The True Culmination of the X-Men Saga
What do you do when the person you love becomes the world's greatest threat?
It's the question at the heart of one of the most enduring storylines in the
decades-long history of the X-Men comic books, the Dark Phoenix saga. Written by
industry legend Chris Claremont and illustrated by artist John Byrne in 1980,
the story in many ways represents the ultimate X-Men tale: Jean Grey is
transformed into a force that not even her mutant family can comprehend. She
becomes an outsider among outsiders, a being beyond the reach of even those
closest to her.
"The Dark Phoenix saga is one of the most beloved of the X-Men series in its
long lineage, primarily because it's not a story where you have heroes and
villains, black and white," says Simon Kinberg.
A lifelong comic book fan, Kinberg felt it was important to tell the Dark
Phoenix saga on the big screen in a way that would truly do justice to its
distinguished legacy. The writer-director has been a presence on the X-Men films
since 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand, having either written or produced every
installment in the series (in some cases, serving as both writer and producer).
The 2006 film included aspects of the Dark Phoenix story, but more than 10 years
on, the time was right for a darker, grittier, much more faithful adaptation
that would serve as a capstone to nearly two decades of superhero filmmaking.
Kinberg not only wrote the script for this new telling, but he also makes his
directorial debut with the film.
At its core, this is a tale of a woman struggling with her personal demons,
and only the love of her family-the X-Men-can save her soul, and the world.
"This movie's very different from the previous X-Men movies," Kinberg says. "The
source material is different from the other X-Men comics that we've drawn upon
in the past. It's more psychologically complex and emotionally volatile. The
emotions it gets into are rawer than a lot of the other X-Men comics."
Kinberg had a supportive partner in his quest to make a more character-driven
X-Men film-producer Hutch Parker, who has been involved with the franchise since
the beginning, first as an executive at 20th Century Fox and later as a producer
on the series beginning with 2013's The Wolverine. "DARK PHOENIX was an
opportunity to do something unique and more specific in ways that previous
movies haven't really had the opportunity to be," Parker says. "This film is a
much more thorough investigation and much truer to Jean as a character. This
feels very different, with a different tone and a different sense of cinematic
style that is appropriately suited to the story we're telling."
When DARK PHOENIX opens, it's 1992. The X-Men, now widely beloved superheroes
who enjoy celebrity status, are called upon by the U.S. government to save
imperiled astronauts whose mission has gone horribly wrong. Over the objections
of Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), the team climbs into the X-Jet and heads out on a
life-threatening rescue mission. Among the stars, a mysterious cosmic entity
targets Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), overwhelming her body and, at first,
appearing to claim her life. When she does awaken, Jean initially feels strong,
recharged. But back on Earth, she begins to realize that she's attained powers
beyond her understanding, or her control.
As she uncovers long-held secrets about her past-truths kept from her by
Charles Xavier (James McAvoy)-she becomes increasingly destructive, lashing out
at those closest to her in paroxysms of anger and despair. "What happens with
Jean when she comes back from space is that she has a power she can't control
inside of her, and it's escalating and intensifying everything inside Jean,
which can unleash or liberate aspects of her personality," Kinberg says. "That's
power, emotion and rage, and that's passion."
Desperate to help Jean regain her equilibrium, Raven reaches out to her as a
mentor and friend. But Jean turns her fury on Raven, killing her. That shocking
event rips apart the X-Men-some of the mutants insist that they must go to any
lengths to save their friend, while others believe they need to stop her before
any more lives are lost.
"What was most intriguing to me and why this story has spoken to so many
people is that on a very human level, it's about someone you love starting to
unravel psychologically," Kinberg says. "What happens when people lose
themselves in real life is that their loved ones hold on and want to help or
save them. Sometimes you get dragged down with them and there are others who, at
a certain point, give up on them. This movie is about that question of, when do
you let go and give up on someone you love."
It was more than three years ago that Kinberg began to contemplate the idea
of tackling a definitive version of the Dark Phoenix saga. At that point,
production on 2016's X-Men: Apocalypse was nearing completion-that film told a
disaster story writ large with elaborate set pieces and eye-popping special
effects, which left less time for exploring the ever-evolving relationships
among the mutants. When considering what adventure could logically follow in the
wake of such a massive blockbuster style of film, Kinberg wanted a complete
change of pace.
"I missed some of the more intimate character work of the other X-Men films,"
he says. "I wanted to do something more grounded."
By that point, the X-Men franchise had progressed to a place where the series
could easily accommodate something less stylized and more daring-comic book
movies as a genre also had proved time and again that they could serve up
substantive themes and compelling character work inside mass entertainments. No
film underlined that fact better than 2017's Logan, which saw Academy
Award-nominated actor Hugh Jackman reprise his signature role as The Wolverine
for one final time in an R-rated, powerfully dramatic standalone story of
sacrifice and redemption.
"Certainly, Logan was a validation of the belief that you could do a drama in
this space and still satisfy the traditional comic book audience, in fact maybe
exceed that expectation," Parker says.
It was also finally time for an X-Men movie to have a female lead. The women
in the X-Men films-played by powerhouse actresses from Famke Janssen to Halle
Berry-were complicated, dynamic, and always had agency, but their stories never
quite came to the fore. After nearly 20 years, DARK PHOENIX is squarely focused
on the journey of Jean Grey and the women who surround her-including Jennifer
Lawrence's Raven and Jessica Chastain's Smith, a villainous new presence who
encourages Jean to abandon her humanity and give in to her darkest urges.
"Now was the time for a female-led superhero movie, and the DARK PHOENIX
story is the most powerful female-led storyline in X-Men history," Kinberg says.
Additionally, Kinberg sought to craft an adventure that would offer a much more
nuanced depiction of good and evil appropriate to our turbulent times. He wanted
to emphasize the duality that can exist within the same person, the darkness and
"We've gotten to a place where audiences are ready for a disruptive, radical
story where a good guy goes bad, where a hero loses control and becomes
destructive, even homicidal," Kinberg says. "Comics, and even comic book moves,
tend to tread in good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains. When the hero does
something villainous or when a good guy does something bad, it's shocking.
You're not sure what you're rooting for.
"Right now, we're living in a world that is a little upside-down politically
and socially," he continues. "Everything's not as binary as it used to be.
There's not a lot of unity. Everybody feels like they're splitting apart. A
story about a character who is herself splitting apart, and as a result of that,
is splitting apart the family of the X-Men, it felt very relevant."
Months before he began writing the screenplay in earnest, Kinberg met with
actress Sophie Turner to discuss his ambitious plans for the superhero drama.
Turner had played Jean before in X-Men: Apocalypse, but DARK PHOENIX would
require a different kind of commitment from the Game of Thrones star.
"I told her that her character essentially becomes schizophrenic, starts to
lose her identity and ultimately it coalesces into two identities, which is
Jean, who's getting smaller and weaker, and Phoenix, who's becoming stronger and
stronger," Kinberg says. "I told her she was going to have to play the trauma of
losing her mind and killing people that she loves, and every possible color on
the emotional spectrum."
Even though DARK PHOENIX features an ensemble of some of the best actors
working in Hollywood today, the success of the film ultimately would rest on
Turner's shoulders. Everyone else would occupy a supporting role-which is
immediately obvious from the movie's title. It's the first film in the franchise
not to include "X-Men" in the title.
From the outset, Turner was excited by the opportunities afforded by the
storyline and was eager to tackle the central role in the new film. "It was
daunting," says Turner. "Simon really wanted to put the story and Jean's journey
at the forefront because so often in superhero movies the real arcs and the
stories can get lost behind the big, fabulous stunts."
"The thing about the Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix story is that she's not a
villain, but she's not a superhero who's going to save the world and
everything's fine," Turner adds. "She's one of the few characters that's very
tormented and broken. There's a realism to her, it's painful and her experiences
remind you of mental illness. It's not too fantastical for people to comprehend.
There's no black or white with her, it's a very gray area. It's a struggle
that's very true to a lot of people and that's why people love her."
After Kinberg and Turner's initial meeting, Kinberg began sending the actress
research material to prepare her character. "I went home and found a ton of
YouTube clips and other documents to send her about schizophrenia and multiple
personality disorder to get her to start thinking intellectually about it before
thinking about it emotionally," says Kinberg. "She devoured it all and came back
at me with a bunch of questions and ideas almost instantaneously."
Their ongoing dialogue influenced Kinberg as he completed various drafts of
the script. As he worked, another important story point emerged that called into
question Charles Xavier's role as the leader of the X-Men and the inadvertent
catalyst behind Jean's transformation. When the film opens, Charles is relishing
his privileged status as the leader of the mutants-something he enjoys, Raven
rightly points out, even though he's rarely the one on the frontlines.
"There were a lot of things that I wanted to explore that we've never
explored in these movies before-like Charles creating a superhero team called
the X-Men, named after himself," Kinberg says. "He's a guy who lives in a
mansion, who doesn't leave that mansion and throws a whole lot of other people
in harm's way, many of them who are quite young. I wanted to examine that and
problematize that. There's an ego attached to that and a very patriarchal,
paternalistic quality to it. We live in an age now where that doesn't go without
notice, and it has gone without notice for decades of the comic book and for now
two decades of the movies."
Actor James McAvoy, who has played Xavier in three earlier X-Men films, was
intrigued to explore new facets of the character. "Charles in this movie, he
starts to believe his own hype," McAvoy says. "He's on the cover of Time
magazine. He is very much the public face of the X-Men-he's congratulated for
all their work. He's the guy on the red carpets, shaking hands with presidents.
He is very much like a father who loves his children and believes that they are
capable of anything. That all sounds positive, but the downside of it is that,
if they don't achieve everything, if they fall short of the very lofty
expectations the world and Charles has put on his team, he feels that somehow
reflects badly on him."
When Charles ignores Raven's misgivings about the interstellar rescue mission
and sends the team into space, Jean's fate is sealed. What's more, when she
learns that Charles has erected barriers in her mind to protect her from painful
truths about her past, she feels deeply betrayed, further fueling her violent
leanings. "She comes back to Earth with a nagging curiosity and desire to find
these missing parts of her life that Charles has hidden from her," McAvoy says.
"When she realizes what he's done, there's a sentiment of justified righteous
anger there-instead of allowing her to process a difficult childhood, Charles
disrespected her by locking her memories away. When that trauma reemerges, it
galvanizes that dark power within her."
Those events lead directly to the confrontation that result in Raven's
demise. The decision to kill off the character was one that Kinberg did not
arrive at lightly, but he felt it was crucial to telling the DARK PHOENIX story
properly and to set up the conflict between Charles and Hank (Nicholas Hoult)
and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender).
"When I was first thinking about the movie, I knew I needed an emotionally
shattering event to split the X-Men up and to make people who would normally
defend Jean start to question her and to question each other," Kinberg says. "It
felt like it had to be the death of a character, and I quickly landed on Raven
because of her relationship to Erik, Charles and Hank. Erik and Hank had both
had romantic relationships with her. For Charles, she is like a sister to him.
Killing her would have the greatest impact emotionally on the most characters.
What that does for the audience is indicate that anything can happen. Nobody is
Adds Parker: "It felt like if you're going to tackle a real crisis within the
family, you have to be willing to spill some blood and feel the consequences.
Raven is the one who's most willing to confront Charles and his belief system
and peel away the veneer a little bit. Raven is the character who first seizes
on that idea of his hubris, is the first to challenge him about it, and
subsequently, she's the one who's sacrificed. Her very alarms are part of what
propel her forward to reach out to Jean and that is part of what leads to her
Losing Raven devastates Hank, who turns against his mentor, Charles, and is
determined to seek revenge. "He's lost his soul mate," Hoult says. "That takes
Hank to a very different place than we've ever seen him in any of the other
movies. He's filled with this rage and desire for revenge to kill Jean for what
Chastain's character, an alien in human disguise who covets the force that
has amplified Jean's already extraordinary abilities, soon takes Jean under her
wing, becoming a very different sort of mentor than either Raven or Charles ever
were. She encourages Jean to act on her dark impulses, to subjugate the lesser
beings around her. The character's end goal? To rid the planet of human life,
paving the way for her alien race to inhabit Earth as their new home.
"When Simon and I first talked about this character, I had this idea of
seeing the character more as someone that was emotionally removed from the
outcome of what happened," Chastain says. "She's 1,000 times smarter than anyone
on this planet. She comes to the planet, explores mankind, realizes that, in her
mind, they're bacteria. They're a cancer. Not only are they a harm to
themselves, they're a harm to the planet. They consume everything with greed.
She realizes she needs to eliminate the bacteria. She doesn't see it as
malicious. It's not something she does based on revenge. It's something she does
for the good, in her mind, of all."
Kinberg wrote the role specifically for Chastain-the pair became good friends
after having worked together on Ridley Scott's hit 2015 film, The Martian, which
"When I was thinking about this role of someone who was really empowered and
helping Jean tap into a power that she was afraid of, and doing it in a way that
was both strong and yet sly and seductive, given the nuances of all of that, I
couldn't really imagine anybody other than Jessica playing the role," Kinberg
says. "I wrote things in it that I felt would speak to her as an actress. There
was some interesting drama to play and then there were some things that are
somewhat feminist or political in it that I thought also would speak to Jess. I
thought she would do a very good job of delivering all of that without it
Throughout the writing process, Kinberg had been weighing the idea of
stepping behind the camera to direct for the first time. It was a natural
evolution for the writer-producer who had been a constant presence on the sets
of X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past and
X-Men: Apocalypse as well as the two Deadpool movies and Logan.
"I had a feeling I wanted to direct," he says. "I'd lived in this universe so
much, but I was waiting for the story that I felt like I was uniquely suited to
tell. As I got into the process and started to think about the themes of the
movie, I felt like very emotionally connected to it. That made me feel like not
only could I direct it, but also that I had to direct it. It was like having a
child and handing it to a stranger-I couldn't imagine that."
Directing the film gave Kinberg the opportunity to shape the tenor and the
tone of DARK PHOENIX, to ground the story in the real world visually and to help
guide the actor's performances on set. The goal was always to create a bolder,
edgier, more intense, more emotional X-Men film, one that was far more
character-driven and deeply human than any that had come before. As the X-Men
struggle to come to terms with what Jean's done, with what she's become,
allegiances are fractured and new alliances formed. But in the end, to save both
Jean Gray and the galaxy, the X-Men must find a way to set aside their
differences and work together for a common cause.
"There is something about the splitting apart, then the coming back together,
of the family of the X-Men that hopefully offers an optimistic message about our
ability to survive and unify through the most extraordinary and shattering
challenges," Kinberg says. "Whether it's the surrogate families that we build in
our lives or the real families we have in our lives, it's the coming together
that makes us strong.
"My favorite movies pose provocative questions, emotional questions, to an
audience," Kinberg continues. "DARK PHOENIX asks profound, primal questions-if
you love someone, at what point do you let them go? Or do you hold onto them
forever, at all costs, even at your own peril? I don't know that I have the
answer to that, but maybe if I were to posit an answer to it, I would say to
never give up on the people that you love."
It's a fitting conclusion to the X-Men franchise's remarkable 18-year run.
With DARK PHOENIX serving as the culmination of the saga after an impressive 12
films, Parker, who was there at the inception of 2000's X-Men, says the
experience of bringing the franchise full circle feels bittersweet.
"What we were able to do with the first film was introduce a tone that would
have seemed, I think to most eyes, impossible in association with what we knew
comic book movies to be at that time," Parker says. "It was a game-changer in my
opinion. Since then, comic-book films have become such an exciting and fertile
platform. I feel like we're only beginning to see the diversity of storytelling
that's possible within these worlds and with these characters. I'm grateful to
have been a part of it, but I'm also aware that it will continue on long after
all of us have moved on."
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