Comics, Essays, Movies, Opinion

“Dark Phoenix” Movie: A Case of Nepotism Over Character

There have been a lot of rumours that the sequel to X-Men: Apocalypse might be a Dark Phoenix story, and in late April, Entertainment Weekly confirmed on everyone’s speculations. X-Men: Dark Phoenix will release worldwide on November 2, 2018, after New Mutants (April 13) and Deadpool 2 (June 1). 2018 will truly be the year of the mutants. As even a casual reader of Marvel comics will probably know, the Dark Phoenix Saga is one of the most well known X-Men stories and is considered a modern classic. Many X-comics have references or tried to replicate it (Phoenix—Endsong, Phoenix—Warsong, Avengers vs. X-Men, etc.), but have never come close to repeating that success.

I’m of the mindset that the Phoenix Force is best left alone for a long time, but just like comic writers, Fox and their creative team just can’t seem to let go. The third/final installment in the original trilogy, X-Men: The Last Stand, already featured Jean Grey as the Dark Phoenix (their version of it, sans space travel), so this will be a second attempt at the story and character. Producer Simon Kinberg, and one of the writers of The Last Stand, has acknowledged that a major problem with The Last Stand’s Dark Phoenix was that she was secondary to the mutant cure story line—a footnote, really, to a totally different plot. Kinberg then said (before it was confirmed) that if there to be another appearance of the Dark Phoenix in the X-films, then it would be a “movie about her struggle, and really should be the A plot and the primary of the movie.”

Magneto talking about the mutant cure to Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix in X-Men: The Last Stand

So the producers and execs understand what went wrong and are moving forward in a more positive direction. Seems good, right? No. Ignoring the fact that Fox has (sorta) already done a Dark Phoenix story ten years ago, and that this movie is probably more to redeem themselves than make a great movie like Logan, there are so many other reasons why the studio hasn’t merited the rights to this story.

Sophie Turner, who played Jean Grey in X-Men: Apocalypse, will return for Dark Phoenix. But Turner’s Jean Grey, like all of the other young mutants in Apocalypse, was secondary characters to Magneto and Xavier. Jean Grey eventually saved the day by exhibiting her powers and teasing the capacity of the Phoenix Force. And sure, she was given a little more lines than her other co-stars, but nothing new or interesting was said about her character. However, despite Turner’s star power (coming from Game of Thrones) and her character’s supposed importance to the film, she was relegated to the furthest point in the background on the film’s poster … And now the next film is all about her?

It’s sad to admit but the reason why Jean’s turn as the Dark Phoenix and death in The Last Stand had any emotional resonance was because of her will-they-won’t-they romance with Wolverine. When Logan had to kill her, that’s when the audience was meant to feel something; not because of her inner turmoil. The focus on Wolverine throughout the movies also shone a bit of light on her, and without that connection, Jean’s death would have been handled as a casualty of war at best. This is because the X-Men movies have always been poorly veiled Wolverine stories—the exceptions being X-Men: First Class and Apocalypse—and there was no effort in building the personalities of his teammates. So when one dies or gets hurt, it doesn’t matter as much compared to the (potential) loss of Wolverine.

Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) in X-Men: The Last Stand

No emotional stakes were set with Jean in Apocalypse though—I walked away from the movie wondering who all these new characters were as people, her included. So what will Dark Phoenix be about (and sell itself as a film) if none of the characters are, bottom line, memorable? X-Men: Apocalypse relied on nostalgia for certain characters (Jean, Scott, and Kurt), but hopefully not enough to remember how they previously mucked-up some (Angel, Psylocke, and Jubilee). However, Dark Phoenix can’t do that because, as Simon Kinberg said, the story needs to be “about her struggle,” and audiences wont buy into a struggle if they don’t know the character.

While we’re talking about Kinberg, let’s get more into his role in X-Men: Dark Phoenix. Despite his hit-and-miss filmography (Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Jumper, Chappie, Fantastic Four/Fant4stic), Kinberg flourishes within the X-movies, and has been hailed as Fox’s equivalent of Kevin Feige. Fox sees absolutely nothing wrong with his past work and are (possibly) rewarding him even more! In the same interview with /Film where he conceded the problems with The Last Stand, Kinberg confirmed on the rumours that he’s aiming to direct the sequel to Apocalypse. And if you haven’t taken the opportunity to look at his IMDB page yet, I’ll just tell you that he has never directed anything before!

In the interview, Kinberg says that directing is something he’s been “interested in doing generally for a long time.” Which is fair. Whatever. And the role of a producer is sometimes to direct and edit a film, so it’s possible that he’s directed a scene or two in the past. But it’s a whole other animal to do one scene to than take on a multi-million dollar film in a franchise. (He was also a part of the production team that Fantastic Four director Josh Trank blamed for the heavily edited and terribly plotted version of the film that was released, which was plagued with re-shoots.)

Michael B. Jordan and Simon Kinberg on the set of Fantastic Four

Fox is doubling down on Kinberg getting this right — he has shown no capability to writing an amazing superhero movie, but the company has honored him with a more elevated, preeminent role as a primary producer. This is a man who wrote a superhero movie (Fantastic Four) that was more montages than movie, and whose third act only lasted ten minutes. The same man who wrote Magneto to destroy Auschwitz in Apocalypse. And the man who already had a turn at writing a film adaption of the Dark Phoenix Saga, and failed. Why should Kinberg be the person to, not only write about Jean and the Phoenix (for a second time), but also direct the story? He has displayed little to no potential to leading the X-franchise in a promising direction.

The hubris to skip school, maybe doing a short film or a few episodes of a television show, and go straight to a major motion picture is crazy to me. But Simon Kinberg is loyal to the X-Men/Fox team—more so than Bryan Singer—and he’s being rewarded for it by with a possible elevation into a higher role and taking on more responsibility.

Dark Phoenix in the comics ⓒ Marvel

The Dark Phoenix Saga took many issues of X-comics for Jean Grey to change from Phoenix to Dark Phoenix, and involved a lot of characters and groups that the movies haven’t introduced or already killed. It was established at the end of Apocalypse that 80s-reboot Jean Grey contains a similar (if not the same) interpretation of the Phoenix Force that was in The Last Stand, instead of the cosmic space creature that it is in the comics. So it’s not as if this version will be source material accurate—many comic book movie adaptations of famous story arcs aren’t. But the buildup to the Dark Phoenix, along with her past comic history staring from issue #1, invested a lot readers and sold the tragedy.

The main ensemble X-Men movies are in a funk (to put it lightly). X-Men: Apocalypse didn’t focus on any one character because they couldn’t use Wolverine. The final product was a bland slop that read as a generic disaster movie. When the X-Men movies work, it’s because they have writers, directors, and actors who are passionate and know what they’re doing. Deadpool and Logan both stand out from the rest of the franchise, not because they’re rated R solo movies, but because they understand their characters. This may seem like a positive thing —an upswing to all the lows we’ve had so far —but it may only be circumstantial.

Fox is probably uncertain how they’re going to continue this positive momentum with Hugh Jackman no longer in the franchise and Deadpool set in a contemporary timeline rather than the ambiguous past that the current ensemble movies take place during (so a team-up with the Merc with a Mouth probably won’t happen any time soon). Fox has an identity crisis right now because everyone is working on their own movie and no one knows what the other is doing (see: two different Calibans in two consecutive movies). There are too many cooks in the kitchen. It’s typically the role of a producer to supervise a film and coordinate certain aspects of the production, such as approving a script and other details … but I’ve already aired my grievances concerning the executive team. So no surprise there.

I don’t necessarily want Marvel Studios to take over the X-Men  films (I dread thinking that another movie gets involved with the Thanos/Infinity Gauntlet story they’re leading to). But the producers of the X-Men franchise need to take a page from Marvel Studios, and even DC/Warner Bros; more thought needs to be put into their films, and the continuity should flow from one film into the next. Fox should be looking for some new behind-the-camera talent for the series, like they do for their spin-off movies, but instead are rewarding people who are loyal to them. Looking beyond their small circle would allow them to find creatives who are the best people for the job, because the group they have already is producing laughable content most of the time.

With a release date of early November, Fox must be really positive and enthusiastic that Dark Phoenix will succeed as it will be competing against the family friendly movies and award contending films that the beginning of the holiday seasons brings. That means confidence in their actors, script (plot and characters), and director—who will lead the charge on this fan favourite story.