It didn’t have to end this way — in such thoroughly standard smash ‘em up fashion, with minor heroes dutifully duking it out with faceless hordes for punchy-power bolt minute after punchy-power-bolt minute until the mayhem quotient has been met and the principals can finally square off for their climactic lightshow. It didn’t have to end with so little emotion, so little meaning — with a sad little speech about evolving, for Phoenix’s sake. It didn’t have to, because a fair chunk of writer-director Simon Kinberg’s take on one of the more famous storylines in Marvel Comics’ history plays less like a superhero movie and more like a small-scale, humanly significant trauma drama. Except the trauma victim will maybe destroy the world if she can’t cope.
We open, a la Shazam!, with a little kid in the backseat of a car who inadvertently causes a frightening, slo-mo, psyche-scarring crash. Except this little kid has mutant superpowers, and so gets scooped up in the protective arms of Charles Xavier and taken into the X-Men family. But there are lots of ways to screw up as a parent (surprise, surprise, it’s Xavier who gets the movie’s real emotional arc), especially when you’re trying to make the world a safe place for your kid through an unending PR campaign of heroic do-goodery. That part of the story was surprisingly thoughtful and engaging — almost tragic, even. But it seems it wasn’t explodey enough, fighty enough, actiony enough for a supermovie. Because what do you know: here comes the alien invasion, and the save-the-world stakes, and the sad sameness of fulfilled expectations.