MOVIE REVIEW

'X-Men' mutant Dark Phoenix doesn't start the fire

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I mean, whatever with the "X-Men" movies. It's hard to even rent an opinion on the discrete strengths and weaknesses of a franchise that has devolved to the point of "Dark Phoenix," a lavishly brutal chore nearly as violent as the Wolverine movie "Logan," and a movie featuring more death by impalement and whirling metal than all the "Saw" movies put together. 

When the "Dark Phoenix" action climax disappointed test audiences last year, new scenes were written and filmed, though the prologue remained the same. If there's one superhero trope I can do without, it's the fatal car accident in slow motion as a story-launcher. Two months ago we got one in "Shazam!" Now it's "Dark Phoenix."

Writer-director Simon Kinberg has used words like "traumatic" in interviews to describe his film's tone and themes, and this latest in 19 years' worth of occasionally good "X-Men" pictures. The new one says so-long to certain major players, and Kinberg's dialogue is heavy on reflective boilerplate such as Jennifer Lawrence (in her fourth assignment as Mystique) sighing to her fellow mutant, Beast (Nicholas Hoult): "Maybe it's time for us to move on." Actually, I think that lyric goes "Maybe it's time to let the old ways die."

Either way, "Dark Phoenix" wastes some excellent actors in a showcase for what might be called The Hands-y Acting Recital. The recital is required in digital effects-dependent extravaganzas such as this one, of course, but there are many scenes, for example, such as Michael Fassbender's Magneto and the "Dark Phoenix" protagonist, Jean Grey, played by Sophie Turner of "Game of Thrones," fighting over who's going to telepathically and super-anti-heroically control the fate of a spinning helicopter.

In close-up Turner does this "arrrggggghhh!" thing with her hands, indicating how hard it is to properly handle a compressed digital-effects energy ball or whatever.

Cut to Fassbender, does the same thing with his hands only further apart, as if to say: "Yeah? Well, my energy ball is THIS big!" while the helicopter goes whup-whup-whup and then there's a brief reenactment of the last 'copter out of Saigon in '75 (the "Dark Phoenix" prologue is set in the same year, though mostly it takes place in 1992) and composer Hans Zimmer's music drones on and on and on and on. What if the music never ends?

On the run from her own scary powers of destruction, which she picks up early in "Dark Phoenix" after a space rescue mission places her perilously close to a solar flare, Ms. Grey discovers Magneto in a bucolic commune he manages for stray mutants out of favor. It looks so much like a paintball facility, you keep looking for the paint splotches. Director Kinberg, freely adapting "The Dark Phoenix Saga" by John Byrne, Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum, pays lip service to Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his narcissistic ego. By messing with suddenly orphaned preteen Jean's memories after the auto fatality prologue, he ends up making things worse.

It's nice to hear Lawrence sling a zinger about the male-centric name of her own franchise. And when Jessica Chastain shows up as Vuk, interstellar alien working for the empire known as D'Bari (which boasts an Italian sandwich counter, I hear), the movie briefly stirs some anticipation of a smackdown slightly outside the usual order of business.

But what do we get? We get a film morose and dull, numbing in its body count, and seriously galling in its emphasis on aliens getting shot up with heavy automatic gunfire at close range. They suffer not much, of course, but I can't be the only one watching relentless scenes of intended slaughter in "Dark Phoenix" and thinking, well, I may be done rooting for the species with all the guns.

The lesser "X-Men" movies, and there have been many, have a way of dragging its best players down to a lower level of skill. If you went into "Dark Phoenix" cold, without seeing any previous installments up through "X-Men: Apocalypse" (2016), you'd wonder if Jennifer Lawrence or Nicholas Hoult or Michael Fassbender or James McAvoy are any good, really. It's odd how much more of a smug bastard Xavier is, as played by McAvoy, than in Patrick Stewart's portrayal in earlier "X-Men" chapters.

As for Turner: She holds the screen, and manages various degrees and displays of pain and rage well enough. But coming out of "Dark Phoenix," a lame do-over of the "Apocalypse" movie three years ago, you're reminded that not all superhero franchises are created equal. And once you've used "Apocalypse" as your movie's subtitle, that's it! That should be it. There should be nothing after an apocalypse, just as there should be nothing after an endgame. 

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