It has been a long, strange road for Fox’s decades-long X-Men franchise: beginning in 2000 before superhero movies really took hold in mainstream Hollywood, continuing through last year’s Logan (the spiritual and fitting end for the franchise and its beloved characters) and stretching well past Disney’s buy-out of Fox itself. Despite everything seemingly to be settled with 2017’s tour de force, we’re still waiting on two more add-ons to the franchise — definitively the final entries in this iteration of these characters. There’s the seemingly horror-adjacent New Mutants (2019) and, front-and-center in Fox’s final release schedule, Dark Phoenix (2019).
Although I am certain that New Mutants will ultimately prove to be the better of the two films, it’s Dark Phoenix that really has everybody talking (myself included). Based on the iconic comic book storyline, the Dark Phoenix Saga is a dark deconstruction of everything readers had come to expect from the demure, submissive, “good girl” Jean Grey up until that point. She was recruited into the Hellfire Club — the hyper-sexual bondage-attired supervillain team that was rather tamely featured in X-Men: First Class (2011) — became a cosmically-powerful entity known as the Phoenix, committed planetary genocide, was held to task by an alien race known as the Shi’ar and was ultimately put to death for what could loosely be called “crimes against humanity.”
The story, in its original form, is a lot to take in: what could easily be a full trilogy of films in its own right. The first, rooted in a long-standing understanding of the character and her relationships with her fellow X-Men, is about her defection from the X-Men and seduction into the Hellfire Club. The second focusses on her increasingly out-of-control, increasingly Godlike powers, culminating in genocide and her return to the team. And, finally, there’s her trial, conviction and dramatic execution at the hands of the Shi’ar.
Everything is predicated on already quite intimately knowing this character: who she is, what she has endured and how she fits into the larger team. We need to first understand this in order to make sense of and feel something for her defection and radical reinvention as a member of the Hellfire Club. Otherwise, we lack even the basest context for her actions and cannot begin to be expected to care about what’s transpiring on the screen.
So why, then, is Fox rushing us into this uniquely complicated, uniquely continuity-driven storyline as the immediate follow-up to this Jean Grey’s very first movie?
You may recall that Fox tried adapting this storyline before in their X-movies. The utterly lambasted X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) is justly remembered as the very worst X-Men movie. It’s a bloated, unwieldly mess with far too many characters, far too little direction, with the Phoenix storyline being relegated to a B-plot that cannot help but feel underwhelming in the context of its own movie. Yet terrible as this movie was, it at least understood it to be an ending point for the character, rather than a mid (or, God forbid, starting) point for her.
It was the third movie in the franchise and followed a movie that was primarily focused on her love triangle with Wolverine and Cyclops (itself a continuation of that subplot from the first X-Men movie). The previous movie culminated into her sacrifice for the good of the entire team, and whatever else X2‘s (2003) faults were, it made you feel the weight of her sacrifice and the burden carried by the friends and loved ones who survived her. And in the closing seconds of that film, they teased her rising from the ashes when a prophetic shadow, vaguely shaped as a Phoenix, raced over the waters that claimed her body.
While the world may have hated Apocalypse (2016), I rather liked it. It was hardly a worthy successor to First Class, Days of Future Past (2014) and even Deadpool (2016), but it successfully established the new status quo and nailed the characterization of the next generation of X-Men perfectly. Jean Grey felt like a fresh take on the repressed, 1960’s “good girl” version of the character that defined so much of the first decades of the comics. Her relationship with Cyclops felt genuine and formed the solid foundation for things to come.
But that’s the problem. Apocalypse set the barest foundation for the future of these characters. They needed to develop and grow from there: both as individuals and as a team. They needed to have adventures, trials, tribulations and intimacies all their own. But Fox is rushing right into the character’s deconstruction without ever so much as bothering with the initial construction that made that change work in the first place.
At the barest minimum, Dark Phoenix should be the final chapter in a trilogy of films. Even if you don’t want to bring in the Guardians of the Galaxy-esque space stuff with the Shi’ar and want to keep Jean Grey’s fall and redemptive arcs to a single film, this isn’t the jumping-off point for the story. First you introduce the characters (movie one), then you grow them (movie two), then you lay them low with this story (movie three). That’s the least you can do with this property to make things work for these characters and this narrative.
Watching the new trailer for the upcoming movie, I felt nothing for them. It’s the same nothing that I felt when I saw the DC trinity team up for the first time in the dreadful Dawn of Justice (2016) and the same nothing that I felt all throughout Fant4stic (2015). It’s the nothing of a movie that expects us to care for a group of characters that it has in turn done nothing to set up on its own.
For this story to work, though, we need to feel everything for them. Otherwise, what’s the point?