X-Men makers on why they revisited Dark Phoenix storyline, and how franchise finale furthers the 'us vs them' conflict

Devansh Sharma

Jun 06, 2019 14:59:07 IST

X-Men: Dark Phoenix, starring Sophie Turner in the lead role, will serve as the finale to the franchise that introduced a freshness into the superhero genre. Nineteen years ago, Bryan Singer's X-Men set the tone for a franchise that not only offered great spectacle but also tapped into themes of racial discrimination, an issue the world grapples with even today.

"When Bryan grounded X1 in tragedy, he told the world that comic books could do so much. Over the years, we've often lost focus and sometimes moved away from that approach, and suffered because of that. But whenever we have stayed invested in narrative focus and emotional subtext, we've done our best. Logan was the most powerful reminder. It was groundbreaking because it pushed further into that direction more than anything else. It was almost like a pure drama. We should've known what we did right in films like X-Men, X2 to a certain degree, and Days of Future Past, so that we could lead to a fulfilling finale in Logan, and now hopefully with this one (Dark Phoenix)," says Hutch Parker, producer of X-Men: Dark Phoenix, in an interview to Firstpost. He has been associated with the franchise for over 15 years.

X-Men makers on why they revisited Dark Phoenix storyline, and how franchise finale furthers the us vs them conflict

Sophie Turner in a still from X-Men: Dark Phoenix

He claims that like every X-Men film, Dark Phoenix also explores the theme of 'us vs them', but here the conflict is more micro than macro.

"Traditionally, 'us' are the X-Men and 'them' are the ones who discriminate against the X-Men. In Dark Phoenix, the 'us' and 'them' are within the X-Men. We're looking at a more nuanced definition of who the heroes are and who the villains are. One of the things I like the most is undermining the notion of Charles' (Xavier) status as some sort of a demigod or some impeachable voice of authority. Even with the best intentions, he is flawed as well; that any one of us can be flawed. This opened a whole new chapter in the discussion of identity and where do you align yourself relative to the crisis of this film, which is Jean (Grey, Sophie Turner) and her dilemma. So much so that Hank chooses to align with Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and Storm and Cyclops align with Charles. This reshaping of the landscape and the re-investigation of the foundation questions is what I felt was new and different, advanced on the core tension."

However, the makers had to find a trigger point that could set things in motion. The stakes had to be established right at the start, which would then allow the X-Men to contest their collective identity and try exploring the path ahead in individual capacities. "I wanted to establish that the stakes were different than any other X-Men film. I also wanted to test the X-Men as a family unit. So there had to be a trauma at the centre. I figured out that Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) touches so many lives in the X-Men franchise. She has a past with Beast, is close to Erik, is like a sister to Charles, and is also a mentor to all the X-Men. So I though if something happened to her, it could trigger and turn the family on itself," explains director Simon Kinberg, in an interview to Firstpost, pointing at the instance in the trailer, when an unhinged Jean attacks her surrogate mother.

Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique and Sophie Turner as Jean Grey in a still from X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique and Sophie Turner as Jean Grey in a still from X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Another reason why the death of Mystique was chosen as the inflexion point in the narrative of Dark Phoenix is because of its thematic relevance. "I was really intrigued by the thematic echoes that the 'mother' symbol had in this film. A lot of Jean's internal struggle was to do with the death of her mother. Then there was the death of Mystique, who was her surrogate mother. And then there is Jessica Chastain, who plays a dark surrogate mother who controls Jean. The reason why we wanted that character to be a woman was because of this 'mother' theme," says Hutch, hinting that Chastain is indeed the 'X'-factor in the final instalment of the franchise.

He also adds that while they have always tried to make the X-Men franchise more diverse, going in line with its constant theme of disfranchisement. But they had their hands tied in this part since Jessica was the only new character added to the mix. "We have had a diverse range of actors in our past films, like Fan Bingbing in Days of Future Past. But in Dark Phoenix, we really wanted to shrink the focus to the original X-Men family," says Parker.

Sophie Turner as Jean Grey and Jessica Chastain as Smith in a still from X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Sophie Turner as Jean Grey and Jessica Chastain as Smith in a still from X-Men: Dark Phoenix

However, Kinberg argues that they did some sort of course-correction in Dark Phoenix by making Jean the lead character. "When I wrote The Last Stand, I regretted that the character got lost in all the tropes of a disaster movie. So a part of reason why we wanted to explore the Dark Phoenix Saga storyline again was to tell more elements of the story, like the cosmic intergalactic part and the complexity of the inner conflict of Jean. It really became the background track in The Last Stand," says Kinberg.

He added that besides introducing the character of Chastain (with whom he will soon shoot a five female-led spy thriller), he also wanted to revisit Jean's dynamic with the two persons most close to her — Scott (Tye Sheridan) and Charles (James McAvoy). Both the characters were killed by Jean in The Last Stand, which never allowed her conflict to take its superlative form. "Jean's relationship with Scott is that of a boyfriend and that with Charles is that of a father she never had. These are very important relationships. Charles suppresses her memories in order to protect her but ends up controlling her. When those memories come flooding back to her, Jean loses all control over her powers. We deal with that angle very differently than how we did in The Last Stand. Similarly, in that film, James Marsden (who played Scott) didn't have dates with us as he had to shoot for Superman with Bryan Singer. So there was no choice but to kill his character right at the start. But in this one, we had Tye for the whole time so we could do much more with the relationship between Scott and Jean," says Kinberg.

Famke Jannsen as Jean Grey and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in a still from X-Men: The Last Stand

Famke Jannsen as Jean Grey and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in a still from X-Men: The Last Stand

Another fresh update in Dark Phoenix that lends to Jean's agency is the absence of Wolverine, the only one who managed to kill Jean in The Last Stand. Kinberg claims that it was a blessing in disguise that Hugh Jackman's character could not possibly be a part of Dark Phoenix after what transpired in Days of Future Past and Logan. "I didn't want a man to be the end of Jean's story. We finally have a female protagonist and this movie is about empowered women. I didn't want a man to be the person to make the final decision for her. I wanted her to make that decision. I didn't want Scott or Charles or Erik or someone else is in control of Jean's destiny. I wanted her to be in control of her own destiny," says Kinberg.

While Dark Phoenix serves as the finale to the iconic franchise, there still exist endless opportunities for the X-Men to return in some form, particularly after the Disney-Fox merger. However, the makers are aware that might change the syntax, tone and shooting style of the X-Men movies, given how Disney treats its superhero films like Avengers and Spider-Man. Dark Phoenix had to undergo re-shoots as well after Disney tried to attune it to its sensibilities, which in turn pushed the release date of the film from April to 5 June.

Promotional still of X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Promotional still of X-Men: Dark Phoenix

"I admire Marvel because it has built re-shoots into its schedule. Very smart! Initially, we were in an earlier window which we think was better suited for our dramatic nature of story. When the studio saw the movie, they felt it would be better suited as a spectacle along with all the drama. They though that the new release date was better suited for that kind of balance. The biggest challenge was to find this balance between the cosmic storyline and the emotional story. They're very different! One is about ruling the galaxy and the other is about a family breakup. We needed the right kind of calibration. After a lot of deliberation, we came to the conclusion that we wanted this story to be about Jean realising her love of family through their willingness to sacrifice themselves and not about a villain coming up to take over a galaxy. That was really an escalation, rather than the main plot," says Parker.

Now that Dark Phoenix has opened to largely mixed reviews, one wonders whether Disney's acquisition affected Fox's finale of arguably its most beloved franchise. The prospective reboots of X-Men could take a cue and ensure they do not leave stones unturned in the process of rectifying their past mistakes.

All images from Twitter.

Updated Date: Jun 06, 2019 14:59:07 IST