“I can’t really remember a world without X-Men…” Sophie Turner was just four years old when the first of the X-movies blasted its way into cinemas in the summer of 2000. Now, 19 years and six movies (as well as several spin-offs) later, she’s the headline star of the franchise’s last hurrah, X-Men: Dark Phoenix. That’s quite some evolution.
Speaking to Den Of Geek in the middle of a “busy but fun” couple of weeks (to put it mildly – Dark Phoenix’s Parisian press tour is taking place hot on the heels of the premiere of Game Of Thrones’ eighth and final season), Turner says that she’s always been “very aware” of the mutant franchise. And while she might have been too young to appreciate the impact that X-Men had on its release, she’s certainly no stranger to its legacy.
None of us are. Much like its titular team of superpowered mutants, the film represented a “leap forward” in cinema’s evolution, opening the door to a brave new world in which comic-book movies would go on to rule Hollywood.
“It was a time when comic-book movies were not taken very seriously,” recalls Simon Kinberg, the veteran series writer who’s finally making his directorial debut with Dark Phoenix. “X-Men was essentially a drama, and a drama about things that mattered. It was political and deeply emotional. And as a result, it was wildly successful. I don’t know that The Dark Knight, or Iron Man and the success of Marvel Studios, would have been possible without X-Men. It was the movie that started a wave that has now become a whole ocean of tentpole mainstream filmmaking.”
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the X-franchise since the first film’s release, though. Jostling for position among the increasingly superhero-stuffed release schedules that it helped to create, the series has offered its fair share of highlights and, erm, not-so-highlights – for every X2, there was a Last Stand; for every Logan, there was an X-Men Origins: Wolverine… The saga’s previous chapter, 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, might have introduced Turner’s younger Jean Grey, but it didn’t exactly hit a critical home run.
“We didn’t feel like Apocalypse represented our best effort,” admits producer Hutch Parker, a man who goes back a long way with the franchise (a former Fox exec, he’s been involved with the movies ever since X2, and has been a full-time producer since 2013’s The Wolverine). “While there are things we love about that movie, we felt like there were things we wanted to do better. We wanted to lean more heavily on the characters that have defined the franchise. We wanted to find more of a clear, dramatic focus. We wanted to take the gloves off and tell a story that feels dangerous and has consequences. All of which helped lead us to the Dark Phoenix saga as the basis for the movie.”
If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is: the famous X-Men comic arc has already been loosely adapted for the big screen with 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand – a film that offered Kinberg his first (co-)writing gig on the franchise. Many fans felt that the film didn’t do the source justice, though, doing away with the cosmic elements of the story and, at points, sidelining the Phoenix – one of Marvel’s most powerful characters – in favour of a competing ‘mutant cure’ plot strand.
For Kinberg, now at the helm, revisiting the saga wasn’t simply a case of righting The Last Stand’s wrongs, though. A “conclusion” to the franchise as we know it (a decision that Parker says was taken before the announcement of the Disney/Fox merger that would have likely forced their hand), Dark Phoenix harks back to the “character-driven storytelling” of the first two X-Men movies while at the same time forging its own bold new path forward, according to its director.
“I felt as though the X-Men universe had gotten a bit stuck in the place it began, and hadn’t really evolved as rapidly as the genre has evolved,” says Kinberg. “So I went into making Dark Phoenix with the intent of creating a new tone for an X-Men movie. I felt it was necessary to tell the Dark Phoenix story that I wanted to tell – more intimate, more personal, more gritty and naturalistic, and not quite as, let’s say, glossy and operatic as some of the other X-Men movies have been. It’s an edgier type of storytelling than people are used to from this franchise.”
From the ashes
The Phoenix/Dark Phoenix arc is one of the most well-known in the history of X-Men comics. Written by Chris Claremont and first published across several issues of Uncanny X-Men from 1976 to 1980, it sees the team’s telekinetic telepath Jean Grey consumed by the cosmic Phoenix Force after a space mission gone wrong. Her powers are amplified massively as a result, but achieving her maximum potential comes at a price: corrupted by sinister forces, Jean is torn between her love for her friends and her Phoenix-led destructive impulses.
This film is following the Dark Phoenix story a lot more closely than The Last Stand did, with Jean’s new-found powers and personality not only causing an internal struggle, but dividing the mutants around her, too – including, most prominently, Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult).
“I wanted people on both sides of Jean – the people that want to save her and the people that want to stop her – to have a valid point of view,” says Kinberg. “I wanted it to feel as though Jean’s struggle with this cosmic force inside of her, this struggle for control, was complicated. Not just complicated in terms of being difficult, but complicated morally for her, because there’s an aspect of it where you want her to embrace her power, and there’s an aspect of it where you’re afraid of that power.
“It felt like we were doing something a little different, going deeper into that character’s story,” he continues. “I don’t think there’s ever been an X-Men movie – even the Wolverine thread of X-Men and X2 – that was so focused on a single protagonist, and the consequences of her actions for the other characters.”
Shouldering a huge franchise blockbuster like this is a big responsibility for a young actor, but Kinberg was convinced from the off that Turner could handle it. “About nine months before we started filming, we had lunch,” he remembers. “I hadn’t even finished the script yet. I said to her, point blank: ‘You are the star of the movie. You’re the centre of the movie. You’re playing a character going through enormous emotional turmoil. You’re playing a character who is as complex and complicated and powerful as anything we’ve ever seen in this franchise, and you’re going to be going toe to toe with some of the greatest actors alive. Basically, you need to start preparing now.’”
No pressure, then. “It was kind of mixed emotions,” Turner laughs, thinking back to Kinberg’s lunchtime pitch. “Because the Dark Phoenix storyline is so beloved and revered, there’s a lot of pressure that comes with that. But it’s such a big honour. I was overwhelmed, but I was really excited that Simon trusted me enough. When a movie like this kind of rests on your shoulders, you have to get it right – I didn’t want to be the person to f**k it up. ”
Turner had an unprecedented six months to prepare, during which she threw herself into doing her homework. Attempting to ground Jean’s struggle with her cosmic other half, Kinberg sent her a mammoth reading list, centred around the psychology of addiction and mental illness. “We studied things like schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder,” says Turner. “We wanted these supernatural, fantastical things that happen to her to feel very real and resonate with people.”
“I started sending her books and articles and videos and she just ate it up,” adds Kinberg. “She would read and watch about as fast as I could send new stuff. And she’d be sending me stuff back. She would spend days walking around London with headphones in her ears, listening to a series of random voices, so that she would know what it is to walk around the world hearing voices in your head. We had more rehearsal time on this movie than we’ve ever had on an X-Men movie, and that was because I was betting on performance and emotion, more than I was betting on spectacle and visual effects.”
Kinberg was clearly bowled over by Turner’s work ethic; his gamble, it seemed, had paid off. “Every single line of her script had a Post-It note by it, where she had written down subtext, metaphors, questions like ‘How does it fit into the larger arc?’ She had studied the script probably more than I had. Every day she came to the set with a ferocity and commitment that was astonishing.”
“I mean, it pushed me pretty far,” Turner says of playing the conflicted, all-powerful mutant. “Every day was another challenge, and every day was highly emotional and very tasking. It pushed me as an actress, and I don’t think I’d been pushed that much before.”
Kinberg’s laser-like focus on Jean and the fallout from her actions itself represents something of an evolution in the franchise – especially from the bloated ensemble of the Phoenix’s previous onscreen appearance in The Last Stand, which diluted the character’s arc to the anger of fans everywhere. This even meant cutting some of the comic run’s other elements entirely to give the story room to breathe.
“The original Dark Phoenix story would make a great 10-hour miniseries,” the writer/director admits. “There are elements of it that I didn’t feel I could fit into two hours of storytelling without short-changing one thing or another. When X-Men movies have gone wrong, it’s because they’ve tried to service too much in the span of a single film, and you lose the concentration of character.”
One of the biggest elements that was cut was the involvement of the X-Men’s rivals, the Hellfire Club – a group that played a big part in the Dark Phoenix saga. “We’d already seen the Hellfire Club in X-Men: First Class,” Kinberg explains. “And I also felt like introducing a brand new set of people – rather than doing the deepest possible dive into characters you’ve come to care about – wasn’t the best use of screen time.”
He has, however, included a nod to the group with one of the film’s few new characters, Selene (played by newcomer Kota Eberhardt). “If I was going to portray some new mutants on screen, I wanted at least one of them to be an allusion and a touch point to the Hellfire Club,” he says. “And Selene has traditionally been associated with them. I thought that it would be interesting to have a telepath on the side of Magneto and his forces, too.”
It sounds like Dark Phoenix represents not just an evolution for the franchise, but also for Kinberg himself – both personally and behind the camera. “You know, I started making these movies 15 years ago, when I was 30 – I’m 45 now,” says the refreshingly candid filmmaker, a lifelong X-Men fan who’s not afraid to reflect on and learn from past experiences – good and bad. “And over these last 15 years, I would say I’ve spent as much – or more – time living with the X-Men, either in my imagination or quite literally on location, than I have lived with any of my family and friends.
“It has been the primary relationship in my life. I’ve gone through having kids, getting divorced, my dad passing away…all of the life cycles that one goes through around this age. And through it all, strangely, the surrogate family that has always been there for me has been the X-Men.
“When I was younger, my eyes were so wide at getting the opportunity to write an X-Men movie, that the movies got bigger and bigger. And yet, my evolution as a filmmaker has been that the more important way to go is to narrow your eyes, and to be more focused, and to tell stories that are more intimate and personal. There will always be visual effects and action and supernatural things happening, because they’re superheroes, but if you don’t focus on the humanity of them, and the nuances of what it means to be different, and of what it means to struggle with your identity, then you’re actually weirdly not telling a true X-Men story. And more generally, you’re not telling a particularly compelling dramatic story.
“It’s part of what led me in this movie to do some things that were different, to shake up the characters. I felt it was time to do something more grown-up; to dig deeper. To move things forward.” Welcome to the new world.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix opens on 5 June.
This article first appeared in issue 4 of Den Of Geek magazine.