X-Men is in an odd stage of its evolution. Fox has suddenly become a lot more ambitious in what they'll green light; Deadpool was a hard-R comedy, Logan an even harder-R western, New Mutants a full-on horror and who knows what Gambit will eventually look like. In an environment where superhero movies are dominated by four-quadrant lightness of touch and shared universes, they're creating the image of the X-Men as the franchise that dares to be different.
In that company, Dark Phoenix feels out of place. It's got a fresh cast and multi-layered nostalgic underpinnings (for both the 1990s era and the property in general), but at the end of the day, it's really an extension of the main series that began in 2000 and felt run out by The Last Stand. Obviously, Fox needs to have some family-friendly X-Men output lest they cut off an entire, rabid portion of their potential audience, but doing it with this sort of movie is outdated and unnecessary.
Yes, First Class and Days of Future Past were main series too, but they had hooks that took them away from the school status quo; Apocalypse highlighted how easy it is for things to fall into the same basic dogma. That film was basically Bryan Singer's version of The Last Stand - a trilogy capper that undid much of the majesty of what came before - and was so mired in the past it felt like it had pretty much halted development of the main series. In fact, the tepid glare it got from audiences and critics (very few people will actually come to its defense) may be why Fox has been more cagey about Dark Phoenix. That's a real dampener, and while director Simon Kinberg has admitted some of Apocalypse's faults and promised an improvement, he addressed the throwaway aesthetics rather than underlying issues.
Kingberg himself is a big question mark as is. He is a prominent writer and producer in Hollywood who's been a powering force behind the X-Men for the past ten years. And that really is for better and worse; he broke out writing The Last Stand and both wrote and produced Fantastic Four and Apocalypse, so while he has producing credits on Days of Future Past, Deadpool and Logan (as well as writing the former) to his name, he's ultimately as hit-and-miss as the franchise. Promoting him to director is a bold but unclear move, making Dark Phoenix an unknown commodity while speaking of a desire on Fox's part for a more producer-led, studio picture; the antithesis of everything else coming out.
And while that's rote in the confines of the X-Men, it's positively archaic in the blockbuster sphere. Marvel are pushing the boundaries of how far into the weirdness of comics superheroes will go, turning Thor into Flash Gordon and making Guardians of the Galaxy a key selling point for an Avengers film. For Dark Phoenix to be treading water in topics that were struggling a decade ago doesn't instill much faith. The reason films like The Mummy or Alice Through The Looking Glass so struggled at the box office is because they're a static type that offers little to a modern audience. Apocalypse was in that grouping and Dark Phoenix hasn't done much to separate itself yet.
Maybe there is a genuinely exciting hook to X-Men: Dark Phoenix that we're yet to see; theories range from full-on Skrull Empire to a top-down reboot of the franchise. But if that's true, it's being hidden and in its place is the illusion of the most basic superhero film of 2018. Let's hope the mutants can pull through.
- New Mutants (2019) release date: Aug 02, 2019
- Deadpool 2 (2018) release date: May 18, 2018
- X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019) release date: Jun 07, 2019
- Gambit (2020) release date: Mar 13, 2020