Despite an early brush with executive action - rescuing a brace of astronauts from their own interstellar incompetence - X-Men: Dark Phoenix's mutant teenagers are allowed to explore their relationship with superheroics from an emotionally human perspective. Conflict is treated as scary; violence its own kind of metamorphosis, forcing these children to confront aspects of their identity activated by some unknowable hereditary vandalism. Writer-director Simon Kinberg grounds his characters in a fragile world, not at all equipped to deal with the power proposed by mutant kind.
These X-Men aren't soldiers, or even experts, they are aberrations, not in the sense that they are warped or inferior to the people around them, rather they are a terrifying evolutionary leap. A caste of distinct individuals who, when not safely tucked away in their compounds, must bow and scrape so as not to upset the apple cart. This proposition is magnified in Dark Phoenix thanks to James McAvoy's pointedly useless Professor Xavier. It's an idea that Kinberg toyed with in his screenplay for the basically dire X-Men: The Last Stand, the all-seeing headmaster shown to be not just flawed but actively insidious, an egomaniac who has caused untold damage to one of his young students by actively burying her emerging, psyche-splitting abilities.
Shakespearean barker Patrick Stewart was not the best way to communicate this take, especially coming off two films in which he had been presented in patient, regal terms. McAvoy's Professor X is an entirely different proposition though, introduced in X-Men: First Class as a groovy pub tosser cracking on to any woman in sight. This Professor X has slowly, naturally, transformed into a starfucker, shilling for an elevated position within the kingdom of America. In Dark Phoenix he's made it, enjoying a presidential hotline in his headmaster's office while the school's graduates are discussed in flattering asides that contextualise their current relationship with the public as one-part celebrity to two-parts Thunderbirds.
By making Professor X so consistently unreliable and self-serving, Kinberg denies the film's mutants a credible sense of foundation. They are each adrift, having to count on the connections they have made themselves to navigate the constantly changing expectations thrust upon them. These ideas inform and contextualise Sophie Turner's Jean Grey, a pleasant but dull young woman who suddenly inherits incredible cosmic powers. Indeed the film is built around this character and Turner's limited but likeable performance - the capricious, indecisive nature of youth blown up to body warping proportions. Despite a body count, Grey never truly becomes evil. Her one brush with sadism is even somewhat justified - scooping up and puppeteering Xavier's unresponsive body; a cruel literalisation of the emotional and psychological manipulation the Professor has heaped on this child.
Dark Phoenix's main problems are structural, Kinberg is reaching for a 90s character action piece but he's stuck with the expectation of explosive, superhero noise. We should spend a little longer simmering with the changing Grey, experiencing moments that underline not just the toll this power is taking but how her newly acquired Godhood upsets her basic sense of self. The detailing isn't quite there and Turner's nice girl interpretation stays firmly within the lines. Still, there's something to be said for banality, especially when dealing with such a young character. Jean Grey isn't Magneto. Therefore her new powers are treated as momentarily intoxicating rather than morally altering. Friends may be pushed and prodded with abandon but when cold, hard reality intrudes the spell is broken.
Kinberg's biggest crime then is that he isn't interested in making a film that adheres to the Marvel template. Characters are allowed to fade into the background. There's no push to massage their roles, to write and rewrite until everybody has something cool or funny to say. Similarly, Dark Phoenix isn't full of dopamine drip confrontations, it wants to unsettle, to invite disquiet. Like X-Men: Apocalypse before it, Kinberg's film does not want to reassure the audience about superpowered beings, in this series their very existence is never treated as anything less than a threat to the rest of mankind. After all, mutants are less our champions and more our evolutionary replacements - do you think Neanderthals cheered on the rise of Homo sapiens?
This ever-present tension is best expressed in the film's deliberately grounded action sequences - the best of which takes place on the edge of Central Park. Kinberg forgoes massive, intricately photographed exchanges, deciding instead to keep the warring mutants at ground level, fighting in and around helpless, bovine civilians. People freeze or flee, forced to dart away from the impossible feats that are exploding around them. Again, we are not soothed - normal people are, at best, irrelevant to these warring mutants. At worst, they're shrapnel. The film's best moment, indeed one of the finest in the whole series, sees Michael Fassbender's Magneto summon up a subway carriage from New York's underground. The action is brilliantly callous, a self-styled Übermensch casually warping the basic rules of civic reality (not to mention placing dozens of commuters in serious danger) just to achieve momentary respite from the flies buzzing around him.