Film

'X-Men: Dark Phoenix' Will Never Rise from the Ashes

Sophie Turner as Jean Grey / Phoenix in X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019) (IMDB)

X-Men: Dark Phoenix, a weak, disappointing film, ends two decades of the groundbreaking X-Men series with a barely audible whimper.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (Kinberg, 2019) is the seventh and final X-Men team film in a series dating back to X-Men (Singer, 2000). Blade (Norrington, 1998), X-Men, and Spider-Man (Raimi, 2002) were three increasingly successful and acclaimed films that jump-started two decades (and counting) of Marvel Films. They directly led to the dominance of superhero films in blockbuster cinema today. X-Men was particularly significant as the first major Marvel adaptation, and for the seriousness and faithfulness with which it approached the source material.

Its sequel, X2: X-Men United (Singer, 2003), laid the blueprint for Marvel sequels and is generally considered superior to the first film. Unfortunately the third team film, X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006), was hampered by studio interference, rushed production, too many plotlines and a misguided attempt to end the series as a trilogy. Written by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn, The Last Stand adapted the classic X-Men comic book story "The Dark Phoenix Saga", but it was mishandled and diminished amongst the other plotlines.

Following that commercially-successful but creatively disastrous installment, the X-Men series first spun-off its most popular character in the dreadful X-Men: Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009), another infamous victim of studio interference. The X-Men team films returned to form with the back-to-basics, '60s-set X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011), which recast key roles with a stellar group of younger, up-and-coming stars.

The series hit its high-point when it combined the original X-Men cast with the younger stars in an excellent time-travel adventure, X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014). This film also reset the timeline, erasing the original trilogy from series continuity. The X-Men series had reached a high, with the Wolverine films growing in quality up to the Oscar-nominated Logan (Mangold, 2017), the Deadpool films becoming the most successful X-Men-related films, and the X-Men team films seemingly back on track.

Little Blue Robot by vinsky2002 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

With the '80s-set X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer, 2016), the X-Men filmmakers reintroduced fan-favourite X-Men characters Cyclops, Storm, Jean Grey, and Nightcrawler as teenagers to carry the series into the future, while also concluding the stories of the First Class characters. Unfortunately, Apocalypse is an utter mess of too many plotlines, too many characters, unclear motivations and zero focus. The film was critically panned and a commercial disappointment. Simon Kinberg, who was first associated with the series when he co-wrote The Last Stand, had since become one of the chief creative visionaries of the series. He had big plans for the next chapter of the X-Men team films. But 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the series, was unhappy with Apocalypse and the older cast was no longer under contract for X-Men films. So the future seemed uncertain.

Despite the uncertainty, Kinberg wrote the screenplays for the next two X-Men films, to be titled Phoenix and Dark Phoenix, which he hoped to also direct. In X-Men #101 (October 1976), by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum, Jean Grey uses her telekinetic powers to rescue her fellow X-Men and safely crash a space shuttle that was damaged by a solar flare. Jean is presumed dead, but emerges more powerful than ever, having absorbed the cosmic Phoenix Force. Over the next two dozen issues, Jean and the X-Men accept her newly increased powers. But then the nefarious Hellfire Club, an elitist group of mutants, begin to secretly tamper with Jean's mind in the hopes of recruiting her.

"The Dark Phoenix Saga" by Claremont and John Byrne runs through X-Men #129-138 (January-October 1980). Over the course of that story, Jean is corrupted by the Hellfire Club and saved by the X-Men. But the Hellfire Club's manipulations cause the Phoenix Force to fully take over Jean's mind. Overwhelmed by her seemingly boundless power, Jean flies into space and destroys another solar system on a whim. This draws the attention of the alien Shi'ar Empire, who call for Jean's execution to pay for the countless beings she killed. The X-Men fight on her behalf but Jean regains control of herself long enough to take her own life. This storyline is not only considered the greatest X-Men story, but one of the greatest superhero comic book stories of all time.

These superlatives made the story tempting to Kinberg. He wrote a deeply flawed adaptation in The Last Stand but, having rebooted the continuity in Days of Future Past, he saw an opportunity to tell the story properly. He planned to depict Jean's transformation into the all-powerful Phoenix in his triumphant first film (Phoenix), then depict her downfall in the tragic second film (Dark Phoenix). In telling these stories, Kinberg would shift the focus onto the younger mutants who were introduced in Apocalypse.

The X-Men films have traditionally been fairly grounded and Earth-bound, even as other superhero films (particularly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe / MCU) have grown more cosmic and outrageous in their storytelling. Kinberg's approach would include cosmic elements, such as the shuttle rescue, the cosmic Phoenix Force, and the Shi'ar Empire, but would approach these elements in a more grounded, psychological way inspired by the likes of Logan. This may have made the Phoenix films an interesting counterpoint to the other contemporary superhero films.

Unfortunately, Kinberg's plan would not come to fruition. Fox was very unhappy with the outcome of Apocalypse, and they cancelled Kinberg's second film. He collapsed his two-film plan into one, forcing him to cover Jean's total Phoenix arc in half the time. The Hellfire Club was changed to alien Skrulls and then to another alien race, the D'Bari, but they retained elements of each incarnation. Jessica Chastain was cast as a villain in the film, but her role changed multiple times as the screenplay was reworked. The film discarded most of the cosmic, space-set elements from the second planned film, but retained most of Jean's second-film emotional arc.

Without the cosmic finalè the film lost much of the pizzazz expected from a superhero blockbuster. And without sufficient setup for her character and powers, Jean's emotional struggle threatened to feel hollow. Dark Phoenix, as the single film would be called, was clearly in turmoil. Ideally, Fox would have provided time for Kinberg to rework the screenplay or even change the story he chose to tell, but the studio was notorious for pressing ahead with plans and release dates despite production problems.

Dark Phoenix was filmed from June to October 2017. That October 2017 end-date is significant for a number of reasons. First of all, Dark Phoenix was originally scheduled for release in November 2018, over a year after production ended. This is a much longer post-production period than normal. With that extra time, production presumably could have been postponed in favour of a longer pre-production to allow Kinberg to properly adjust the screenplay. Instead, he was required to piece together a satisfying film after filming was complete, in post-production, which is much more difficult than fixing the screenplay beforehand.

The studio's rush to enter production looks even more foolish in retrospect, since Dark Phoenix was ultimately delayed until June 2019, a full 20 months after filming ended. Production ending in October 2017 is also significant because rumours began to spread in November 2017 that the Walt Disney Company was investigating the acquisition of 20th Century Fox. Some fans like to blame Disney for the failure of Dark Phoenix, claiming they meddled with the production, but the film was shot before the earliest rumours of the acquisition. Nervous Fox executives altered Kinberg's plan and did not allow him time to adjust, Disney was uninvolved.

Reshoots occurred in the summer of 2018, focusing primarily on drastically changing the third act climax. Kinberg was initially inspired by the structure of Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016), in which the enormous action climax occurs at the end of the second act and the third act resolves in a much more intimate conflict between three characters. Dark Phoenix originally ended with three heroes taking on one villain in a battle set in space, resulting in Jean's death. Test audiences responded poorly to Jean's death and Fox executives believed that audiences would prefer to see the whole X-Men team participate in the climactic battle. So the ending became a larger-scale battle set on Earth, and Jean seemingly survives at the end.

There's no way to know if Kinberg's original two-film idea for the Phoenix story would have resulted in good films. He certainly doesn't have the benefit of the doubt, given that he wrote X-Men: The Last Stand and was a first-time director. But at least his initial idea was unique and ambitious, as opposed to the bland, clearly-compromised film that was ultimately produced. It seems unlikely that the original plan would be any worse than the final film.

The scale of the reshoots necessitated release rescheduling to February 2019. Then, to make room for Alita: Battle Angel (Rodriguez, 2019), Dark Phoenix's release was pushed to June 2019. And here is where Disney's acquisition of 20th Century Fox became a factor in the film's failure. The acquisition occurred in late-March 2019. As it approached, many Fox employees were laid off as the studios prepared to merge key departments. One such department was marketing, which suffered severe layoffs. As such, Fox was understaffed and unable to effectively promote the final few Fox films.

When Dark Phoenix became a Disney property in the acquisition, the Disney marketing department took control of promoting the film. Some fans will argue that Disney traditionally viewed the X-Men films as competition to the MCU and purposely buried the marketing of Dark Phoenix, but that doesn't make sense. This was now Disney's film, which stood to profit from its success. What's more likely is that the Disney marketing department was ill-prepared to take on promotion of the film, and it was lost in the shuffle two months before release.

Poor marketing is certainly a factor in the abysmal failure of Dark Phoenix. It earned just $66 million at the North American box office and $252 million worldwide. When factoring in share of the grosses against production and marketing costs, some have estimated that Dark Phoenix lost $133 million. This led the likes of Deadline to proclaim Dark Phoenix the biggest box office bomb of 2019. It takes more than poor marketing to contribute to such a commercial failure, however. The multiple date changes confused audiences, and the bold decision to not include 'X-Men' in the title likely didn't help. Disney reversed that decision for its post-theatrical releases.

The date changes also caused Dark Phoenix to be released after Captain Marvel (Boden and Fleck, 2019) and Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers, 2019), two massively successful MCU films to which Dark Phoenix was unfavourably compared. The marketing ultimately presented it as an 'end of an era' X-Men film, similar to the marketing for Endgame. But audience interest in another X-Men film was quite low following the disappointment of X-Men: Apocalypse. It seems the appetite for the X-Men was gone, and could only be revived by a great or surprising film.

But Dark Phoenix is neither great nor surprising, which is the root of its overall failure. A strong film could have cut through the date changes, poor marketing, and the shadow of larger blockbusters to find an audience. At best, Dark Phoenix is like any other X-Men team film, but slower, more serious, and less exciting. At worst, its failed attempt at psychological depth results in a dull, monotonous bore. Not all superhero films need to be fun, flashy, action-packed spectacles. But if a superhero film subverts these expectations, it had better make up for their absence with strong characters, emotional investment, or drama.

Dark Phoenix presents Jean's arc as a metaphor for repressed childhood trauma resulting in substance abuse and alienating loved ones. Over the course of the film, her X-Men family convinces her of their love and support. That's a complex, emotionally-rich arc for a superhero film, but it fails to land because the film fails to emotionally invest viewers enough in Jean. Thus, her struggles never feel credible. Maybe this approach would have worked across two films, or maybe it was doomed from the start.

Dark Phoenix opens with narration from Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) rather than Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), which is traditional. This establishes Jean as the central character of the film. The opening scenes depict eight-year-old Jean (Summer Fontana) in 1975. She argues with her parents in their car over the choice of radio station. Jean uses her nascent mutant abilities to telekinetically change the station and make her mother, who is driving, fall asleep, resulting in a fatal crash. She's later approached by Xavier in the hospital. Jean fears her powers and believes herself to be broken. Xavier warmly insists that she can use her powers to do good or bad, and that she's not broken. He invites her to his school.

(IMDB)

Seventeen years later, in 1992, a space shuttle is crippled in orbit by a solar flare and the US President calls Xavier for help. This is a situation never before seen in an X-Men film: the mutant superheroes are publicly known and trusted. The X-Men, consisting of Jean, Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and led by Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), immediately springs into action. They fly into space, work together with their powers, and save nearly every astronaut on the shuttle as a strange cloud of cosmic energy approaches.

When they realize they forgot one astronaut, Raven attempts to leave but Xavier insists they rescue him. Kurt teleports Jean to the shuttle to hold it together while he saves the last person. But the energy cloud arrives. Jean telekinetically keeps the cloud from her team by absorbing it into herself. Somehow she survives the ordeal, and Kurt rescues her. These scenes are all top-notch, hinting at the potential greatness of a Phoenix film in which Jean didn't immediately become the Dark Phoenix. It's the high-point of the film, and it's just ten minutes in.

As the film progresses, it's partly hampered by Kinberg's insistence on giving the older cast a spotlight. After the opening, Peter, Kurt, and Ororo are mostly sidelined, limited to the background or isolated action beats. Scott and Jean are living together, but there's precious little time to explore their relationship before things go bad. Meanwhile, the focus is pulled to Xavier, Raven, Hank and, later Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Raven accuses Xavier of caring more about his notoriety and his accolades than the safety of the team, and she wonders if she and Hank should quit. (The answer is yes, so that the younger cast can finally take the spotlight.) Xavier, meanwhile, is trying to appreciate a world in which mutants aren't feared by regular humans while he can, as one bad mutant could easily tip that balance. Again, a whole film to explore this status quo would have been wonderful.

Jean, meanwhile, feels terrific and the cloud has increased her power. But later, at a party, she has post-traumatic flashes of the shuttle mission and lashes out uncontrollably. She later apologizes to Scott, who received some cuts and bruises, like an alcoholic who realizes that she hit her partner while in a blackout. This is the beginning of Jean's emotional arc. The extra power makes her black out, lose control, and she runs from her friends and family out of shame and a fear of hurting them. She also discovers that Xavier telepathically tampered with her memories when she was a child. Her father (Scott Shepherd) didn't die in the 1975 crash as Xavier led her to believe, so Jean goes in search of him.

This begins a half-hearted attempt to portray Xavier as the villain. Kinberg took a similar approach in The Last Stand, where it's revealed that Xavier secretly attempted to limit Jean's extraordinary powers. In Dark Phoenix, Xavier's villainy never feels believable and the film never fully commits to it. It's gradually revealed that Jean's father believed she was irredeemable after the crash that killed her mother, and he begged Xavier to take her away. Xavier hid this from Jean to spare her feelings. This is a definite violation of Jean's trust, but Xavier clearly did it with her best interests in mind. The ramifications of Xavier's actions, however, push Jean away and cause the X-Men to question him. But the film never really sells the betrayal strongly enough to convince viewers that Xavier is a bad person. As a result, Jean's actions are too extreme and the endless scenes of the other characters questioning Xavier's actions are a waste of time. None of this is credible.

Dark Phoenix loses further credibility with Kinberg's baffling decision to set the film in 1992. For context, X-Men: First Class introduced McAvoy, Lawrence, Fassbender, and Hoult to the series and it took place in 1962. X-Men: Days of Future Past continued this story and took place primarily in 1973, a large but reasonable time jump. Both films also made full use of the geopolitics of 1962 and 1973, respectively, justifying the settings.

By contrast, X-Men: Apocalypse is set in 1983 for no particular reason and the filmmakers make no effort to appropriately age the main cast members. This choice establishes that each X-Men film will jump a decade, and that any justification for the time-jump or aging of the characters is unnecessary. Apocalypse introduced Turner, Sheridan, Shipp and Smit-McPhee as, roughly, 16-year-olds. Dark Phoenix then takes place in 1992, but the older characters appear approximately seven years older than they did in X-Men: First Class, not 30 years older. The younger cast, meanwhile, are now playing, roughly, 25-year-olds.

The older characters are called upon to convey decades worth of regret and mistakes, but they appear to be much younger than they should. Forty year-old Fassbender, for example, plays a man who survived the Holocaust as a teen 50 years earlier. Meanwhile, Jean's arc is a coming-of-age story, learning she was abandoned by her biological father and lied to by her adoptive father, that would work much better for a character in her late-teens. The jump to 1992 profoundly undermines all the characters, and it provides no benefit to the film.

Jean is confronted by the X-Men outside her father's house. She loses control of her powers, fights her friends and the police with ease, and impales Raven on a piece of wood. Jean is horrified and runs, while the X-Men return home to mourn Raven and question Xavier. Jean seeks advice from Erik, who has been granted a small island by the US government to create a haven for mutants. This is despite him attempting to assassinate the President in 1973 and nearly destroying the world (and likely killing millions) in 1983.

Jean asks how Erik was able to find peace and stop killing people. Before he can answer, the military arrives looking for Jean and Erik has to defend them from her. Later, Hank informs Erik that Jean killed Raven, and Erik vows to kill Jean. These scenes further highlight the older cast members, while also isolating Jean. This is where self-seriousness overwhelms everything. Dark Phoenix becomes nothing but one sullen conversation after another with the characters having either underdeveloped or unbelievable motivations.

Meanwhile, the D'Bari aliens, led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain), are lurking in the background. Their home planet was destroyed by the cosmic energy that Jean absorbed, and they hope to use it to remake their world. They manipulate Jean like the Hellfire Club in the comics, and they shapeshift like the Skrull aliens in the comics. Finally, after many slow-paced conversations, the second act culminates at the D'Bari's base in Manhattan. Hank and Erik arrive to kill Jean, while Xavier and the X-Men arrive to save her. They all fight with the D'Bari while Vuk uses the battle as proof that Jean has no friends or family left. When Xavier reveals the full truth about Jean's father, Jean breaks down and offers her power to Vuk.

She's interrupted by the arrival of the military. Jean passes out, the mutants are captured, depowered, and placed on a train by the Mutant Control Unit, or MCU. This is possibly a not-so-subtle reference to the MCU imminently taking control of the X-Men through the Disney-Fox merger.

Vuk and the D'Bari attack the train, wanting to acquire the rest of Jean's power. Despite all she has done, the X-Men and Erik defend her while Xavier telepathically apologizes to Jean. Jean forgives Xavier and realizes that the X-Men are her new family. Again, the film never makes Xavier seem bad enough for viewers to doubt him, while Jean has killed people. Her climatically apologizing to Xavier should be the triumphant resolution to her emotional arc, but it was never credible enough for viewers to care. The realization that the X-Men are her true family is cliché. Jean realizes she must defend her family. She crashes the train while protecting them in telekinetic bubbles. She then gives her power to Vuk, knowing it will overwhelm and kill her. As this happens, Vuk claims that Jean's emotions make her weak, but Jean replies that they make her strong.

Firstly, this is another horrible cliché. Secondly, nothing in the film has indicated that Jean's emotions are the problem. Thirdly, the idea of emotions being the source of strength for a female superhero was done, and done much better, in Captain Marvel just three months earlier. All of this makes Dark Phoenix fall horribly flat in the climax. That this is the climax that was created in reshoots, meaning it's the studio's preferred version, seems to indicate that Dark Phoenix was not working. If this was the better option, then the film never had a good ending.

Jean flies herself and Vuk into the sky to explode. After, Hank becomes headmaster of Xavier's school, which is renamed for Jean. The film ends with Erik approaching a now-retired Xavier for a game of chess and a promise of peace, while a fiery bird is seen flying overhead.

And thus, Dark Phoenix ends the seven-film X-Men team series on a horribly disappointing note. Kinberg attempted to create a less flashy, more psychologically dramatic X-Men film, but he failed. The characters are not developed enough for viewers to care about their emotional struggles, and their motivations are not believable. The younger X-Men cast is not given a chance to shine as the older cast is given precedence. But the older cast is not allowed a satisfying conclusion to their arcs, as they kept being dragged along, film-after-film, for no real purpose.

Although the marketing branded this film's story as the end of an era, Dark Phoenix is not the gratifying conclusion and curtain call that audiences experienced in Avengers: Endgame. Then again, it was never planned as such. When the film was in production there was every reason to believe there would be future X-Men films provided Dark Phoenix was moderately successful.

And so Dark Phoenix was horribly unsuccessful, the biggest box office bomb of 2019. Furthermore, when Disney acquired 20th Century Fox, it also acquired the cinematic rights to the X-Men characters -- something that eluded Marvel Studios up to that point. Without a doubt, the next time the X-Men are depicted on screen it will be as part of the MCU. But no plans have been announced by Marvel Studios yet.

X-Men: Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix were such a toxic one-two punch to the reputation of X-Men films that Marvel will likely delay introducing a new version until the public has had time to forget them. Dark Phoenix is a missed opportunity all around. Kinberg's ambitious plans were scuttled, the talented young cast was underserved, the film failed to convey credible dramatic depth, and its prospects were further damaged by poor marketing.

Dark Phoenix might be the most bumbling, mishandled Marvel Film ever produced. Then again, the actual final Fox-produced mutant film, New Mutants (Boone, 2020), was filmed in 2017 for an early-2018 release. After five release date changes it looks like it will finally be released in late-August 2020, amid the Covid-19 pandemic. So maybe that film will lay claim to the most-mishandled Marvel Film crown. That would be the first bit of good luck Dark Phoenix ever experienced.

***

Stan Lee Cameo Corner: Stan Lee's final cameo was in Avengers: Endgame, so this section will no longer appear in my articles.

Credits Scene(s): This was the end of the road for the X-Men, so no credits scenes.

First Appearances: Some of the newer actors here may appear in future Marvel films, but that remains to be seen.

Next Time: Spider-Man returns to provide a jaunty epilogue to the MCU so far.

***

Work Cited: D'Alessandro, Anthony. "The Biggest Box Office Bombs of 2019: Deadline's Most Valuable Blockbuster Tournament". Deadline.com. 27 April 2020.



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