X-Men: Dark Phoenix review -- Jean Grey rises in uneven last mutant blast

Spoiler-free: After a shaky opening, Sophie Turner's fiery villain takes us on a wild ride to complete an era of adventures.

Sean Keane Former Senior Writer
Sean knows far too much about Marvel, DC and Star Wars, and poured this knowledge into recaps and explainers on CNET. He also worked on breaking news, with a passion for tech, video game and culture.
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Sean Keane
4 min read
20th Century Fox

Setting the new movie X-Men: Dark Phoenix in 1992 is a bold move.

In real life, this was when the X-Men reigned as the most popular superhero team on the planet. The first issue of the revamped X-Men comic sold over 8 million copies -- the top-selling single issue of all time -- and the animated series brought the mutant adventures to an even wider audience.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix is the 12th big-screen outing for the X-Men. It's also the series' second shot at adapting the classic Dark Phoenix storyline from the comics, after 2006's abysmal X-Men: The Last Stand made a mess of it. So there's a lot riding on first-time director Simon Kinberg as he tells the tale of psychic superhero Jean Grey, played this time by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix rises in the UK on June 5, then burns its way to Australia on June 6 and the US on June 7.


Mutants deal with fiery threats in X-Men: Dark Phoenix.

20th Century Fox

In the 1992 of the movie, art imitates life as we find the X-Men are superstars -- an odd contrast to the mutants' usual "hated and feared" status quo. It's not all rosy though. Rubbing shoulders with presidents, X-Men founder Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is letting his newfound popularity go to his shiny head.

To kick things off, Xavier sends his superteam on a rescue mission in space, giving us a thrilling action sequence where our heroes' personalities and powers shine through. Jean, however, gets infected with cosmic energy after a close encounter with a solar flare.

Watch this: Final X-Men: Dark Phoenix trailer

It has a pretty sweet poster too.

20th Century Fox

The space action is visually spectacular, but early scenes don't really click. The rift between Xavier and team leader Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) isn't entirely convincing. The opening doesn't drive enough of a wedge between them, so the tension feels unearned. Lawrence's slightly bored performance doesn't help matters either.

Thankfully, the movie finds its groove when Jean's cosmically enhanced powers and revelations about her past create havoc for the team. Turner brings Jean on a fascinating emotional journey, infusing her with vulnerability, power and an increasing aura of danger. The fiery Phoenix effect around her eyes is pretty cool too.

Her inner conflict is mirrored by that of Xavier, whose unethical use of his telepathic powers catches up to him, and that of the once-militant Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who has found peace in the years since the weak X-Men: Apocalypse.

The scenes Jean shares with these two are pretty electric. Kinberg wisely keeps her struggle the emotional focus, so each encounter has a distinct sense of drama and conflict. There's also clever use of shadow on Jean and Magneto as the camera jumps back and forth between them, hinting at the sins they've committed and the destruction each could bring upon the world (even though Jean is way more powerful).


Jessica Chastain's character tempts an unstable Jean.

20th Century Fox

The other major force lurking in the shadows is a new threat (Jessica Chastain) who's trying to manipulate Jean for her own mysterious ends. Casting Chastain was an inspired choice; her natural gravitas and charisma makes an underdeveloped character feel like a primal threat.

With these four characters dominating the movie, the rest of the team feels short-changed. Beast (Nicholas Hoult) has the most engaging secondary arc as he reacts to Xavier's hubris. But Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, Quicksilver and Magneto's forgettable hench mutants don't get much to do beyond using their abilities to back up the leads.

Watch this: X-Men: Dark Phoenix: A Jean Grey history lesson

Luckily, there are enough exciting action sequences to showcase those cool powers, including an incendiary third act that will have you emotionally invested all the way. Characters' shifting alliances keep you guessing -- the morally ambiguous Magneto always feels like a tantalizing wildcard thanks to Fassbender's electric performance. And the shifting locations from the city streets to a speeding train mean you'll never get bored. It all builds smoothly to an epic but personal crescendo.

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It's a pity the movie doesn't lean into its '90s setting like Captain Marvel or take the time to have a little more fun the way Avengers: Endgame did. Hans Zimmer's enthralling score mixes synths and classical elements for a little retro sci-fi flavor, while clever references to the past 19 years of X-movies and a subtle nod to the Marvel Cinematic Universe will delight eagle-eyed fans.

But Dark Phoenix is a pretty intense film throughout. It focuses on Jean Grey's weighty journey from wide-eyed adventurer to fiery destroyer -- and does so more convincingly than Game of Thrones did with a certain character in its final season.

Now that Disney has bought Fox, Dark Phoenix may be the last X-Men movie in this series. Regardless of whether or when Disney decides to raise this superteam from the ashes, Dark Phoenix at least ends this era of Marvel's merry mutants with a bang.

Originally published June 4. Check out our sister sites GameSpot and Comicbook.com for more Dark Phoenix reviews.