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The Weekend Movie Takeaway: 'Dark Phoenix'

June 10, 2019
2 min read time

The 2019 box office has provided plenty of reasons thus far to be encouraged about both the health of the contemporary blockbuster, and the state of modern macro storytelling. But this past weekend's earnings told a slightly different story — one that has troubling implications for the way in which audiences engage with popular narratives, and the ownership audiences feel for those narratives.

Dark Phoenix, the latest entry in the once-heralded X-Men franchise, opened to a series low of $33 million over the weekend. The numbers reflect a universally negative response to the film, which has been generating bad buzz for months now. It marks the nadir of a series that played a significant role in the development of the modern big screen superhero movie, and a sad send off for characters we likely won't see in this form again.

On the narrative front, what's most remarkable about Dark Phoenix is that it marks the second time in what is technically the same series of films, an attempt to adapt the particularly iconic storyline of Jean Grey’s plight from the original comic books.

You rarely hear about audiences demanding to see specific Batman, Superman or even Spider-Man comic book storylines on the big screen – the characters alone are the primary draw. But with the X-Men, wide audience (and studio) enthusiasm for this particular storyline (which first played out in the comic books in the early 80s, as told by Chris Claremont and John Byrne) reflects how it was powerful storytelling that elevated the comic book to its iconic status in the first place. And powerful storytelling which helped give the film adaptations a larger degree of thematic power than what audiences were used to seeing in their superhero movies.

The original, 2000 X-Men movie wasn't exactly high-art, but its themes about the oppression of minorities and the maligning of the misunderstood unquestionably elevated the movie. It also opened up the possibilities for what kind of stories superhero movies could tell in the eyes of the mass audience.

That narrative progressiveness stalled in the ensuing years as the X-Men franchise lost its way. Ironically, it began with the first time they tackled the Dark Phoenix storyline, in 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand. How the same franchise can mess up the same storyline twice, I'll never know.

There have been highlights between then and now, such as the narratively dextrous semi-reboot, X-Men: First Class (2011), and spin-off films such as Deadpool (2016) and Logan (2017). But a franchise which once led the way in narrative ambition is now sadly defined by the likes of X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), and now, Dark Phoenix. It is truly an ignominious end. If only the ending of Dark Phoenix itself had such emotional resonance.

Much of the X-Men's narrative folly can be attributed to how, like every other superhero franchise, it has been chasing the successful Marvel model. Now that Disney owns Fox, the X-Men characters will be subject to the care and attention they pursue.

That situation alone points to how narrative is overtaking celebrity in many aspects of modern movie making. We never used to talk about which studios owned which characters. But now, we talk about little else. Where actors once reigned, characters now stand. And as Dark Phoenix so ably demonstrates, those characters need as much handling as the most demanding stars.

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