WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX
X-Men: Dark Phoenix has bombed hard both with critics and at the box office. The last bit is the important one here as not only did this final entry in Fox’s main X-Men film franchise have the lowest domestic opening in the entire series, but with a lacklustre international debut it’s now looking like Dark Phoenix will end up losing Fox a cool $100 million if not more. With that kind of damage, fingers are rapidly being pointed at who’s to blame. Naturally, you would say that the buck stops with Simon Kinberg, the franchise’s longtime writer/producer who also made his directing debut on Dark Phoenix. But while Kinberg has some sins to pay for, as it turns out his transgressions may be small compared to some of the really bad decisions made by the Fox suits above him.
This is what we learn from a report from Deadline, digging into what went wrong with the film. One early point of interest is that Dark Phoenix was originally intended to be a much different film. Or rather, films, plural, as Kinberg originally wrote it to be two features but this approach got scrapped by Fox execs for reasons unknown. Given the epic scope of the iconic comic book story it’s based on, having double the runtime makes a whole lot of sense. At just under 2 hours long, Dark Phoenix already feels crammed with stuff, a lot of which has no proper impact because there’s no time for the necessary plot and/or character development to sell it all.
Splitting the story into two parts would also have given Kinberg time to establish and properly delve into the cosmic aspects of the Dark Phoenix Saga, rather than the half-handed introduction of the titular cosmic force and the very underwritten alien enemies led by Jessica Chastain’s Vuk that we got.
Those aliens, by the way, are revealed to be the D’bari, a race found in the Marvel comics which has a relationship to the Phoenix Force. Very little of that relationship is present here, and the D’bari have been completely changed to be a race of shapeshifters that have been hiding on Earth after their homeworld was destroyed. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it should as Kinberg had originally intended for this alien race to be the Skrulls, the shapeshifting extra-terrestrials we famously met in this year’s Captain Marvel (Pre-merger, Fox and Disney had a weird dual ownership of the Skrulls cinematic rights).
The Skrulls were also supposed to have a very different final standoff with the X-Men than the one we see between the D’bari and the mutant heroes. That’s because Kinberg reworked the entire third act of the film in reshoots after unsatisfactory test screenings. Originally, there was supposed to be a more “intimate ending with Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) against Jessica Chastain’s Vuk”, but test audiences wanted to see all the heroes throwing down against a big force. To be fair, this may have turned out for the better because the train attack sequence that now stands as the film’s finale boasts arguably the best action the franchise has ever seen.
There have been recent reports that the ending was reshot due to similarities with Captain Marvel, but it turns out these reports were false. According to Deadline, nobody involved in Dark Phoenix had any insider knowledge of that Marvel film. Other tested endings include one in which Jean Grey dies, among others, but instead, they went with the slightly hopeful one we got in the end.
But the reshoots for these various endings were actually not an issue. As we’ve mentioned before, these things are par for the course on big blockbuster movies and almost always budgeted for upfront. The difference is that most of the time you never hear about them. As Deadline indicates, Fox lost control of the film’s PR here as reports about reshoots leaked online several times, giving prospective audience members the impression that the production was falling apart when in fact it had far fewer reshoots than other entries in the franchise like the universally praised X-Men: First Class.
To add insult to injury, the narrative that started circulating was that the reshoots were the reason for Dark Phoenix’s many delays. The film was originally set for release on 8 November 2018, before being pushed back to 14 February 2019. The reason given initially was that Kinberg wanted more post-production time to polish the film’s VFX. As I mentioned in my review, this was time very well spent. However, Dark Phoenix was then delayed again to this weekend past, and what made this change really weird is that the new date was announced two days after the film’s big trailer debut which had the Valentines Day release date all over it. It’s not hard to see how people could think this production had turned into a mess.
But once again, as it turns out, this last delay wasn’t Kinberg’s fault. Instead, the blame can be laid at the feet of James Cameron. The acclaimed filmmaker had nothing to do with Dark Phoenix’s production, but as the man who made the biggest film of all time in Avatar, he was Fox’s star player. So when Cameron didn’t want his Alita: Battle Angel to open close to the likes of Aquaman and Mary Poppins Returns in the 2018 Christmas season, Fox Studios CEO Stacey Snider reportedly threw all her support behind Cameron and was adamant in giving his film the quieter February release window.
This meant something else had to move out of its way though, and thus Dark Phoenix now suddenly found itself not just opening in the busy summer blockbuster season, but also opening after gigantic record-breaking rivals Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame had already raised the superhero cinema bar beyond what Dark Phoenix could manage. Fox claimed this would still work for the better as they could take advantage of a China holiday, but Dark Phoenix has barely made a blip in that key market so that has backfired badly.
What’s even more strange though is that one of the reasons Fox wanted Dark Phoenix in the relatively quiet early release was because the studio didn’t view it as a tentpole blockbuster. The film’s $200 million production price tag may belie this, but Dark Phoenix had originally been intended to be a much darker and emotionally intimate film. That would have been all good if Kinberg – who it’s reported has actually stepped behind the camera unofficially to direct and subsequently save several earlier X-Men films – had made a more accurate adaptation of the Dark Phoenix saga like he actually wanted. Whatever the reasons and whoever is to blame though, the fact remains that the X-Men franchise is now going to end on a rather sour note.
Well, there’s still New Mutants to release so it could still redeem things… yeah, I couldn’t type that with a straight face either.
Last Updated: June 11, 2019
June 11, 2019 at 15:15
[scrolls past spoilers]
So soon after the movie they are already saying what went wrong…does no one do any screen-testing / QA anymore?
(My comment might not make sense if explained above)