Another year, another wave of superhero cinema. The MCU continues to flex its muscles with Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, and their Sony associated Spider-Man: Far From Home. Warner Bros. has a little light and darkness with their one-two punch of Shazam! and Joker. Todd McFarlane threatens that his Blumhouse reboot of Spawn with Jamie Foxx and Jeremy Renner will be a joyless horror show, unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Even Hellboy is getting a grim and gritty do-over. I can’t wait to watch ’em all.
The troubled, honest truth is that the two comic book movies I’m most curious to experience are coming from 20th Century Fox: The New Mutants and Dark Phoenix. We’ve lived with these merry mutants (or at least variations of them) longer than any other batch of caped crusaders. Even Superman and Batman got breaks between their films, but the X-Men have been running this marathon continuously for nearly twenty years.
They’re exhausted, we’re exhausted. Sure. However, during those two decades, I’ve been waiting for one particular story to come to light. This plot that has already been teased, abused and mishandled. Writer/director Simon Kinberg attempted at least one previous iteration of Dark Phoenix with X-Men: The Last Stand, and it’s kinda stunning that he’s been given another chance to make amends for that atrocity.
Few comic book storylines had as much a lasting impact on the characters as “The Dark Phoenix Saga” created by Chris Claremont and John Byrne in 1980. The story of Jean Grey’s consumption by an all-powerful cosmic force that twisted her psychology into a dark mirror of herself did not end simply with her tragic, sacrificial death. Over the decades, nearly countless writers returned to that darkest day in X-continuity, resurrecting Jean, killing Jean, resurrecting Jean, killing Jean. Wash, rinse, and repeat.
This narrative was a gut punch to readers at the time, and the creators that followed in Claremont and Byrne’s footsteps never quite achieved that same level of influence. When they couldn’t beat them, they joined them, picking up the torch of that Phoenix flame over and over again. When Jean Grey was done with the mantle, they let Cyclops, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Colossus, Wolverine, and many more have a try. There is no escape it seems.
The saga cast a rather large shadow over the films as well. After director Bryan Singer and writer David Hayter got through establishing the world and the mutants that populate it with the first cinematic X-Men way back in 2000, the filmmakers got to work setting up the pins of Jean Grey’s terrifying potential in X2. The final shot of the sequel alluding to a glorious emergence from Alkali Lake and a trilogy capper that would no doubt please longtime readers as well as these new fanboys and fangirls that eventually revolutionized the popular culture landscape with their ravenous hunger for superhero combat.
Alas, plans change. Singer abandoned the X-franchise in favor of Superman Returns, and Brett Ratner joined as the new director as well as Mr. & Mrs. Smith writer/producer Simon Kinberg. X-Men: The Last Stand attempted to pay service to what the previous two films established, but the film didn’t have the budget or the enthusiasm to explore the intergalactic horrors of the comic book storyline. Jean Grey breaks bad, but 20th Century Fox was more concerned with keeping the momentum of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine rolling. Who can really blame them? Snikt! Snikt!
X-Men: The Last Stand was by no means a bomb, but you will find few defenders of the third film. In an effort to recover, Hollywood took a page from the comic book industry. When in doubt, reboot. For X-Men: First Class, director Matthew Vaughan rolled the clock back on the school of mutants. The prequel allowed him to ignore most of the plot from the previous entries and play around with a batch of mostly new characters. Dark Phoenix, who?
Bryan Singer and Simon Kinberg returned for the time-hopping adventure of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Here was another well-respected/deeply cherished storyline from the Claremont era getting the cinematic once-over, and while it is not a direct replication, the spirit of the original thrives. Hugh Jackman’s unstoppable charisma returned to the center of everyone’s attention, and Kinberg offered a shoddy patch-job on the franchise’s Swiss cheese continuity.
The new coat of paint didn’t last for very long. X-Men: Apocalypse is a bitter pill to swallow. As much as we all pray at the altar of Oscar Isaac, he is practically swallowed whole by the latex monstrosity he’s encased within. The baddest of bad guys can’t survive a soulless presentation and whatever joys Singer once found in these characters seemed utterly played out. There is an effort to rekindle the awesome might of the Phoenix Force in Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey, but the potential excitement is smothered by muddled effects and cringe-worthy dialogue. “All is revealed.” Not quite.
Now that brings us to the miasma surrounding the Walt Disney Co./21st Century Fox merger. A story we’ve circled for years, and one that concerns more than just the collision of superhero franchises. We just have to push the terrors of monopoly and the death of the mid-budget film aside. I don’t have the energy right now. Here, I only care about my precious “Dark Phoenix Saga.”
Kevin Feige recently told Variety that he is still waiting on the green light, but that Marvel Studios could be developing properties like X-Men and the Fantastic Four as soon as the first sixth months of 2019. That means the chances of Avengers: Endgame climaxing with an end-credits stinger featuring Wolverine popping claws or the Herald of Galactus crash-landing on Earth are looking more and more probable.
Dark Phoenix and The New Mutants are the last gasps from the old regime. They’ve shuffled a couple of times along the calendar, and their final release dates of June 7th and August 2nd might as well be tombstones. The X-Men are dead, long live the X-Men.
As we approach their impending release, my fingers are crossed. Kinberg was given a rare second chance, and his first time behind the director’s chair, to finally encapsulate “The Dark Phoenix Saga” as mainstream entertainment. I sense a lot of doubt out there; I’m battling my own as well.
After ten years, and only a few wonky movies, I am confident that the MCU can deliver on Avengers: Endgame. I am deeply excited to witness its glory, but if we’re talking that nervous, pent-up energy of anticipation, the film I am most eagerly awaiting is Dark Phoenix. As we’ve seen with The Winter Soldier, Civil War, and Days of Future Past, the film does not have to be a carbon copy of the comic book. Clearly, whatever Jessica Chastain is doing in the trailer is separate from the Claremont/Byrne storyline. All Dark Phoenix has to achieve is something emotionally recognizable, a fringe universe alternative of that saga launched at the start of the 1980s.
I do not want to wait for the MCU to filter these characters into their already established universe. Feige and his crew will certainly not touch anything close to “The Dark Phoenix Saga” after Thanos is put to bed. As they did with Spider-Man: Homecoming and their re-establishing of “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” minus an Uncle Ben re-slaying, the Marvel Studios X-Men will most likely have their essential ingredients stirred into a new narrative stew. It’ll taste good, but Dark Phoenix will have been long digested.
As an X-Men die-hard, I have a lot of fanish angst riding on Dark Phoenix. If it succeeds, on man, that would be a tremendous conclusion to the 20th Century Fox era of superhero cinema. If it fails, sigh. Oh well. Not surprising given its lineage. No big deal. Let’s pretend Logan was their last outing.