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.
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.