All you have to do is take one look at the box office totals for Fox’s X-Men films to see that, even when the movies weren’t particularly good (see: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Apocalypse), people were still clamouring to see them. So where did Dark Phoenix go wrong?
While it’s difficult to succinctly put into words why people love the X-Men the way they do, the characters’ status as cultural icons is undeniable, and it’s obvious that audiences have wanted to see Xavier and his fellow misunderstood heroes fighting to save the world on the big screen. But with Dark Phoenix came the franchise’s first major financial failure, which writer-director Simon Kinberg attributes to people not connecting with its generally lifeless story and uninspired performances.
The list of things that Dark Phoenix could have done to more effectively adapt Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Dark Phoenix Saga is almost too long. Jean barely has any sort of emotional connection to any of the film’s other characters, the Phoenix Force itself is ill-defined, and in the end, the big threat everyone’s supposed to be worried about lacks gravity. Dark Phoenix is a film of countless, well-intentioned missteps that add up to a story that feels infinitely less than the sum of its parts, despite the fact that it isn’t an awful movie (or even the worst X-Men title, by a country mile.)
The problem with Dark Phoenix is that while it’s a perfectly adequate movie when you look at it by itself, it’s impossible not to see the film as the dying breath of a franchise that might not have ever really understood what it is that makes people love and identify with the X-Men.
Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan’s casting as Charles Xavier and Magneto was truly inspired, and the actors’ performances as those characters are without a doubt the highlights of the original X-Men films. They worked in the early films’ favour because their relationship is a core part of the X-Men’s story. But in keeping the franchise’s focus so aimed at those two characters (and Wolverine), the X-Men franchise made the unfortunate mistake of relegating all of its other players to the sidelines, where they could conveniently breeze in and out of scenes in order to blow things up as the movies trudged along to their inevitable CGI-filled climaxes.
In Marvel’s comics, the X-Men are no strangers to larger than life, fantastical adventures that take them into the literal depths of hell and the far reaches of space, and the films have recognised that about the source material and run with it, particularly in Dark Phoenix. But regardless of where the X-Men have been physically and what manner of villains they’ve faced, their interpersonal relationships have always been the most fascinating things about them – because more often than not, it’s those relationships that really give the melodramatic superheroic plots their weight and significance. It’s that specific combination of soap opera theatrics, human emotion, and nearly unimaginable situations that make the brightest of Marvel’s classic X-Men comic arcs shine. But because the X-films have consistently flattened characters like Jean Grey, Storm, and Cyclops into two-dimensional footnote versions of themselves, they’ve never been able to bring the necessary energy to these stories to make them feel as substantive or interesting.
For reasons that should be clear, this is a particular problem with Dark Phoenix given that, for many, it’s the story that defined the X-Men as a team and Jean Grey as one of the most powerful beings in existence. The whole of the Dark Phoenix Saga is obviously far longer than its latest cinematic adaptation and a large part of what was cut from the story involves the ways in which, at least for a time, the Phoenix made Jean a stronger, more empowered version of herself, a drastic departure from her earlier days as Marvel Girl where she was usually depicted as the X-Men’s token female member who often needed to be saved by her teammates.
As the Phoenix, Jean became the literal embodiment of all of mutantkind’s potential, a god walking among mortals who had the power to reshape worlds as she saw fit. This fundamentally changed how people saw Jean and understood their relationships with her. Cyclops, the love of Jean’s life, witnessed her death and seeming rebirth, only to go on to watch her become a terrifying vision of fire and destruction who could easily wipe out the whole of humanity. But before any of that went down, Jean, as the Phoenix, became involved in a convoluted plot involving the villainous Mastermind. He sought to harness her power for the Hellfire Club with a harebrained scheme involving mind control, false identities, and excellent costumes.
While Jean eating a star and killing billions is what most everyone remembers about the Dark Phoenix Saga, the story simply doesn’t mean nearly as much without that grounded narrative context that makes clear just how significant Jean’s ultimate turn to darkness actually is. In all of her cosmic rage, Phoenix-Jean is a caricature of a megalomaniac – tempestuous to a fault, and dangerous to the point where it’s almost inconceivable that the X-Men and co. could ever hope to defeat her. But that characterization works when it’s sharply contrasted with Jean in the moments before her transformation.
To say that Dark Phoenix is completely devoid of any kind of human emotion or family dynamics would be unfair. Those things are there, but it’s in such a small capacity that you can’t help but feel as if their inclusion was perfunctory at best. What little we know about Scott and Jean’s relationship boils down to his seemingly being the only person at Xavier’s school who hasn’t been afraid of her burgeoning powers since we first witnessed them in Apocalypse, and that’s about it. Tye Sheridan’s Scott and Sophie Turner’s Jean are perfectly...nice people who we just don’t know enough about to become properly invested in. Save for Xavier and Mystique, the same goes for the film’s other X-Men who, even now, we really haven’t seen do all that much in the way of just being regular people who know each other and occasionally save the world.
As Dark Phoenix fast tracks its plot to get into pyrotechnics and aliens, it attempts to substitute legitimately interesting drama between Mystique, Xavier, and Magneto to make up for its other characters’ lack of actual personalities or intrigue. The debate over whether Xavier uses the X-Men as an extension of his ego and if he’s actually a monster for conscripting children into multiple, life-threatening situations is compelling and should be a part of more X-Men adaptations all around. But in making it the central tension that sets Dark Phoenix in motion, it makes the movie yet another story about Xavier specifically, when the focus is meant to be on Jean.
By the time Xavier explains that part of the reason Jean’s begun to spiral out of control is due to psychic blocks he placed in her mind when she was a child in order to help her, the film’s already spent so much time making us contemplate what Xavier’s thinking and feeling that you almost end up sympathising with Jean in all of her destructiveness.
Being able to relate to Jean and her struggles with her identity is just as important a part of the Dark Phoenix Saga as the firebird itself, but her issues are presented in a rushed, hamfisted way, and it ends up feeling like a botched attempt at something that could have been wonderful. The feverish excitement hardcore X-Men fans get when thinking about the team’s classic adventures is what the X-film franchise has been designed to capitalise on – and capitalise it did. Quality is subjective, but numbers aren’t, and the X-Men franchise was overall a resounding financial success.
But that success was powered by the energy that audiences brought into cinemas, their personal thoughts and relationships with characters they know and love in all of their complexities. More than anything else, Dark Phoenix is a testament to the fact that fans’ fond memories just aren’t enough to carry these films anymore, and that if and when Disney decides to fold these characters into the MCU, it would do well to learn from Fox’s mistakes.