I spent long stretches of time during “Dark Phoenix” wondering about the ages of several of the characters. The latest, and possibly last, film in Fox’s X-Men franchise about superpowered mutant heroes centers on Jean Grey, a telekinetic, telepathic superhero with powers so strong they may be out of her control. Sophie Turner, who was 21 or 22 when she was filming the movie, plays Jean, who is identified as 21 years old. So far, no problem.
Jean lives at Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, an educational refuge for young mutants that doubles as the headquarters for the crimefighting X-Men (James McAvoy plays team leader Xavier, at an age disparity that is noteworthy but not as egregious as some of the others in the movie). During a mission with the X-Men, Jean uses her powers to absorb a cosmic entity that was threatening a space shuttle. The entity amplifies her powers (earning her the moniker “Phoenix”) and causes her to inadvertently harm multiple innocent people. Seeking absolution, she finds former X-Men supervillain Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who rejects her request for guidance before deciding that she must be killed. This pushes her into the hands of an amoral alien (Jessica Chastain) who wishes to use the entity for her own nefarious purposes.
This is where chronology comes in. We know from previous X-Men movies that Magneto was a child in 1944, when he was interred in a concentration camp. “Dark Phoenix” takes place in 1992. This would put the character that Fassbender (real age: 42) is playing at around 58 years old, give or take a few years. We also know that “X-Men: First Class,” the origin story of the cinematic X-Men, takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which happened in 1962. This would put Mystique, the longtime morally gray (and physically blue) shapeshifting muse of the X-Men, at approximately 48 years old. Jennifer Lawrence, the actor who plays her, is only 28. Roughly the same age gap plagues co-star Nicholas Hoult (real age: 29), who plays the savage, furry supergenius Beast.
These age gaps would perhaps be irrelevant, or at least unimportant, if “Dark Phoenix” (written and directed by Simon Kinberg) was a compelling movie. Alas, it’s usually pretty dull. Most big blockbusters have logical leaps, but the good ones keep their characters relatable and their plots clipping along at a pace that pushes those problems out of your mind. If a film gives you the dubious gift of several unbroken minutes in which you can ignore the onscreen happenings to think about why the plot doesn’t make sense, you’re probably not watching a very good movie.
The X-Men movie universe, though not boasting as many entries as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is by far the elder statesman of superhero franchises. Counting spin-offs for the popular Wolverine and Deadpool characters, “Dark Phoenix” is the 12th entry in a series of comic book adaptations that has spanned 19 years. Like the superhero comics on which they’re based, the best entries are those that find cool things to with its characters’ powers and focus on a combination of breezy soap opera and goofy science fiction, while the worst ones, like “Dark Phoenix,” are self-serious and overly focused on the apocalyptic machinations of their villains. Also like those comics, the franchise has become so recursive and self-referential that it’s almost impossible to explain one of the later entries without offering a refresher course on the series as a whole.
That might explain why I’ve spent most of this review not explaining what actually happens in “Dark Phoenix.” One of the only interesting things about it is the revelation that it occurs in an alternate timeline, but that fact is not explicitly referenced in the movie and is implied based on the ending of a different film, the time-altering “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” which came out in 2014. I could explain my confusion at Jean’s manifestation of her cosmic power when it seemed like that had already happened previously, or I could further comment on the ridiculousness of those age disparities by pointing out that in the continuity of the films, Magneto would go from looking like Michael Fassbender to Ian McKellan over the course of the next eight years, but those remarks would require viewers to remember 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse” and the original “X-Men” from way back in 2000.
What else is there to say? The effects are morose and uninspired; the actors seem tired of doing this. The sense of fun that animates most of the best X-Men movies is missing, and the melancholy tone has nothing very interesting to convey.
Disney’s acquisition of Fox is undeniably a bad thing for the entertainment industry as a whole, a virtual guarantee of the further homogenization of film and the elimination of unique and independent voices. And yet, perhaps, for this X-Men franchise, the buyout is a good thing. Whether the acquisition happened or not, finances have decreed that we’re going to get X-Men movies for the foreseeable future.
The current movies, while boasting some very bright spots, have grown long in the tooth, and a third of the films in the series were directed by Bryan Singer, a man who faces several credible counts of sexually assaulting minors. Soon, a rebooted version of the X-Men will appear in the Disney-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe, where they’ll likely fight side-by-side with the likes of Thor or Spider-Man.
After watching “Dark Phoenix,” it’s hard not to think that maybe that’s for the best.