Fox's X-Men franchise has been a 19-year roller coaster for fans. Since the inaugural release in 2000, audiences have been presented with a truncated roster and muddled story elements, both of which became hallmarks of the series. That wasn't out of the ordinary at the beginning of Hollywood's current love affair with superheroes, as filmmakers attempted to crack the code of how to distill decades' worth of source material into a cohesive, two-hour narrative.
So, it’s easy to cut the first X-Men film some slack; they were still figuring out how all of the parts fit together. But if the newly released trailer for Dark Phoenix is any indication, even after a dozen movies, all (sort of) set in the same continuity, the series hasn't learned from its past. Then again, has it ever, really? Sure, there have been some solid films, but the overarching narrative is so fractured that it can't support the stories within each feature, let alone a retelling of something as epic as "The Dark Phoenix Saga," arguably the most influential storyline in the X-Men comics canon.
Even in a second attempt. From what we've seen in the trailers for Dark Phoenix, it looks like the series of films is circling back to its biggest missed opportunity from X-Men: The Last Stand by eschewing the story from the source material and never really building a trajectory for Jean Grey's cosmic corruption.
The original arc, by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, is told on a sweeping, cosmic scale, as Jean Grey becomes bonded with the powerful cosmic entity later known as the Phoenix Force. With her already-formidable telepathic and telekinetic abilities greatly amplified, Jean draws the attention of the villainous Mastermind, who uses his own mutant power to seduce her and project illusions into her mind, which leads to her corruption.
Eventually breaking down the mental barriers she had constructed, and tapping into her full potential, Jean embraces the identity of Dark Phoenix, exacts revenge on Mastermind, overwhelms the X-Men, and leaves Earth for deep space. Drained by her journey across the galaxy, Jean consumes the energy of a star, causing the death of the entire population of a nearby planet. Viewed now as a threat to the entire universe, Dark Phoenix is marked for death by the alien Shi'ar, Kree and Skrulls. That brings the Shi'ar into conflict with the X-Men, but in the end, Jean Grey sacrifices her own life.
To be fair, Dark Phoenix looks as if it pays lip service to the cosmic side of the comic book saga, with the X-Men actually going into a space (a first for the franchise, surprisingly), but it all feels too little, too late. It’s as if the franchise is acknowledging the fact they totally whiffed an adaption of the story in X-Men: The Last Stand and are trying to do right by fans, but the previous films haven't done much to set the stage for the Dark Phoenix to take flight. And yes, we know how that sounds.
Whenever you go into a film with certain expectations based solely on what you would have done if you were behind the camera, more often than not, you’ll come out disappointed or so disgruntled you’ll take to Twitter to rail against the film in the name of quality control (a position to which no one is ever elected).
Dark Phoenix is not going to follow the comics to a tee, which is fine. However, the film could have learned from past missteps. The X-Men film franchise has never allowed itself time to develop its larger narrative. There have been no jaunts into the cosmic elements of X-Men comics to set up any meaningful impact for what is about to happen to Jean. And no, the moment of X-Men: Apocalypse in which Jean projects a fiery bird to defeat the titular villain was not enough.
It’s a double-edged sword. In terms of inter-film connectivity, there are Easter eggs and heavy-handed foreshadowing, but it never feels like a world is being built. In fact, besides everyone suddenly being okay with Wolverine being 6’ 2”, there doesn’t seem to be a real cultural takeaway from these movies when viewed as one large piece of fiction. There’s no sudden shift in the cultural zeitgeist like there was once the MCU or even the DCEU got rolling.
X-Men and its sequels were part of a trailblazing string of films which helped define the modern superhero movie. No one can take that away from them. Even with this merit badge pinned to its yellow and black jumpsuit, the notion of setting a stage for your stories to unfold never truly came to fruition over the course of a dozen films. Tackling such a seminal story like "The Dark Phoenix Saga" without sturdy planks beneath its feet makes the whole thing feels destined for failure. All the cosmic elements from the comic are largely left untouched, which makes it feel like an adaptation in name only. What could have been a milestone like Avengers: Infinity Wars might just be the last hoorah of a party where everyone cool left early.