X-Men: Dark Phoenix

 

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The thinking man’s superhero franchise bows out with a meditative, moving finale.

 

X-Men: Dark Phoenix
Looking a gift-horse in the mouth? Summer Fontana and James McAvoy

 

The X-Men films have always proved to be the top end of the superhero market – the Waitrose of the Marvel selection. Besides the high calibre of the actors involved, the overriding themes of diversity and discrimination have seemed more relevant and resonant to our times. The essence of the new film, the seventh in the series, is encapsulated at the start when the wheelchair-bound Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) hands the eight-year-old Jean Grey (Summer Fontana) a pen. It is a gift, he tells her. She can choose to either create a beautiful picture with it, or to stab someone in the eye. It’s up to her. Each mutant at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters is endowed with his or her gift – or superpower – and can use it to help keep the world a safer, better place. Likewise, young Jean is “special,” but has inadvertently caused the fatal car crash that has robbed her of her parents. “Special,” though, she points out, is nothing more than a nice word for “weird or crazy.” Or “amazing” Xavier suggests.

 

Following a mission into space to save the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour, Jean – now a grown woman (Sophie Turner) – is enveloped by a solar flare. She is almost killed, but somehow manages to absorb all the energy of the flare to augment her own powers of telekinesis, levitation and mind reading. At first, back on earth, she seems just the same, but when she is monitored by in-house geek Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), her powers appear to be off the chart. In fact, she is just the energy source that a race of endangered shape-shifting aliens need in order to abet their survival…

 

Without getting too precious or PC about it, the X-Men franchise is the only one with a wheelchair-bound superhero at its core. And just as each mutant possesses untold powers, so they are also vulnerable and work together as a united force to pull off their altruistic acts. Yet, because they are “different,” they are still looked on with suspicion by the military, whose default action is to restrain and incarcerate them.

 

Unlike most of Hollywood’s CGI-heavy and rambunctious superhero movies, Dark Phoenix is a more meditative affair. Its pacing is more measured and when the fighting, inevitably, breaks out, it is less of the wham-bang variety, but an intricate display of differing skills and strengths. As always, James McAvoy provides a sympathetic centre – even while his character is struggling with issues of egotism and guilt – and Jessica Chastain has never appeared more ethereal as the extraterrestrial antagonist. Another asset is the composer Hans Zimmer, whose scores have a way of becoming part and parcel of the films’ DNA, rather than something tacked on as an intrusive afterthought. And Lee Smith’s elegant editing subtly builds the suspense, providing a slow-burn, emotional finale. The franchise continues next April with The New Mutants.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Jessica Chastain, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Scott Shepherd, Ato Essandoh, Brian d'Arcy James, Halston Sage, Lamar Johnson, Summer Fontana, Hannah Anderson.

 

Dir Simon Kinberg, Pro Simon Kinberg, Hutch Parker and Lauren Shuler Donner, Screenplay Simon Kinberg, Ph Mauro Fiore, Pro Des Claude Paré, Ed Lee Smith, Music Hans Zimmer, Costumes Daniel Orlandi.

 

20th Century Fox/The Donners' Company/Marvel Entertainment/TSG Entertainment-20th Century Fox.

113 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 5 June 2019. Cert. 12A.