Major spoilers for Dark Phoenix below.
If you were to give in to temptation and glance at your phone during an interminable fight scene on a train in Dark Phoenix, you’d be shocked, upon returning your gaze to the big screen, to discover that the movie is almost over. The tussle is so boilerplate and rinky-dink that you can’t quite believe it’s supposed to be the climax of this film — a film that is, in and of itself, likely the climax of the entire X-Men film franchise.
The continuously updated, constantly revised X-Men saga became old enough to buy cigarettes last year, but it’s now on its deathbed. Disney bought the X-folks’ parent company, Fox, a few months back, and there’s been no reason to believe the House of Mouse will want to continue using the current actors, creative teams, or plot continuity when it squeezes these once-lucrative mutants into future film projects. As Vulture contributor Max Robinson put it, Dark Phoenix was “promoted with the enthusiasm of a local carpet store sale.” Sure, the long-delayed X-Men horror offshoot The New Mutants might (might) see the light of day; and more Deadpool movies, presumably independent of the main X-tale, are on the way. But the core narrative feels conclusively over. The most interesting story it told over the course of nearly 20 years was ultimately not one about family, education, or diversity. Its greatest lesson is a metatextual one, a cautionary tale about the way capitalism eats its own.
The fact that Dark Phoenix was the end of the road could’ve been a curious sort of boon, actually. Typically, we complain that the good guys are never in any serious threat in superhero movies. We know the actors’ contracts obligate them to perpetuate a longer narrative, so no one of note is going to really die. We know the next few movies on the slate, so there’s no risk of the universe collapsing. We know there will be no end, so the suspense is merely a product of the suspension of disbelief. But here is a movie that should be able to defy all those expectations, right? There won’t be any more X-movies, so we should feel genuine dread and uncertainty about what’ll happen to our favorite characters, yes?
Well, the trouble with that equation is … what favorite characters? I mean, sure, there’s still some cultural affection for the idea of Professor X, Magneto, Mystique, Cyclops, Beast, and the whole crew. But these particular iterations of them? Good luck finding the superfans. Let’s put it this way: While the average Robert Downey Jr. stan is still sitting shiva for the loss of future Tony Stark appearances, the average Sophie Turner stan is just happy that their girl won’t have to suffer the indignity of starring in another perfunctory, under-marketed X-outing.
Which brings us back to that shockingly dull climax we were talking about. By this point, Turner’s Jean Grey has inadvertently sucked up some cosmic powers during an X-mission in space and, after an exasperating and destructive identity crisis, has granted a portion of them to the astoundingly named alien Vuk. Now, newly strengthened Vuk (played with utter blankness by Jessica Chastain) and her fellow members of the shape-shifting D’Bari race (which, though obscure, is an actual thing from the comics) are ambushing a government-guarded train transporting the X-Men. I guess the aliens want to siphon the remaining power out of Jean? Never mind that; the X-Men fight the D’Bari to a standstill, and eventually leave the train for a field nearby, where Vuk and Jean engage in a final battle. Surrounded by X-Men and the corpses of aliens, the two women rise above the ground. Vuk tells Jean she can’t kill her without letting her powers loose and killing her friends. Vuk knows Jean won’t risk harming them, and thus that “your emotions make you weak.” Jean wittily replies, “No, my emotions make me strong.” Jean then flies Vuk into space and shoots her with energy until they both explode. End scene.
A brief epilogue does follow. The Xavier School is renamed the Jean Grey School, Beast becomes headmaster, and Professor X retires to Europe. Magneto meets up with the Prof in a French café and challenges his old frenemy to a game of chess, in a callback to multiple X-movies. The two of them chuckle as the camera pans left and we see a single streak of cosmic Phoenix flame in the sky, a limp gesture in the direction of possible future stories in this series, although the viewer can tell that we’ll never see any. There is no credits scene, no tease of a future in Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, no gonzo rundown of two decades of storytelling. This is the way a franchise ends. Not with an explosion but a fizzle.
It wasn’t always this way. I don’t remember much about seeing the first X-Men in 2000, but I do remember the car ride to the theater. I was 14 years old at the time and went with my best friend, Brian. We had become acquainted with Marvel’s forever-angsty mutants thanks to their eponymous animated television show in the early 1990s. Brian subsequently got into comics and demanded that I join him; the first one I ever bought was X-Men Vol. 2, No. 69, the conclusion of the “Operation: Zero Tolerance” crossover event. We went to our first Comic-Con in sixth grade and spent most of it trying to chat with then-buzzy X-Men writers Joe Kelly, Joe Casey, and Steven T. Seagle. But by the end of the 20th century, superhero movies and comics, alike, were trapped in a slump. While Brian and I rode through the grid of the Chicagoland area on our way to see the X-folks’ big-screen debut on opening day, the primary emotion I remember feeling was astonishment. How could this be? How had it come to pass that these characters, so irrelevant in mainstream culture, were going to soon stand before us as flesh-and-blood gods? (Or, at least, as a decorated cast of actors, including Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, and Rebecca Romijn.) As it turned out, the movie was fine. I wasn’t especially blown away, nor was I disappointed. I liked the comics better.
And yet, that wasn’t the point. The point was that the movie’s very existence made us believe that there was a future for superhero fiction, that bigger and better things awaited our beloved spandex genre. And, sure enough, that was the case — to a degree that has become somewhat sickening. X-Men, which grossed $296 million at the box office worldwide, paved the way for Spider-Man, which paved the way for Batman Begins, which paved the way for the 2008 advent of the franchise that would go on to become superhero fiction’s apogee, the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
By then, however, the X-Men movies themselves were floundering. They received a shot in the arm with a quasi-reboot in the form of 2011’s X-Men: First Class (introducing James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence — as younger versions of Professor X, Magneto, and Mystique, respectively — to the franchise), then plateaued. In 2016, the X-world spun off its most lucrative sub-brand with Deadpool, and 2017 brought the Oscar-nominated Wolverine swan song Logan. But despite those successes, it was clear that the main narrative from which they emerged, the one about the team known as the X-Men, was on the rocks; the middling returns of 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past and 2016’s abominable X-Men: Apocalypse proved as much. If anything, the Disney sale and its subsequent housecleaning was something of a mercy killing. What went wrong?
For one thing, like so many products in the free market, the franchise became a victim of its own success. In X-Men and the far superior X2: X-Men United, helmers like producer Lauren Shuler Donner and director Bryan Singer convinced the world’s moviegoers that they were ready for high-octane superhero action on a scale unlike anything in the wildest dreams of Batman’s Tim Burton or Superman’s Richard Donner (Lauren’s husband, oddly enough). Fox couldn’t keep this cultural meme, this idea of the modern long-underwear thriller, contained. Soon, everyone was aping and — more important — one-upping them. By the time Donner protégé Kevin Feige decamped to the newly revamped Marvel Studios and helped launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the X-Men were slogging along with their ill-fated third film, X-Men: The Last Stand. In the summer of 2008, when Iron Man and The Dark Knight defied expectations and box-office records, the best Fox could muster was the promise of a Wolverine solo film the next year. The core narrative never regained the momentum it lost to its artistic offspring at other studios. What’s more, many of the post–First Class stars — Fassbender and Lawrence, especially — got too successful to have any visible desire to continue acting in these things. Inertia set in.
An additional lesson that capitalism taught the X-Men was that no product survives without innovation. The franchise was at its best and most successful when it was most radical: in launching itself, in exploring obscene fart-joke superheroism with Deadpool, in crafting an unnervingly grown-up meditation on violence with Logan. But the main story, the one about the X-Men themselves, more or less stuck with what had worked for Singer and Donner in 2000. How many times can we experience the soap-opera beats, the brother-versus-brother (it always should’ve been boyfriend-versus-boyfriend, but leave that be) narrative of Magneto and Xavier, the ramblings about oppression of minority populations, before it all sounds empty? Diminishing returns were inevitable. The MCU has never stopped playing around with subgenres and storytelling construction, but the X-Men movies languished in middlebrow limbo. Dark Phoenix, itself a regurgitation of Last Stand’s motifs, even seems to be aware of this, tossing in a moment where a rote confrontation between Xavier and Magneto features the latter saying to the former, “You’re always sorry and there’s always a speech. But nobody cares anymore.” Indeed.
And yet, the final lesson of money and the X-people is one that was largely beyond their control. Perhaps I’ve been too harsh to this point: After all, even if Dark Phoenix were a better movie, is it really possible that Disney would’ve continued it with a sequel? It seems unlikely. No studio exec likes taking over a portfolio that they didn’t begin themselves. Better to start anew. There are exceptions, of course, with Deadpool being a notable one. But Dark Phoenix would’ve had to have been a pretty audacious barn burner to convince Disney to put the main story on life support. They have no reason to believe they can’t do it better, à la Spider-Man’s reboot in Captain America: Civil War. In general, shiny newness will always prevail.
Now we must prepare to see what the horrifically swollen Disney empire wants to do with the territory it has conquered and the characters that dwell within it. I have a feeling there will be innovation and reinvigoration when they get around to rebooting the characters. There are simply too many skilled minds and competent hands (not to mention a metric ton of money) at work in the MCU these days for us to assume failure. We’ll enjoy them again. For a time, that is. If the MCU is to continue its gravity-defying career streak, it would do well to learn from its failed predecessor. There’s gold in them thar hills, but only so much of it. At some point, the MCU, too, will disintegrate. Whatever comes after that, we can expect that the X-Men will at least be present for it, but only a mutant clairvoyant could tell us whether they’ll ever set the pace again. Good ideas have a habit of running away from home. It may be that the modern conception of the superhero movie will never go back to the quirky family it came from.