Before we get too hung up on this being an ending to the Fox iteration of the X-Men Marvel sub-franchise, it’s worth remembering that there’s a still-unfinished New Mutants movie in distribution limbo out there and Deadpool 3 remains almost inevitable … and the Disney-Fox merger (Crisis on Infinite Earths for people who read Variety for the business news) makes it likely that these exploitable properties will be folded into the expansionist Marvel Cinematic Universe in the long run. There’s also been an archly elegiac wind-up to the whole saga in Logan, which was originally envisioned as being set in the X-Men The Last Stand timeline wiped out by X-Men Days of Future Past, so that this second stab at comics writer Chris Claremont’s Dark Phoenix Saga can’t really blow up the train set and put all the toys back in the box (though a scene very like that does provide the climax).
It’s appropriate to the eternal recurrence of plot and tragic flaw that this is the second time Bryan Singer has teed up the Jean Grey story only to absent himself from the director’s chair. Last time, Bret Ratner got the gig and made a hash of it. Now screenwriter Simon Kinberg, who has been with the series since (um) X-Men The Last Stand, gets to make his big-screen directorial debut. Few superhero movies match Singer’s superpower set-pieces (Nightcrawler’s White House raid and Magneto’s prison escape in X2, Quicksilver’s mastery of speed in X-Men Days of Future Past and X-Men Apocalypse) and Kinberg doesn’t equal that flair, though his big action sequences here aren’t simple thump-fests. The underlying point of this story is that good guys fighting bad guys is comforting, but the case of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) blurs the lines disturbingly, with no one coming out well (or, in some key cases, alive). The first entirely Wolverine-free X-Men film, this also makes a Christopher Nolan-like decision to cut out the comedy elements, and even the little moments of wryness that serve to embed the previous wild fantasies in a recognisable real world.
After a 1975 prologue that could serve as a superhero or a supervillain origin, the film picks up in 1992 and a coherent X-Men line-up in matching uniforms performing a space shuttle rescue. For once, Xavier (James McAvoy) seems to have his ideal world where mutants aren’t hated and feared. The President has a Bat-phone style direct link to the X-Mansion, kids have Mystique action figures, and Xavier – borrowing a trick from Reed Richards – has positioned potentially frightening, uncontrollable creatures as benevolent by dressing them up as superheroes. Of course, the arc of the film means that this isn’t going to last. When Jean is invaded by a cosmic force and has her powers amped up to a world-changing/ending degree, she starts learning more about how she has been manipulated … and does some serious damage to the carried-over cast (almost casually, she slaps the speedy smugness out of Evan Peters’ Quicksilver) before visiting Magneto (Michael Fassbender) for advice on how to stop being a supervillain. A few of the tics that derailed The Last Stand recur, such as surrounding Magneto with a bunch of undercharacterised, tattooed mutant goons in leather, and that’s before an evil alien shows up and adopts the form of Jessica Chastain to seek out the Phoenix for her own evil alien ends. Key players Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and the Beast (Nicholas Hoult) get fairly minor roles, significant as the grumpy survivors of big bald head Xavier’s First Class – but that might be to do with career arcs that mean the stars are now impatient with all the blue make-up and fur.
Kinberg delivers decent (if slightly undercooked) drama, but this is another superhero film in which the heroes’ internal squabbles require an overqualified guest star to seethe as a big bad who expedites in-process conflicts rather than functioning as a real antagonist. It’s been an X-movie tradition to pull out all the stops for a climax on the public stage, with the world watching – but here titanic forces are unleashed in a secluded area, first on a prison train that feels a lot like the one in Deadpool 2 and then in nondescript woods. The battle allows all the key players – including Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) – moments of heroism and heartbreak (invading aliens serve as zombie goons for a little Train to Busan action), but fittingly everyone stands down for a finale that depends on Turner’s internal struggle. She’s fine, but it’s just a lightshow – and the film’s already had one in a cameo for that most endearingly daffy disco era Marvel mutant Dazzler (Halston Sage). Rather than tease any future developments, the film chooses to end with a scene that references both X-Men The Last Stand and The Dark Knight Rises.