting characteristics whatsoever. Worse, her character botches the master plan by lapsing into blatant villain dialogue in Charles Xavier's hearing at the moment when she's convinced Jean to surrender her power. Feeling the need to tell Charles that she's going to kill all humans, so there, pretty much seals the aliens' fate, though we still have to sit through an initially exciting but ultimately interminable-seeming fight aboard a speeding train before the final scene between Jean and the alien queen....
Probably only long-form television could do justice to Claremont's original stories, though there, too, creative license would be inevitable. Jean Grey's power-drunkenness is a slow burn that only accelerates late in the game when she falls under the influence of the Hellfire Club -- who aren't available for the Dark Phoenix movie because they'd been used back in the Sixties-set X-Men: First Class. By no means do I argue that the Hellfire Club is essential to telling the story effectively, but a telling truer to the spirit of the original would allow time for storylines like theirs to play out. You really need the X-Men to be more regular presences in your entertainment life, instead of showing up every three years or so, for Jean's story to have anything like the impact the comics did. Doing the whole arc in two hours is hopeless, and the emotions and motivations Kinberg substitutes for the originals don't help matters. A collective failure of acting helps even less. Nobody here does their best work for the franchise with the arguable exception of Tye Sheridan's Cyclops, whose best moment is an unexpected but appreciated f-bomb threat to Magneto, proof of feelings for Jean that in comics had nearly forty years of publication time to develop by the time of the Dark Phoenix saga. As Jean, Sophie Turner seems more assured than in Apocalypse, but there's only so much she can do with the script's high-school psychoanalysis of her character, and there's nothing she can do with the void that Chastain becomes. In the film's favor, most of the characters are at least likable -- and I'll at least acknowledge that they want Magneto to be likable this time. While the main action scene goes on far too long, and the climactic confrontation includes way to many swirly lights, at times Kinberg and editor Lee Smith give the fight scenes a good punchy quality when speed is of the essence. Hans Zimmer's music is okay, I guess. That may not sound like much, but it's still better than Apocalypse, though early box-office reports indicate that that film turned people off a franchise that most now realize is moribund. Inevitably the X-Men will fall under the control of Marvel Studios following Disney's takeover of Twentieth Century-Fox. That probably means that somewhere down the line there will be more and better mutant films -- as long as Marvel can resist the very temptation their comics line planted in people's minds long ago.