By now we all know that Dark Phoenix is a train wreck. Actually, to be more precise, given the film’s terrible opening weekend, we’ve all heard that it is mediocre; none of us actually saw it. But how did one of the most dominant franchises in cinematic history get to this point? How did the studio that made Logan also put out a film this disappointing? No, this isn’t the worst X-Men film ever (despite the score on Rotten Tomatoes), but as the conclusion to the franchise you sure expected a lot more.
Turns out that it was doomed from the start. THR has a report on the entire debacle and says that things went wrong from the moment its predecessor released. During post-X-Men: Apocalypse meetings, in which studio execs tried to understand what went wrong with that film, the general consensus wasn’t that they’d overburdened the X-Men universe and burned a bunch of bridges, but that the film just had too much action and a sequel should be more restrained. Maybe this made some sense at the time, given the success of a character study like Logan, but on the whole I don’t think anyone would argue that it was the main reason people disliked Apocalypse.
One insider told THR, “There was a misguided feeling that [Apocalypse] was an anomaly, that we just got it wrong. We were wrong.”
The THR article points to audience fatigue with the franchise as well, but I’m not so sure that has much to do with it either. Yes, people were tired, but not of X-Men. They’re tired of bad X-Men. Couple that with a plethora of lackluster casting choices for this rebooted team after the divine casting of First Class, and it all just seemed uninteresting. Plus, we’d already done this all before with X-Men: Last Stand.
The article goes on to point out a bunch of obvious issues with marketing, which mainly stemmed from the fact that everyone knew about the Disney buyout and had one eye on the door. Nearly the entire marketing team was either leaving or about to leave and so the messaging for Dark Phoenix got hopelessly muddled. Along with this, Disney had no interest in continuing the story that Fox started, and audiences knew that. It just made the entire film seem pointless, and awareness of the movie plummeted because of it.
Of course, no article about a movie’s failure would be complete without a surprise villain, and this time it takes the form of James Cameron. Evidently, the incredibly powerful director was instrumental in getting Dark Phoenix shoved from its February 2019 release date to this past weekend, where it opened not as a big February film but a small summer blockbuster. Cameron wanted Alita: Battle Angel to open in the more friendly window that February provided and feared the film would get lost in a strong holiday season so he “asked” for it be moved. It got the February spot, where it promptly bombed anyway, and Dark Phoenix got shoved to a summer full of bigger, badder superhero films to swallow it up.
And that brings us back to the idea that Dark Phoenix needed to be smaller and more personal in scale. Because that was the belief the film, it is argued, would have succeeded in calmer spot like February, but in the big times of summer it seems stunted and small. “Big for off-season, too small for summer,” a source reportedly said. I’d argue that a bad movie is a bad movie no matter when it releases but it’s an interesting way to point fingers if nothing else.
None of this signals the end for X-Men, of course. In fact, Kevin Feige is probably smiling right now because it means he can go ahead and eventually re-re-adapt the Phoenix Saga one more time. We won’t be seeing that any time soon, though. Marvel, unlike Fox, plays the long game and it’ll keep Wolverine and the other X-Men in its pocket until the day they’re ready.