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Dark Phoenix Movie Review

Phoenix' Sort of Rises

The season of franchise sequels and prequels is upon us, and this week's CGI extravaganza du jour is "Dark Phoenix," the supposed finale to an era of "X-Men" movies. Directed by Simon Kinberg, who wrote previous installments in the franchise but makes his directorial debut here, "Dark Phoenix" is a mixed bag overall but not without surprising moments of heft and impact.

At the forefront of this film is Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who becomes inhabited with overwhelmingly strong powers on a space mission gone wrong with her X-Men team: Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, "Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse"), Beast (Nicholas Hoult, "Tolkien"), Storm (Alexandra Shipp, "Love, Simon"), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, "Red Sparrow"), Quicksilver (Evan Peters, "American Animals") and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, "Alpha"). When they arrive back to Earth, Jean is unable to control her powers and her new-found strength, which makes her a target for the mysterious Vuk (Jessica Chastain, having the time of her life in an otherwise thankless role). Jean needs saving, so Professor X (James McAvoy, "Glass") and the team set out to bring Jean home before she causes any irreversible destruction. Since all movies of this ilk are about showdowns, Professor X and the X-Men cross paths with Magneto (Michael Fassbender, "The Snowman"), who also tries to find his way to Jean but for very different reasons.

The latest "X-Men" movies have attracted some of our finest actors working today, but it didn't take too long for them to feel aged-out of the series. However, they have had to stick around due to contractual obligations. The previous film in the franchise, "X-Men: Apocalypse" was so bad that it didn't do any of these actors any favors. Everyone seems to be a bit more present this time (Peters and Smit-McPhee's characters barely register and live on the periphery), which makes "Dark Phoenix" a much more engaging experience than the last. Fassbender has some particularly strong moments as Magneto, who is torn between his past and present as much as Turner's Jean. Turner does the best she can with her role, which sometimes operates as a plot device more than a character. Even so, Turner wades through past trauma and present drama effectively, in order to carry the film.

Structurally, "Dark Phoenix" feels like old news, especially in a franchise that reached its expiration date a few movies ago. The movie, as well-paced as it is and mercifully under two hours, hits the beats you would expect, leading up to a cataclysmic finale. The finale is done well and features some strong set pieces (the effects are entirely uneven throughout - sometimes grand, other times terrible) but it all leads to familiar places. Thematically speaking, "Dark Phoenix" offers glimmers of interesting concepts and nuance on the themes involving Jean. It doesn't fully take advantage of diving into the weightier material because its number one priority is delivering an "X-Men" film.

Despite its interesting ideas, "Dark Phoenix" is held back by lacking any purpose or urgency. It feels about as mechanically made as any blockbuster, but fails to capture the sense of finality it wants to sell you on. There are lesser blockbuster movies out right now, so you certainly could do worse than "Dark Phoenix," but your appreciation of this movie rests on your investment in the series. It works in parts, but adjust expectations accordingly.

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