Credit: 20th Century Fox
Woe to thee, red-headed step-child?
X-Men: Dark Phoenix is not as bad a movie as it?s being made out to be. It?s not a very good movie, either. Oddly, in some ways, it remakes X-Men: The Last Stand? a very bad movie. Dark Phoenix is also not the movie it was originally intended to be. The film as released isn?t the movie test audiences saw, according to Screen Rant. There were heavy reshoots ? the entire third act re-shot after test screenings.
Writer and director Simon Kinberg and his cast were quite candid about that. Kinberg told Collider it was to make the movie more grounded:
?Mostly we focused on the third act, both emotionally and in terms of the physical scale and the action of the third act that we adjusted. And then there were certain things in the first two acts of the movie ? very few things, but to set up those changes in the third act we had to adjust some things in the first two acts so that that all was fluid and felt consistent.?
And James McAvoy, who plays Charles Xavier, told Yahoo! Movies (via Screen Rant), that ?Dark Phoenix?s initial ending changed ?a hell of a lot? during reshoots, adding that it had to evolve because ?there was a lot of overlap and parallels with another superhero movie that came out? a while ago?. However, in the actual video, McAvoy seemingly starts to say ?recently? before changing to ?a while ago?, leading some to speculate that he?s talking about a film that only came out a few months back.? ? Captain Marvel.
What changed? Reportedly, a giant showdown at the United Nations in New York. An alien armada attacking from space ? repelled by the Phoenix, perhaps sacrificing herself. The identity and mission of the aliens also reportedly changed. Originally, whoever they were, Jean becoming The Phoenix caused some sort of disruption on their world, and they declared war on humanity. They manipulated Jean into losing control to launch a mutant scare, to get the superheroes out of the way so they could strike. Jean and Scott Summers ? Cyclops ? relationship was said to be on-screen for more time. There was more character development in general. In fact, there was said to be a great deal more dialog in the initial cut.
Dark Phoenix began creative development before 20th Century Fox was taken over by Disney, but was finished and has now been released after the fact, so it is in reality a sort of stepchild. Timing suggests Disney didn?t have much to do with the changes in the movie. Not directly. But, anticipating the takeover certainly could have changed the way executives at Fox handled the film. Something sure did.
First of all, no matter the public spin, the reshoots scream Budget Cuts. Let?s get real ? they went from a planned, effects-heavy space battle to a train trip and throw-down on a soundstage. Call this deductive speculation, if you must. However. Test screenings often show audiences animated storyboards instead of CGI ? minimal FX. There could be some truth in the spin. Maybe, presented this way, it was jarring and confusing, and didn?t test well.
Something in the audiences? reactions led the execs at Fox to say, ?Scrap the Space Crap ? Put ?Em On A Train!? I imagine some cranky old Fox exec for whom this is a standard response, as the Science Fiction TV series Firefly on Fox ? based in space ? was forced to re-shoot its pilot episode. And re-set it on a train. But I digress.
Test screenings may have been intended to justify the budget. Special Effects are expensive. If test audiences didn?t absolutely love the film, Fox might not want to keep pouring money into it. Kinberg had expressed interest early on in both grounding the moving on Earth, yet also spoke of embracing the cosmic side of the X-Men comics. It may be that the tone changed too much in the space-based third act for test viewers.
How much did the aliens change? An early rumor had Jessica Chastain cast as Princess-Majestrix Lilandra Neramani, empress of the Shi?ar, not Vuk of the D?Bari. Actor Tye Sheridan, who played Scott Summers, told the Reelblend Podcast (reported by Collider) that the aliens were Skrulls, but were changed to D?Bari. A last minute change to the D?Bari makes sense ? the D?Bari are so little seen as aliens on screen, this may not speak to their stealth so much as to their entry into the project at a time when the SFX budget was just about gone. It appears the aliens were changed to D?Bari late in the process, when it was discovered Captain Marvel had gotten to the Skrulls first.
But the aliens could well have been the Shi?ar before the reshoots. The release of the film was pushed back twice. The Shi?ar are a big part of the original storyline in the comics, after all.
In the comics, the Phoenix ?saga?, if you will, took about four years and thirty-six issues to tell, and the Shi?ar were all over it.
It begins in the comics as it does in the movie, as Jean Grey dies saving a space shuttle from a powerful solar storm, and is reborn as The Phoenix. Jean at first enjoys growing more powerful. The alien Shi?ar Lilandra shows up looking for help against her mad brother, the Emperor, and The Phoenix ends up saving the Universe from an unstable neutron galaxy the Emperor tried to tap into. In so doing, she sees her power is nearly limitless.
The Phoenix does superhero stuff for a while, until the Hellfire Club enters the picture. Jason Wyngarde, the evil mutant Mastermind, unknowingly unlocks restraints in Jean?s mind as he entrances her in a delusional past, convincing her to help the Hellfire Club capture the rest of the X-Men. They plan to damage the X-Men?s public reputation by turning an uncontrolled Jean loose. But Mastermind?s illusions break when Jean grows too strong and she starts helping to free her friends.
Jean shows incredible power and ferocity taking down evil mutant Emma Frost, and renders Mastermind a vegetable by expanding his consciousness into infinity. And as the X-Men, now freed, are leaving, Jean loses control of herself and becomes Dark Phoenix in an eruption of power that explodes the X-Men?s Quinjet over New York City. The X-Men try to subdue Jean in an all-out battle. They fail.
Jean lets rip an enormous amount of energy ? a giant flaming Phoenix appears over New York City ? then heads to the stars. She powers up by diving into a sun, not caring that its wanton destruction kills five billion D?Bari on an orbiting planet. A Shi?ar warship witnessing the destruction tries to stop her. She wipes them out as they report it all back to their Empress ? Lilandra.
Jean returns to Earth, scares the crap out of her family, and the X-Men show up and again try to subdue her ? and Charles actually seems to succeed. But former ally Lilandra and the Shi?ar show up to kill The Phoenix. The X-Men disappear, beamed up to waiting Shi?ar spacecraft to face an interstellar court. The Phoenix and the X-Men then enter a trial by combat on the dark side of the Moon ? until The Phoenix force again bursts forth from Jean, and she blasts the Shi?ar before they can kill her, or scorch the Earth in the process
The X-Men try to finally stop Jean. Kill her. She begs them to ? she can?t control The Phoenix force. They each try, but cannot, and finally Jean lures Scott in front of some old weapon which she somehow triggers ? and, in her weakened state, kills herself. An alien lurker known as The Watcher then observes that, ?Jean Grey could have lived to become a god. But it was more important to her that she die? a human.?
How much of this was in Simon Kinberg?s original Dark Phoenix? The movie as released was so much? less. And yet, given rumored details from the test screenings, and even some of the locations in the released film, much more of the above could have been in there.
Did Kinberg, upon getting notes saying cut all the cosmic crap, realize the limited imaginations of execs led them to simply want a remake? I imagine him writing the train scene, which parallels the prison truck scene in X-Men: Last Stand, saying, ?They want Last Stand? I?ll give ?em Last Stand!? (twirls mustache).
Given Sheridan?s disclosure that the D?Bari were originally Skrulls, most have assumed this was the change McAvoy was referring to ? but he said there were a LOT of overlaps and parallels. Perhaps there was a similar plot twist to Captain Marvel that had to be un-twisted as well ? where aliens who had seemed bad turned out to be good. The Shi?ar, in hunting Jean, could have seemed bad, but have turned out to be good when the Phoenix went Dark.
They could also have been Skrulls throughout, up until the final change to the D?Bari. Unlike their status in Captain Marvel, the Skrulls in the comics have, at times, been imperial overlords in their own right, and could have stood in for the Shi?ar in the movie, even in an earlier, space-based third act. This tracks with another pet theory ? that Jessica Chastain wasn?t meant to be Lilandra ? or Vuk, for that matter ? but Emma Frost of the Hellfire Club? who could have been revealed to actually be a Skrull.
There are possible clues. Knowing that the movie was re-cut, and thinking about the speech Vuk gives Jean in the bar about not being a little girl answering to Xavier anymore, that dialog sounds more suited to Emma Frost than a D?Bari. And the city scene for the pre-train battle sure could stand in for the Hellfire Club. Having her turn out to be a Skrull would then have been shocking! Well, had it not been for that other little movie. With people turning out to be Skrulls. Who were actually misguided good guys.
Emma isn?t that prominent in the Dark Phoenix storyline in the comics, but her presence there at all, and the inclusion of the Hellfire Club itself in a major way, would allow for her role to be adapted in the movie. She could have taken the place of the Mastermind character ? Emma is a strong telepath. It would have then been her trying to subtly lure Jean into their club through mental persuasion.
Ah, the what ifs, maybes, and might-have-beens of Dark Phoenix.
What went wrong with Dark Phoenix? Well, perhaps it?s that there is so little story left on the screen, so much cut, that there?s the nearly palpable presence of another movie in the background, trying to get out ? ?hey, I got a hint of something else there, why aren?t we seeing that?? It started out with good intentions, but after stripping out the ?cosmic stuff? and scrapping twists and characters too similar to another movie, all that was left was a slightly better version of Last Stand.
As the inevitable post-mortems on Dark Phoenix?s fate begin to roll in, how much of their original plans will Kinberg and company now reveal? How much of the scrapped third act will be made public? So many questions! Including ? will we one day see a director?s ?cut? with the original third act, like Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut? Inquiring minds want to know? And, quite honestly, though all this rumor and speculation is fun, actual facts from original sources are much preferred.