Fox's 'Dark Phoenix' is the end of a mediocre era. Can Disney make Marvel's X-Men great again?

The film is simply a muddled, unnecessary retelling of a story already told badly, revealing how little creatively Fox has to offer.
Tye Sheridan, James McAvoy, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Alexandra Shipp in Twentieth Century Fox's "Dark Phoenix."
Some of the cast of "Dark Phoenix," including Tye Sheridan, James McAvoy, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Alexandra Shipp.Twentieth Century Fox
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By Ani Bundel

When Disney closed the deal to purchase 20th Century Fox in March of 2019, the internet wasn’t sure what to think. Though critics decried the creation of such an open entertainment monopoly, a certain subset of comic fans viewed the merger as cause for celebration. Finally, the X-Men, the Marvel characters whose adaptation rights have been owned by Fox, would be coming home to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it was not just the crossover movie potential that had fans salivating. It was the idea that after two decades and many cinematic failures, Fox’s control over the "X-Men" franchise was finally coming to an end. It can only go up from here, right?

“X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” which premiered Friday to mostly less-than-kind reviews, was never meant to be the final "X-Men" film for Fox, but it is a fitting end nonetheless. It is the 12th "X-Men" movie since 2000’s “X-Men” first launched the superhero genre craze. “X-Men’s” venerable cast was headed up by Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen, and the film cleverly framed the fight for mutant equal rights as a timely parable for the rising LGBTQ movement.

After two decades and many cinematic failures, Fox’s control over the X-Men franchise was finally coming to an end. It can only go up from here, right?

Oh, how far we’ve fallen. “Dark Phoenix” represents the final stage in the collapse of all that potential. Despite a cast stacked with Oscar nominees and winners like Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence, and despite a star turn from perhaps the hottest actress of the moment Sophie Turner, this final "X-Men" film is a perfect example of why Disney has won the superhero war. Disney’s corner of the MCU tells new stories. Fox’s, for decades, has not.

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When “X-Men” arrived with a massive $157 million box office haul at the turn of the century, it was the first major hit for a Marvel brand movie. The comic titan had spent decades struggling to push its popular characters into the mainstream entertainment world. Though the “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” titles were popular with readers, they couldn’t seem to gain big screen traction against DC Comic rivals “Superman” and “Batman.” Finally, Fox seemed to crack the cinematic code with “X-Men,” but it didn’t last. Neither did “Spider-Man,” another Marvel brand, this one owned by Sony, which launched in 2002. Both were conceived as trilogies. “X-Men’s” third installment, “The Last Stand” was a critical failure when it arrived in 2006, and “Spider-Man 3” didn’t fare much better a year later.

Frustration over a lack of artistic control helped push Marvel Studios to turn into a full-fledged independent production house in 2006 and launch the MCU, which would eventually be bought by Disney in 2009. Unlike companies like Fox, Marvel trusted the stories and characters in the catalog, and believed the audience would love them the way comic readers did.

When Sony gave in and made a deal with Disney in 2015 to allow “Spider-Man” to join the MCU crossover films, it was precisely because of a lack of imagination. After the first trilogy ran its course by 2007, Sony tried rebooting the franchise in 2012. It recast the character with a younger, hotter actor and changed out the love interest and villain, but the result felt like little more than an excuse to keep making “Spider-Man” films, lest the rights revert to Marvel and Disney from disuse.

Unlike companies like Fox, Marvel trusted the stories and characters in the catalog, and believed the audience would love them the way comic readers did.

Fox initially fared a bit better, betting first on standalone “Wolverine” films, and then accidentally landing on the R-rated comedy hit “Deadpool.” But the central “X-Men” films have remained plagued by the same unwillingness to experiment, once again simply recasting the same characters, just younger and more attractive. This is a bizarre choice, considering “The X-Men” comics have a cast of thousands, and the company could have gone in any direction it chose. Fox's Wolverine-based “Logan” became an Oscar nominee in 2018 for doing something inventive with the Marvel stable, and yet on the "X-Men" side, the producers continued cleaving to what viewers already knew.

Case in point, “Dark Phoenix” is a rebooted remake of 2006’s “Last Stand,” which had already failed the first time. Some may see irony in the fact that the story used to wrap up Fox’s initial “X-Men” trilogy has now become the same story that wrapped up Fox’s entire "X-Men" franchise. But in fact, Fox had high hopes for "Dark Phoenix" when it went into production in 2017. The movie’s original release date was fall of 2018 — before the Disney-Fox merger was even on the horizon — and was pushed back to 2019 before anyone knew if the deal would close. Turner, a veteran of “Game of Thrones,” was supposed to be one of the new faces of the franchise; “Dark Phoenix” was her coming out party. Instead, this is most likely her swan song, as she (and almost everyone else in the current cast) are expected to find themselves out of jobs, with rumors swirling that the MCU plans to reimagine the "X-Men" from the ground up.

Regardless of timing and mergers, however, this plan was most likely never going to work because the movie simply isn’t that good. Like a vestigial tail, the film is simply a muddled, unnecessary retelling of a story already told badly, revealing how little creatively Fox has to offer. No wonder “X-Men” fans are relieved the MCU will take over from here.