The Dark Phoenix Saga is widely considered the greatest X-Men story of all-time, and when you’ve got a franchise with the likes of Days of Future Past, God Loves Man Kills, E-For Extinction and Joss Whedon’s very entertaining Astonishing X-Men run, that’s saying a lot. Yet despite how multiple animated TV shows have adapted the story quite well, the movies can’t seem to understand why the Dark Phoenix Saga is so great. X-Men: The Last Stand completely wasted it by shoving it into a one and a half hour movie, along with multiple other major story arcs. X-Men: Apocalypse added in the phoenix force at the end with no context, turning the greatest X-Men story of all-time into a blatant deus ex machina. But let’s see how 20th Century Fox’s latest attempt pans out.
For those of you who are new and might be confused about this being post #13 when there have only been 12 theatrically released X-Men movies, I actually started this blogathon with Fox’s live action made-for-tv Generation X.
When Disney started making moves to buy Fox, there were a lot of rumors that surrounded the cinematic X-Men universe. It’s still kind of hard to tell exactly what’s going on, beyond that they plan on releasing all of the X-Men movies already filmed, but anything else probably won’t ever get made. We also pretty much know for sure that the X-Men won’t be involved in the MCU phase 4. Dark Phoenix itself went through multiple title changes, from its original X-Men: Supernova, to X-Men: Dark Phoenix, and eventually its final title.
When X-Men: Days of Future Past retconned pretty much the entire franchise, long-time series producer Simon Kinberg decided that they could re-attempt the Dark Phoenix Saga, ignoring everything that happened in The Last Stand. That is a good starting point. At the time, it was also rumored that Kinberg would make his directorial debut with Dark Phoenix, rumors that would eventually become true. He made it clear from the start that this adaptation would be very different from The Last Stand.
The original plan was to make Dark Phoenix a two-parter, which if done well, could have probably made this a much better movie. But when the deal loomed between Disney and Fox, they quickly decided to condense it into one. There were also rumors that the Shi’ar empire would be featured in the film on some level, and that Angelina Jolie was being considered for one of the alien roles, even though she wasn’t expected to accept the role. Jessica Chastain was also considered for the role, and around the time she accepted, it was confirmed that Kinberg would direct, and that James MCavoy (Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender (Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique) and Nicholas Holt (Beast) all agreed to re-appear despite their initial contracts ending with Apocalypse.
After Kinberg took the directing seat, he quickly decided he wanted the costumes to be much closer to their comic counterparts. This is something he wanted for a while as the producer, but the directors had other ideas. There were other aspects of the early pre-production news that made it sound like Dark Phoenix could actually be good, but then the delays started happening. The original release date was March of 2018. After a mediocre test screening, they went into reshoots. However the originally planned 2 weeks of reshoots extended up to five months. Part of the delay was due to scheduling conflicts for different members of the cast, making it difficult to get them all together at once. After the first trailer finally released in September, they once again delayed the film to June of 2019. Although I buy their reasoning that June would be a better time to release the movie for the international market, it didn’t help the perception that the movie would be terrible.
As for the film itself, well … I wouldn’t go so far as to call it terrible. There are aspects of the film that work very well. Sophie Turner’s performance as Jean Grey is fantastic here. You believe she’s struggling with the immense power that has taken hold of her. This movie adapts the story of the Pheonix being a cosmic force representing both the spark of life and destruction, even if only on a basic level. The movie is also scored by Hans Zimmer, and his soundtrack is fantastic as usual. He originally said that he didn’t want to do another superhero movie after his experience with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, but after a few years he softened that stance, saying he’d do it for the right story.
These positives weren’t enough to save the film however. More than anything else, this film feels tired. MCavoy and Fassbender were both fantastic in previous films, but here it feels like they just want to get it over with. That’s not to say their performances are bad, but they’re not great either. Lawrence didn’t put much heart into her Mystique role in Apocalypse, and she seems to care even less here. Beyond Jean Grey, most of the younger X-Men characters barely get any character focus. They’re essentially wallpaper who are only there to serve Jean’s character development. As for Chastain’s character, she portrays an alien whose species was nearly wiped out by the Phoenix Force. Her role could have been interesting, but her motives aren’t explored in depth and she kind of feels forced.
It’s also hard not to feel underwhelmed by the climactic train battle when you know the original plan was to have the final battle take place in space. Sure, there are elements of the train fight that are well choreographed, but it feels small compared to the huge pyramid battle of Apocalypse, or the fight on White House Lawn in Days of Future Past while the mutants in the future fought an army of sentinels in a mountain temple. It also never feels like the X-Men are in true danger in the climactic battle, especially once Jean starts fighting alongside them. It’s just anti-climactic.
This movie also causes even more continuity problems with the franchise, but it’s not even worth digging into this franchise’s continuity at this point. You’d have an easier time trying to explain the similarities and differences between The Borg and the Terminators to a 5-year-old than you would trying to piece together this film franchise’s continuity. Well … I guess the comics are convoluted as well, so they adapted that part ok.
I like the fact that Kinberg tried to do a good adaptation, and it’s certainly better than 20th Century Fox’s previous attempts at this story. It isn’t fair that this is the lowest rated X-Men movie on Rotten Tomatoes (at 23%), but I would say it would a very disappointing movie if the X-Men franchise didn’t have a mediocre track record to begin with. Kinberg could potentially be a good director, as there are good aspects of this movie, but he probably should have started with a simpler story. Having a cast that actually cared would help too. This is also the lowest grossing movie in franchise history, earning $64 million in 4 weeks in North America. The Wolverine earned almost that much in its first weekend alone, and that’s the X-Men movie that previously earned the least domestically. Dark Phoenix has still earned less than the original X-Men movie, which released at a time when people thought Superhero movies were dead. With Avengers: Endgame getting within $100 million of Avatar’s total worldwide earnings, they’re clearly not right now. As of this point, it looks like Dark Phoenix is guaranteed to bomb.
The only remaining Fox X-Men movie planned for release is New Mutants. That too has been delayed multiple times already. I hope it’s better than the overall boring Dark Phoenix, because as much as the X-Men Cinematic Universe has a lot of problems, it’s had some good moments too. It helped bring back Superhero movies from the disastrous late 90’s. At the same time, it might be best to wait a few years, and then start completely fresh. Well … except for Deadpool, because those movies are great so far and they’re pretty much doing their own thing. They should be allowed to stick around. But as for me, this movie is so underwhelming that it has me considering trading in all of my X-Men DVD’s and Blu-Rays. Well … I’ll keep Logan, the Deadpool movies, and possibly The Wolverine Unleashed Edition and Days of Future Past.
I’ve also updated my ranking of all the X-Men movies. While Dark Pheonix isn’t at the bottom, it’s not too far off.
This month in general, I’ll be catching up on different blogathons I’ve done in the last few years with all the movies that have released since. Next up is likely Avengers: Endgame, followed by Toy Story 4, and then Spider-Man: Homecoming. I did manage to see Endgame a second time before it disappeared locally – I just decided to wait until this month to catch up on everything at once. I might also finally get back to fiction writing sometime this month (it’s been on hold while I focused on moving). Writing and editing a couple short stories should be a good way to ease back into it.