Dark Phoenix may not have been conceived as the final nail in the coffin of Fox’s iteration of the X-Men movie franchise. Somehow it managed that feat anyway, as Disney will certainly put the mutants on the shelf for some time before re-introducing a new cast of X-characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe at some future point. How did Dark Phoenix go about burying the Fox franchise.
[Mild spoilers follow.]
Get the Tone Wrong
Even a superhero movie that aims for a serious tone needs to be at least a little fun. To have moments of levity and humor to offset the darker elements. Non-stop bleakness isn’t exactly entertaining. Dark Phoenix shoots for serious and lands on self-serious, to the point of near nihilism. The movie is brutal, at times garishly gory, and often conveys a sense of hopelessness. Gentle characters become violent, violent characters become near-psychotic and all characters seem resigned to a certain despondency. It’s a wearying viewing experience. The movie goes too far in embracing the “Dark” part of its title, to the point where almost all other textures and moods are shunned.
Sideline Two of Your Most Interesting Actors
Two of the actors who have made among the strongest impressions since the X-Men franchise’s successful First Class reboot are both M.I.A. after the first act. In the case of Evan Peters, who plays speedster Peter Maximoff, that’s a significant contributing factor to the movie’s tone problem. In both Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, Peters provided a significant chunk of the more upbeat and lighthearted moments, adding counterpoints of welcome humor that gave viewers a break from the more serious moments. Plus the depiction of Peter’s speed provided for some of the most visually inventive sequences in both movies. Peters was barely used in Dark Phoenix, a background element in early scenes who was then placed on the injured list and not seen again (save for one brief scene near the end). Worse, series star Jennifer Lawrence, whose shapeshifting Raven was the core of First Class and Days of Future Past, her emotional arc driving the drama of both installments, makes an early exit that’s intended to be a shocker but is obviously telegraphed and ultimately disappointing. A movie that can’t figure out what to do with its best star attractions is in trouble from the outset.
Misuse Most of the Rest of the Cast
Not that the rest of the cast fared much better. Most of the appealing young actors in the ensemble were given little of substance to do. Sophie Turner, who demonstrated on Game of Thrones that she’s one of the most interesting young actresses in the business, should have had a showcase with her central role, but the material was so muddled it left her with nowhere to go. James McAvoy should sue for malpractice, so mis-written was his Charles Xavier. The dynamic Jessica Chastain was wasted in a generic villainess role. Only Michael Fassbender was able to inject any interest into his scenes, and even there you can practically see the script fighting him every step of the way. Why assemble a high quality cast if your movie is going to let them down so consistently?
Ignore the Source Material
The original Dark Phoenix Saga from the Uncanny X-Men comic book is an undisputed classic of the genre. Creators Chris Claremont and John Byrne crafted a dazzling story, brimming with emotion and drama that was grounded in the humanity of Jean Grey. The Dark Phoenix movie borrowed a few surface elements from the original’s set up and then wasted them in a set-up that was both derivative and poorly constructed. The way Jean’s family is portrayed is a massive shift from the comic, deployed in a cheaply theatrical manner to provoke the movie’s crisis in a way that feels unearned. The Hellfire Club from the comic book version made for ideal villains, power hungry elites who had no clue what they were unleashing when they used the illusionist Mastermind to seduce Jean to the dark side. Dark Phoenix substitutes in generic alien villains in a tired “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” riff who have almost zero impact. Not only was that a big step down from the comics, but also a missed opportunity to tie back to First Class in the film franchise. Jean’s “crimes” in the movie are calibrated to be small scale and miss the operatic horror of the comics, where Dark Phoenix consumed a distant star, wreaking destruction on its nearby planets. The climax feels like it could have wandered in from a second tier James Bond movie, losing the visual punch of the Moon-set finale of the comic and the iconic “Jean and Scott vs. the universe” moment that has been a key part of the X-Men visual lexicon for four decades. The ’90s animated television series did an excellent adaptation of the Dark Phoenix Saga by better honoring the source material, even as it made its own creative choices. So far, both big screen movies that have attempted the story have failed, in large part by ignoring the things that made the original resonant for generations of readers.
Don’t Introduce Substantive New Characters
The X-Men comic book franchise has a plethora of memorable characters beloved by fans. One of the advantages that the movie franchise has is its ability to introduce fan favorites to engage devoted fans. Dark Phoenix really misses that boat. The additions of note included Selene, based on the comic book villainess but without any of the backstory that makes her interesting, and another sidekick for Magneto that seems to borrow from a couple of minor X-characters but isn’t even worthy of being named. Fan favorite Dazzler turns up in a pointless cameo. That’s it. Dark Phoenix fails to make even one significant addition to the cinematic franchise’s repertory cast, yet one more missed opportunity in a movie that already has too many of them.
Since the period fun of First Class, the films have taken to moving forward a decade each time out. That kind of worked in Days of Future Past if you didn’t think about it too hard. It became an obvious strain on the movies’ logic in Apocalypse. In Dark Phoenix, it’s just ridiculous. Characters around since First Class should now be in their 50s and 60s, even though the actors playing them obviously aren’t. Plus the massive effort that Days of Future Past exerted to connect the original trilogy to the First Class continuity is completely shattered in Dark Phoenix. Viewers might not insist on a strict observance of continuity from film to film, but making an unholy hash of it is a sure way to rile dedicated fans.
Hand the Wheel to the Person Responsible for the Dire State of the Franchise
Simon Kinberg has been involved in the X-Men movies as a writer and producer for a long time. There’s been a sense among fans that the movies that have worked have done so in spite of him. Apocalypse was the result of Kinberg rising to the top of the production pyramid and it was a mess. Kinberg was also involved in the disastrous failed attempt to reboot the Fantastic Four movies a few years back. So what sense did it make to allow him to not only write and produce Dark Phoenix but direct it, too? There have been some online rumblings that the then-impending Disney/Fox deal put some kinds of strictures on what elements were available to use in Dark Phoenix, but without confirmation of that, a viewer can only presume that what’s on the screen reflects Kinberg’s creative choices (or lack thereof). The end result shows why other perspectives were needed in the process for this movie. Kinberg has written the epitaph for the Fox X-franchise. Don’t expect him or anyone else from the Fox team to be involved when the mutants make their eventual return as part of the MCU.