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

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
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