What the Unsatisfying End of 'Dark Phoenix' Means for the X-Men Franchise

dark phoenix
Doane Gregory/20th Century Fox

This story contains major spoilers for Dark Phoenix, including a discussion of the ending. 

Dark Phoenix, the latest entry in the long-running X-Men series of films, wants you to believe it's obsessed with evolution, particularly the way its mutant heroes can change and develop over time, but it's more concerned with stasis. In taking on director duties, writer and producer Simon Kinberg, who has helped shepherd the comic book series to the screen for over a decade, approaches the task of telling this story like a risk-averse brand manager, maintaining the mix of weepy melodrama and slick action the franchise is known for. It's not the worst X-Men movie -- that honor likely belongs to 2006's infuriating X-Men: The Last Stand or 2009's baffling X-Men Origins: Wolverine -- but it feels the most uninspired. 

More than anything, Dark Phoenix is a missed opportunity. Given the corporate machinations and behind-the-scenes upheaval surrounding its production and release -- it's the first core X-Men movie made without the creative involvement of filmmaker Bryan Singer, who has faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, and it will be the last hurrah for these versions of the characters following Disney's purchase of 20th Century Fox, the studio behind X-Men -- this could have been a chance to upend the conventions of the series. Maybe shake things up. The success of Logan, the first comic book movie to earn a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination, and Deadpool, the money-printing meta riff on superhero tropes, should have given Kinberg some wiggle room to serve up a daring, cosmic take on one of the most beloved storylines in the history of comics.

Instead, the film, which introduces Jean Grey as a child in 1975 before leaping forward to 1992, remains tentative at almost every turn. Introduced in 2016's exhausting X-Men: Apocalypse, Sophie Turner, so effective as Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones, struggles to find a compelling spin on the gifted telepathic mutant who undergoes a startling transformation after sacrificing herself during a space rescue mission gone wrong. Blessed with mysterious powers from a cloud of purple space gas, she returns home and discovers she's not exactly who she used to be. 

Over the course of the movie's relatively brisk 114 minute runtime, she feuds with her protective mentor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), frustrates her romantic partner Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), kills her most loyal teammate Mystique (a comically checked-out Jennifer Lawrence), seeks out her old enemy Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and eventually teams up with a mysterious alien sent to steal her power (an underused Jessica Chastain). None of it leaves much of an impression -- and, as you'll find out below -- none of it will likely "matter" in the larger X-Men universe.

dark phoenix
Doane Gregory/20th Century Fox

How does 'Dark Phoenix' end the X-Men saga?

For all its effort to place women at the center of its story, a sentiment expressed in a corny line from Mystique about "changing the name to X-Women," Dark Phoenix can't resist ending with an image of two dudes playing chess, a callback image to the 2000 original. The last shot might provide a glimpse of Jean Grey's Phoenix soaring through the sky, but the final scene once again finds Charles Xavier bantering with his old frenemy Magneto. "Just a game for old time's sake," quips the super-villain, as the two pals sit down together at an outdoor cafe, a setting that might also bring to mind the closing moments of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. It's like staring at a copy of a copy of a copy.

To get to that last exchange, you must make it through a series of sporadically imaginative, mostly drab action set-pieces charting Jean's trip to the dark side. (In the movie's defense, it does spend more time with Jean than X-Men: The Last Stand, which was co-written by Kinberg and included a Dark Phoenix plot, along with a scene where Juggernaut says, "I'm the Juggernaut, bitch.") There's a battle in New York that finds a team of mutants led by Xavier and another led by Magneto struggling to cross a street, like the most expensive game of Frogger you've ever seen. For the third act, which was reportedly reshot because the original ending too closely resembled another recent Marvel movie, Kinberg puts all the heroes and villains on a speeding train together. Guns float. Lightning strikes. Money gets spent.  

Eventually, the train is derailed and Jean, using her Dark Phoenix powers for good, faces off against Chastain's white-haired villain Vuk, an alien of the important-in-the-comics D'Bari race of creatures. We learn little about Vuk or her fellow D'Bari here; all that matters is she's bad and Jean must defeat her, which she does through some flashing light special effects and heavy emoting as her helpless friends look on. In the somber wrap-up montage, the Charles Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters is renamed in Jean's honor, and Beast, the grumpy blue-haired brainiac played by Nicholas Hoult, takes over running the academy, presumably so Xavier can take a vacation to Paris and pursue his love of chess. No cliffhanger. No sequel set-up. No post-credits scene.

dark phoenix
Doane Gregory/20th Century Fox

Is 'Dark Phoenix' the last X-Men movie?

Technically, Dark Phoenix won't be the last Fox-produced X-Men movie. While it will be the last to feature the series' main characters, a horror-tinged spin-off called The New Mutants is currently scheduled for release on April 3, 2020. If you follow superhero movie news online, you might be familiar with the film's troubled production schedule: It was announced back in 2015, shot in 2017, and initially scheduled for release in April of 2018. There was even a creepy trailer released in October of 2017.

Then the delays began, with the release date bouncing further down the calendar and into the future. Following the buzz generated by the trailer, additional reshoots were planned, reportedly to bump up the scare factor, but given the many commitments of performers like Anya Taylor-Joy and Maisie Williams, those additional reshoots have been challenging to schedule. "Getting them all together again at the same time and at the same place has proven difficult," explained Kinberg, who serves as a producer on the film, in a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter. "But I think we've figured out a way to do it this year so that the movie will be ready in time for the new release date."

Previously rumored X-Men movies like a Gambit solo outing starring Channing Tatum, a Logan spin-off built around X-23, or a Kitty Pryde stand-alone adventure are officially off the table at this point. The more complicated question is how Deadpool will fit into Disney's plans. Deadpool 2 spent a decent amount of screentime setting up an X-Force spin-off, which looks unlikely to get made anytime soon. However, Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger has claimed that the company still wants to be in the Deadpool business and they remain committed to the movie's R-rated sensibility. For now.

dark phoenix
20th Century Fox

When will Marvel Studios reboot the X-Men series?

Following the news of the Fox-Disney deal, it was clear that the X-Men movies wouldn't continue on in their current form. While the series has been incredibly successful, it never achieved the cultural ubiquity or billion-dollar-per-movie grosses of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which now cranks out multiple projects per year. Even though they were giant blockbusters and predated the MCU by many years, the Fox-produced X-Men films could feel like the brooding outcasts compared to the triumphant world-savers of the Avengers.

A Disney-backed reboot feels inevitable, but when will it happen? “It’ll be a while,” said Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige when io9 asked him about folding the X-Men into the MCU. “It’s all just beginning and the five-year plan that we’ve been working on, we were working on before any of that was set. So really it’s much more, for us, less about specifics of when and where [the X-Men will appear] right now and more just the comfort factor and how nice it is that they’re home. That they’re all back."

In interviews promoting Dark Phoenix, Kinberg has struck a diplomatic tone. "I don’t know what the plans are going to be in terms of casting or storytelling," he told the L.A. Times in a recent interview. "I don’t know that Marvel knows what the larger plan is. But I’m excited about it. I’m obviously a huge admirer of what they’ve done."

After stumbling out of the gloomy and unsatisfying Dark Phoenix, fans will likely feel excited to see the eventual MCU-version of the franchise as well. Many of the Fox-produced X-Men films had flashes of brilliance. X2 and X-Men: First Class remain enormously entertaining action thrillers, packed with charismatic actors selling the tortured angst and the lofty ideas, and 2000's X-Men, an almost TV-pilot like introduction to an ungainly sci-fi universe, deserves credit for kicking off the modern superhero era, establishing a semi-realistic tone capable of switching between gravitas and wit. But the series has failed to evolve in recent years, doubling down on the jumbled chronology and empty spectacle. Like many comic book heroes, it might have to die before it can be reborn.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.