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Two years ago the convoluted X-Men timeline came to a satisfying conclusion with the critically-praised Logan, which saw the character arcs for fan favourites Wolverine and Charles Xavier treated with the sensitive and respect they had earned over the last two decades, with Peter Travers of Rolling Stone declaring, ‘they could not have crafted a more heartfelt valedictory.’ After a franchise that had lasted nineteen years and nine motion pictures (ten including Deadpool), the producers of the series had long-since abandoned any sense of continuity, having effectively rewritten the events of the first three movies with the time-travelling sequel X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2014.
This decision had allowed the studio to return to the franchise’s first failure, 2006’s The Last Stand, in which screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn had attempted to bring the legendary Dark Phoenix storyline to the big screen following two successful films that had revamped the superhero genre for a new generation of cinemagoers. Yet with a troubled production that had seen both Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughn moving onto other projects and action filmmaker Brett Ratner taking over as director, the movie would prove to be an unfocused mess that while providing audiences with a few memorable moments would fail to bring the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion.
It would be another three years before the series would be revived but when this resulted in a disappointing spinoff that attempted to explore the origins of Wolverine, Vaughn returned to reboot the X-Men with the surprise hit First Class in 2011. This movie would see many of the principal characters replaced with younger actors, marking the introduction to the series for the likes of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and rising star Jennifer Lawrence, who soon after its release would land her big break with The Hunger Games. The success of First Class would renew the interest of its studio 20th Century Fox and over the next few years the timeline would once again become disjointed until Logan finally managed to bring some much-needed credibility and closure.
Dark Phoenix, which promised to correct the mistakes committed with The Last Stand, was released on 7 June 2019 with the former movie’s co-screenwriter Simon Kinberg making his directorial debut on the $200m picture. The focus of the story would once again be on Jean Grey who, after being exposed to a mysterious energy in outer-space, is transformed into a near-indestructible being who is unable to control her seemingly-limitless powers. While hunted by both by her former colleagues in the X-Men and veteran antagonist Magneto, Jean is seduced by an alien life-form that has taken on the appearance of a mysterious young woman who is determined to absorb her newfound powers in order to save her own race by annihilating humanity and taken the Earth as their own.
‘Little makes sense on either the narrative or emotional level,’ declared in the London Evening Standard in one of many negative reviews that the movie encountered upon its release. ‘If Avengers: Endgame was the perfect example in how to land a franchise, X-Men: Dark Phoenix is a reminder that any performer, however gifted, is at the mercy of the material.’ And while Endgame has already overtaken Titanic as the second highest-grossing movie of all time, Dark Phoenix has so far barely earned its budget back, while also tarnishing the brand more than any of the instalments that had come before, even the reviled X-Men Origins: Wolverine. And with series regular Hugh Jackman having retired his character following the swan song of Logan, the performances of the remaining cast has become another focal point of the criticisms levelled at the film.
Yet while some filmmakers have responded to criticism against their work by publicly attacking the fan base, just as Rian Johnson would do when responding to the public’s reaction to his 2017 film Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Kinberg would instead take full responsibility for the failure of Dark Phoenix. ‘I’m here and I’m saying when a movie doesn’t work, put it on me,’ the director told podcast the Business, acknowedging that his directorial debut failed to strike a note with viewers. ‘I’m the writer/director of the movie, the movie didn’t connect with audiences, that’s on me…It clearly is a movie that didn’t connect with audiences that didn’t see it, it didn’t connect enough with audiences that did see it. So that’s on me.’
Arriving at a difficult juncture in the history of the franchise, with the filmmakers having to abandon their original villains Skrulls when they were introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe earlier this year with Captain Marvel, Dark Phoenix would also become the final instalment to feature the principal characters of Xavier, Mystique, Jean Grey and other favourites before Marvel ultimately reboots the series for its inclusion in their multi-billion dollar MCU. Yet while Endgame would break box office records, other recent attempts with long-running franchises, such as Men In Black: International, would fail to meet the expectations of either the studios or their audiences.
And while one final X-Men movie is set to be released in 2020, with Marvel having now acquired 20th Century Fox, it has been reported that the disaster of Dark Phoenix has resulted in Kinberg refusing to read a pitch that would have served as a spinoff for another character, Beast. Originally performed by Cheers and Frasier star Kelsey Grammer in The Last Stand, the role of Hank McCoy and his mutant alter-ego was later taken over by English actor Nicholas Hoult for First Class. Dark Phoenix would mark his fourth appearance as Beast but there was one aspiring screenwriter among the crew of 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse who had conceived a story that he hoped would serve as a stand-alone picture for Beast.
Byron Burton, who had worked in the musical department on the project under composer John Ottman, had been struggling to land his big break in the industry and had hoped that his connections to the franchise would serve as his Hollywood calling card. ‘I said, ‘Knock yourself out but just know there’s a ninety-five per cent chance no one is ever going to make this,’ Ottman explained to the Hollywood Reporter of Burton’s attempts to pass his pitch onto an executive at the studio. ‘After reading Burton’s draft, Ottman was surprised to find himself believing a Beast movie could actually work,’ stated critic Aaron Couch. ‘He came aboard to develop the project, making tweaks to the script and envisioning it as a $90m-budgeted spinoff.’
Set in the 1980s, in the years following the events of Apocalypse (thus chronologically before Dark Phoenix), the story would have focused on a reclusive McCoy suppressing his mutation with a serum in an effort to keep his inner beast at bay and approaching a scientist with a similar condition, only to discover that the mysterious doctor has an evil masterplan that McCoy is forced to confront, serving as the heroic protagonist of his own feature film. ‘Hank goes in search of the man, who he discovers has been terrorising the Inuit village,’ continued Couch. ‘The journey all leads to a showdown in which Hank teams up with Wolverine, whom Prof. X has located using Cerebro. The very end of the film ends with a tag revealing the villain Mr. Sinister has been watching the proceedings.’
As for the reason why Kinberg had refused to read Burton’s pitch Couch added, ‘Kinberg politely declined to read the script to avoid becoming unduly influenced by it. Part of Kinberg’s rationale was he was thinking of reintroducing Wolverine back into the X-Men world following Hugh Jackman’s retirement, so the use of Wolverine in any other movie would only muddy the waters. Ottman had no hard feelings, though by this point he’d become so attached to the idea that he would have pushed to direct the film himself had Fox been interested.’