In 2006, MovieWeb asked film director Brett Ratner, best known for the Rush Hour movies and being an all-time sleaze bag, about how he got through production of X-Men: The Last Stand. His answer: “A lot of cocaine.”
He was joking. Presumably. But the off-color remark does so much heavy lifting when one considers the direction of the X-Men films these last twenty years.
In what may be the franchise’s final film, Dark Phoenix, is set to bring one of the most popular X-Men stories of all time to theaters next month, the deafening silence from fandom begs the question: What happened to the X-Men?
In another timeline, Dark Phoenix would be one of the biggest events in geek popular culture. It would have had the high-stakes hysteria of Avengers: Endgame — all our favorites in the culmination of a 20-year cinematic narrative! — with the scrutiny of Game of Thrones (“Will it follow the book?” we’d ask).
But bring up Dark Phoenix in conversation, and the movie is “Oh, that.” Not even the YouTube comments are enthused about the conclusion of a film series that, for most adult millennials, once defined summer movies.
Is there any one point in time that killed the X-Men franchise? Outside of Disney’s recent $54 billion purchase of 20th Century Fox that literally stopped new movies in their tracks, no. Instead, it’s been a domino effect epitomized with one single spoken line of dialogue in the first movie:
“What did you expect? Yellow spandex?”
Confused? Let’s back up a bit.
Chris Claremont and the Dark Phoenix Saga
While Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the X-Men in 1963, they weren’t hot sellers like Fantastic Four and The Avengers. The low-profile of Uncanny X-Men, which was wallowing in sales as it approached its 94th issue, allowed Chris Claremont, an inexperienced young writer whose real aspirations were to become an actor, to take lead with unprecedented creative freedom.
Along with illustrators Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, the X-Men were changed forever. Claremont’s “all-new” X-Men, which included exciting heroes like Wolverine, Colossus, and Storm, literally leapt off the page and challenged you to follow them along. Then, about two years into Claremont’s run, he began his “Dark Phoenix” story. It changed comics forever.
Claremont’s “Phoenix” storyline, published in two stretches — Uncanny X-Men #101 through #108 in 1976, and Uncanny X-Men #129 to #138 in 1980 — follows Jean Grey, the heart and soul of the X-Men, as she becomes possessed by a sentient, all-powerful cosmic entity known as the Phoenix Force.
Like other dark powers in superhero fiction, the Phoenix Force not only augmented Jean Grey’s telepathic and telekinetic powers to a terrifying degree, it also changed her personality. While there was dispute even in the Marvel offices over just how the Phoenix Force changed Jean, it’s generally understood that a darker Jean Grey manifested because of the entity.
In the end, Jean, unable to control her powers (and in the midst of an interplanetary conflict with several alien societies who are pissed at the destructive powers of the Phoenix Force) sacrifices herself in a moment that would reverberate throughout X-Men comics for the next several decades.
So much of Claremont’s legendary run on the X-Men, longer than anyone else ever assigned to the series, is tied to the commercial success and popularity of the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” It wasn’t the only story Claremont wrote — “Days of Future Past” is another biggie in his X-Men oeuvre — but you won’t get a lot of argument if you say it’s his magnum opus.
Not just for Claremont, the story singularly epitomizes everything great about American superhero comics: imaginative spectacle wrapped up in geo-cosmic politics and soap-y melodrama. In short, it’s great and plays a huge influence in why comic book storylines are as big and complicated as they are fun.
Claremont’s X-Men defined comics, so it’s fitting that the X-Men films also set the standard for superhero movies in the 21st century. But rather than innovate by bringing the color and vibrancy of X-Men comics to the screen, the first X-movies, led by X-Men in 2000, were always just chasing after aesthetics set by other action films like The Matrix.
It’s no surprise that the X-Men films were immediately surpassed by its contemporaries, like the colorful, arresting Spider-Man (2002) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe that embraced everything the X-Men were embarrassed to be.
You can distill all 20 years to one moment. In X-Men from Bryan Singer, a hack director bereft of vision and humanity, Cyclops (James Marsden) cracks wise at Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, who is baffled by the black leather uniforms they’re all wearing.
“What did you expect?” Cyclops says. “Yellow spandex?”
It’s just one line that playfully references the fact that the movie doesn’t look exactly like the comics — or, for ‘90s kids, the super popular X-Men cartoon that aired on Fox Kids alongside Batman and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers — but the disregard for everything that made X-Men X-Men has been the biggest single disease on the franchise.
As critic Bob Chipman pointed out in a 2016 video essay, “These movies consistently take one of the most vibrant, visually arresting universes in the entire medium of comics and reduced it down to bleak, dreary looking sludge.”
That’s how you get to a point where, 20 years and a bunch of movies in, Dark Phoenix inspires nothing but a shrug. Since the explosive popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which showed how unabashed enthusiasm and smart producing can make billions, the X-Men films just played creative catch-up. This is a disgrace when the X-Men in comics have long been the avatars for something new, exciting, and bold.
There have been good movies. X2 from 2002 is fine, while the likes of Logan (2017) and the Deadpool films are sublime for reasons that have almost nothing to do with the X-Men. But the movies that bear the name “X-Men” have always felt just a little too late.
Dark Phoenix hits theaters on June 7.