This article contains major X-Men: Dark Phoenix spoilers. We have a spoiler free review here.
The end of the modern superhero era as we know it has arrived. With the release of the seventh and, according to Disney’s CinemaCon presentation, “final” mainline X-Men movie, the franchise that kicked off the superhero movie craze of the 21st century concludes in Dark Phoenix. While some of the franchise’s recent entries have been overshadowed by the glitzier and more coherent Marvel Cinematic Universe it helped pave the way for, the X-films nevertheless were the ones to open the door for “serious” superhero fare and spanned 19 years and 12 films of wildly varying quality and continuity. (In other words, they did a fair job of mirroring the Swiss cheese logic of X-Men comic book lore).
Thus it was left to Dark Phoenix producer, writer, and now first-time director Simon Kinberg to pull a curtain on the franchise, which was likely all the more challenging since it was not until post-production and reshoots he knew this film would have to act as a bookend. While the merits of how he ended it certainly have left something to be desired, what’s surprising is that Dark Phoenix, rather miraculously, made some semblance of cohesion out of most of the X-Men movies’ continuity problems and tortured logic. And given that it’s a series with (at least) two timelines, several alternate future-set epilogues that vary between happy (Days of Future Past) and dystopian (Logan), and a retinue of characters who’ve lived and died in an unnatural order, that is some kind of cosmic feat all to itself.
What Dark Phoenix Fixes
The aspect that Dark Phoenix most reconciles among the X-films is explaining how the leather-clad, clandestine mutant task force of the original, self-contained trilogy circa 2000-2006 became the expansive universe filled with superheroes and aliens in Logan and those wacky Deadpool movies.
Both of those more popular off-shoots from the traditional X-Men movies have in no small part worked because they cherry-picked the aspects they liked best from the main team films and comics while jettisoning the rest. The results were incongruous but often wonderful reimaginings of what exactly the X-Men were supposed to be when they were off-screen. In the case of Logan, it not only overlooked the happy ending of X-Men: Days of Future Past, but also what the X-Men were imagined to be by Bryan Singer and then Brett Ratner in the first three X-films. Rather than a paramilitary unit that hid its X-jet beneath a basketball court, they were remembered as celebrities whose exploits were mythologized and commercialized by comic books and action figures. While in Deadpool and its sequel, black costumes and secret missions were eschewed in favor of color-coded numbers worn in the light of day before cheering crowds—all the better for Ryan Reynolds to take the piss out of superheroes with.
Dark Phoenix now acts as the bridge between those disparate elements and what came before. When the film opens in 1992, the X-Men are the celebrities and stars that Deadpool and Logan promised. Wearing matching, colorful yellow and blue costumes, they look as if Frank Quitely’s comic book drawings stepped off the page, and instead of being targeted by a U.S. president scared of what might be going on beneath the school, they’re being called on a direct line by the commander-in-chief to fly into space and save an endangered NASA crew. When they land, they’re greeted by a rightfully euphoric crowd giddy that these superheroes did what we wished could be done during such calamities, including a little girl holding a Mystique action figure.
This complete reconceptualization of what the cinematic X-Men look like is made possible due to the timey-wimey shenanigans of X-Men: Days of Future Past. In addition to being a solid allegory about the era which birthed the Marvel Age of comics, that 2014 film more or less “solved” all the problems created by mediocre movies like X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine because “time travel.” This still befuddles casual moviegoers, but essentially the franchise was no longer beholden to the events that occurred in the first three X-films, because Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine drastically changed the past, meaning the filmmakers could do whatever they wanted next. Which made returning to the same tired formula of the earlier movies in X-Men: Apocalypse all the more inexplicable.
Dark Phoenix avoids that specific pitfall. With James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier aware of what the future holds for mutants who simply hide their gifts at his school—suspicion and alienation resulting in Sentinels being built to hunt a new species down—he has now crafted his X-Men team as superheroes and the cause célèbre. They go on missions to space—one of apparently many superheroics that has put Charles Xavier on the cover of magazines and made Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) weary. It also smoothly connects to Logan and Deadpool where the X-Men are actively referred to as “superheroes,” something the original films would be as bashful to consider as yellow spandex.
In Logan, an aged and dying Wolverine looks with regret and melancholy at children carrying a replica of a 1990s Wolverine action figure, and in Dark Phoenix we see their heyday in 1992 has caused children to actually own Mystique action figures (of her countenance when she saved… Richard Nixon in 1973). We also hear Jackman’s Old Man Logan sneer in his final solo film about an X-Men comic book owned by his daughter Laura—one that included Wolverine, Cyclops, Xavier, and Rogue going on a mission and in colorful costume—saying that maybe only a quarter of it happened. But now we know after Dark Phoenix that indeed some of that interpretation was possible in this new timeline.
In fact, it is easy to see how the X-Men of Dark Phoenix, complete with Beast becoming a schoolmaster at the end of the film just like his 2023 future in Days of Future Past, could mostly make sense of the whole timeline.
After the events of Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, Xavier turned mutants into celebrities, even if they were still “just one bad day away” from being seen as a menace. Dark Phoenix features that “one bad day,” but the ebbs and flow of public opinion could allow the school to endure and the X-Men to continue being the relatively celebrated heroes Wade Wilson reluctantly joins in Deadpool 2, and which Wolverine awakens to in 2023 with relief. Only just as he ages, so does Charles Xavier. Hence when struggling with dementia in advanced old age, the latter finds himself in a much darker space by the time of Logan, which is set six years later.
What Dark Phoenix Leaves Fixable
Of course the overall plot of Dark Phoenix goes its own way too. A film about Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) dealing with the devastating effect of her superpowers being amplified by a cosmic force, which in turn fractures her psyche, the picture ends with her going the full Star-Child of 2001: A Space Odyssey and transcending this world and becoming a virtual space god.
When the film ends, Jean Grey is believed to be dead by her friends when in fact she exists somewhere out there in the cosmos, and Charles Xavier has “retired” from his mansion and mission. Even the school itself has been renamed the “Jean Grey School of Gifted Youngsters.” This of course is not where we find the X-Men in Days of Future Past or Logan, what with Charles leaving before even meeting Logan properly in the 2000s, but it is not impossible to see how this ending can lead to much of what we see later.
When Magneto finds Xavier in Paris—like Batman retreating with Catwoman to a Florentine vacay at the end of The Dark Knight Rises—Erik says he hopes his soulmate is enjoying his retirement. But Charles never calls it that. Given the circuitous nature of X-Men lore in the comics, it is (too) easy to predict an intended exit from his childhood home and school becomes a brief sabbatical. Sure, he’s in an unhappy place with his foster sister dead and his star pupil being a firebird and all, but any number of crises or changes of heart could bring him back to the school in the intervening 30 years between that film and Days of Future Past’s ending.
In the meantime, he has some closure with Magneto who genuinely seems content to live on a glorified mutant reservation they’ve named “Genosha” (one that can still fortuitously pay for European holidays). Erik has also been forced to look at the fruits of his “war” earlier in life due to the events of Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, and even in seeing redemption in Jean Grey after she killed Raven, so now he seems relatively content if not overjoyed with building a mutant utopia. In this scenario, it’s harder to imagine him becoming the warlike despot Ian McKellen played in the original X-trilogy, which might explain a rosier off-screen fate in Days of Future Past’s future, just as we now know why Mystique wasn’t in 2023’s happy ending.
Meanwhile Jean Grey is lost to the stars, doing her space goddess thing. Yet like a direwolf in winter, she seems destined to return to her chosen family when crisis inevitably arrives. Time and again, Jean has gone celestial or been perceived to die in X-Men comics and cartoons, but eventually finds her way home as the weary cosmic traveler. There is plenty of time too between Dark Phoenix and Days of Future Past for her to do it again and catch the eye of Logan, who as we know always had a thing for seeing red.
As for the school itself, it’s been renamed the “Jean Grey School of Gifted Youngsters” in the comics too, albeit by Logan and not Scott Summers, but it never quite stuck. Even if it does though, we didn’t see the name of the school in either Future Past or Logan. And though it appears in Deadpool as the Charles Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, those movies also feature Deadpool murdering Ryan Reynolds in 2009, so make of that what you will.
What Dark Phoenix Fails to Fix
Despite Dark Phoenix adding some vague cohesion to Deadpool, Logan, and Days of Future Past’s competing visions of the present and future, we’re still not going to lie: it doesn’t fix everything.
With X-Men: First Class set in 1962 and Dark Phoenix set in 1992, there is absolutely no explanation as to why most of the characters only look about 10 years older. Mystique, at least, is supposed to age slower than other mutants and humans (and as Beast has some of her DNA, he theoretically also could), but Charles and Erik have nary a wrinkle or a graying hair between them, even though in less than a decade, they’re intended to become late-middle aged Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.
There’s also the absolute failure to establish any internal logic as to why Mystique and Beast still turn into “human form” only at the school where they are safely surrounded by fellow mutants who know them well. Mystique said at the end of X-Men: First Class that she and Beast should always be “Mutant and Proud,” but the lack of pride in their mutanthood when their hair is proverbially down is incomprehensible, save perhaps that the actors have no pride in sitting in makeup chairs for six hours a day.
Then there are the dangling threads from X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine that will always bedevil the franchise, such as introducing Emma Frost as a little girl and Wade Wilson as a Vietnam vet in 1981 when the former is a full-grown woman in First Class’ version of ’62, and the latter is, well, Ryan Reynolds with superpowers in the 2010s’ Deadpool movies. Likewise, those movies’ versions of Charles, Erik, Jean, and Scott during the ’80s are completely ignored by all the films that came afterward.
In truth, the X-Men movie continuity will never be fully satisfactory, but at the end of the day it really shouldn’t matter that much. When ignoring continuity can result in films as allegorically rich as Logan or genre-disrupting as Deadpool, having all the films’ narratives connect becomes as much a burden as it does an asset. That doesn’t excuse the X-films’ other inconsistencies in quality, and Dark Phoenix is certainly another curveball on that scale. But in a way, this is a franchise that both waited too long to evolve and evolved faster than any of its peers by embracing extreme comedy and drama far sooner than competition that often played it safe, and surviving multiple “eras” in blockbuster and superhero cinema. Along the way, it produced a few classics, and even with Dark Phoenix somewhat corrected one of its most complained about sins among fans. Also in its finale, it at least produced a fate for Jean Grey’s glowing alter-ego more fittingly divine than her refrigerated status at the end of Wolverine’s claws in X-Men: The Last Stand.
The saga ended in a muddle, somewhere between its highest peaks and lowest valleys, but it did so in a way that allows us to still appreciate that strange, mercurial legacy it leaves in its wake.