September 27, 2018
Like Logan or Deadpool, Fox is likely going to try to sell this (at least in North America) as essentially a Jean Grey melodrama. That’s why there is no “X-Men” in the title, as this movie is merely called Dark Phoenix. That makes this (by default) both a female-led superhero flick and yet another female superhero movie that is a period piece.
Like Wonder Woman (1915), Wonder Woman 1984 (1984), Black Widow (allegedly a prequel to Iron Man), Captain Marvel (a 1990’s prequel to Iron Man) and DC Films’ Supergirl (rumored to be set in the 1970’s), Dark Phoenix (allegedly set ten years after Apocalypse and thus in the 1990’s) is another female-led superhero drama that is set sometime in the past. That is a frankly bizarre coincidence that perhaps shows an unwillingness of studio executives to embrace the idea of a present-tense female superhero movie, at least until Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey movie opens in February of 2020.
Dull Dark Phoenix Trailer Takes A Huge Risk With The X-Men Series
Simon Kinberg and friends have promised that Dark Phoenix is a more grounded and character-driven piece than the last few X-Men team movies, and the first Trailer certainly puts an emphasis on character and psychological drama over superhero spectacle. That may be a worthwhile intention, but this is a pretty dull and low-tech trailer, one with more than a passing resemblance in the first half to X-Men: The Last Stand.
Moreover, even the alleged intentions represents a huge risk. If Dark Phoenix is to sell itself as a sci-fi character drama, then Fox and friends have to presume that audiences have a specific investment in these specific versions of the X-Men. And judging by the domestic box office for X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Apocalypse, there is a reason to believe that general audiences have little investment in these specific cinematic versions of the respective Children of the Atom.
Back in 2000, the very idea of a live-action X-Men movie was itself an event, so it didn’t really matter to fans and general audiences who was playing the iconic characters. Sure, Patrick Stewart was a fancast pick since the early 1990’s, but it’s not like that Hugh Jackman or Anna Paquin were popular picks for the lead characters. The first Bryan Singer movie worked well as a drama, with only as much action as could be afforded on a $75 million budget. After the film earned strong reviews and $296m worldwide, X2: X-Men United got a $115m budget and a much larger comic book canvas and was a true breakout sequel with a $215m domestic/$408m worldwide total in 2003.

At least through X-Men: The Last Stand ($235 million domestic and $459m worldwide in 2006), the appeal of the franchise was the notion that it was the only live-action X-Men series in town. Whether intended as a soft reboot or a genuine prequel, Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class introduced a new batch of actors as the iconic characters, with James McAvoy as Professor X, Michael Fassbender as Magneto and Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique. Despite strong reviews, the Wolverine-free X-Men prequel earned just $354m worldwide on a $160m budget. So Fox brought the band back together.
Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past offered a sequel to X-Men: First Class that, via a time travel story, also brought back the likes of Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart and Halle Berry. Cue a whopping $748 million worldwide cume in 2014. But Singer’s poorly-received X-Men: Apocalypse, which was a straight-up sequel to First Class and Days of Future Past, earned just $155m domestic (less than the $157m that X-Men earned back in 2000) and $544m worldwide. It was a rare big budget movie that was arguably “saved” by China, as the film earned $122m in the world’s largest moviegoing marketplace.
Point being, as we’ve seen since 2011, the new cast of younger X-Men are, by themselves, not nearly as much of a draw as the original crew. So now we have Dark Phoenix, a film that is selling itself specifically based on the alleged appeal of these specific new-wave X-Men. They are retelling the “Dark Phoenix saga,” already tried in X-Men: The Last Stand, with a Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp) who were only introduced in the last movie. This is like telling The Killing Joke as the very first Batman/Joker movie.
When it’s just McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence and the young crew, the domestic box office plummets. Yet instead of selling larger-than-life spectacle, outer-space adventure or even (finally) an old-school X-Men adventure, they are selling (via scenes of folks having emotional outbursts and pained reactions to the trauma around them) the popular appeal of some potentially unpopular X-Men. Not only do fans not have that much of an attachment to these versions of the iconic characters, but reviews and box office also implies that they may not be that fond of them at all.
Will history repeat itself for the third time? If this sounds doom-n-gloomish, well, there is a price for making a film as poorly-received as X-Men: Apocalypse, just as there was a price for offering a major film as poorly-received as Batman v Superman. Unlike the 007 franchise or related episodic sagas that can start from scratch after a lousy installment, these superhero franchises are inherently rooted in audiences both wanting to see these characters onscreen but also in liking the actors or specific cinematic interpretations of those characters.
This is an incredibly risky strategy, especially when the future of this variation of X-Men is at stake. If Dark Phoenix implodes, it’ll be all too easy for Walt Disney and Kevin Feige to just swipe the slate (save for Ryan Reynolds' Deadpool) and reboot the franchise for inclusion in the MCU. I will be very interested to see how this plays out, or at least if the next trailer (presumably in December) offers more razzle-dazzle. Come what may, Dark Phoenix, starring the usual suspects along with Jessica Chastain as the villain, opens Feb. 14, 2019.
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