X-Men: Apocalypse came and went in 2016, and the opinions on it were decidedly mixed. While not nearly as toxic to fan culture (or its studio’s gameplan) as that year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Sucide Squad, it received a middling reception at the box office, by the critics, and even ultimately an indifferent fanbase that felt as though we had seen almost all of it before. And done better at that.
Yet even before the rumors of “X-Men: Supernova” first percolateed on the internet (prior to the film being announced as X-Men: Dark Phoenix), it was clear that the franchise’s salvation laid in the wake of Phoenix’s fiery glory. After all, the generally agreed upon best scene of X-Men: Apocalypse came when Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey was asked to unleash her full godlike mutant ability against Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse, an ancient being who up until this point has made a big show about being perceived as an actual deity. To be sure, Isaac’s Apocalypse proved he is at least a master of taking massive amounts of punishment, withstanding Magneto’s heightened magnetic fields, Storm’s electrical charges, and whatever that stuff is coming out of Cyclops’ eyes.
However, it is only when Xavier calls upon his favorite student that the tide really turns against the Big A. McAvoy, always pitch perfect, evokes bottomless sympathy and concern as he pleads with Jean to let her Phoenix flag fly, and Turner happily takes this star moment to literally shine in a spotlight made of cosmic flames. With her transformation into Phoenix complete, Apocalypse melts away like a snowball that finally found its way to Hell, and the X-Men movies are at last allowed to marvel in the Phoenix iconography they first toyed with 2003—only to then see it squandered in complete failure by Brett Ratner with 2006’s historically dreadful X-Men: The Last Stand.
It is obviously meant to be the highest point of interest in an otherwise pedestrian climax, but it also shined a beacon on a path to something more interesting down the road. Now Jean is an omega level mutant, Magneto and Xavier are at peace for the first time since the third act of X-Men: First Class, and Mystique is leading the young mutants into a signoff of Danger Room fan-service.
In a number of respects that could theoretically have been the end of the story begun by Bryan Singer’s X-Men all the way back in 2000. The mistakes of The Last Stand were righted in 2014’s Days of Future Past, and closure on the Xavier and Magneto relationship has been granted along with every single thing that comic book fanboys have been griping about wanting to see for almost two decades: Jim Lee’s colorful costume designs from the early 1990s; Sentinels in the Danger Room; and of course, the Phoenix.
But this is so obviously not the end. Even prior to the announcement of X-Men: Dark Phoenix, we were championing the idea of taking the franchise into space and putting the Phoenix Saga front and center, because even though we’ve seen an “adaptation” of it in X-Men: The Last Stand, doing the story properly offers something altogether different from previous X-Men movies: a break from formula.
After Apocalypse was released, Fox could have gone a number of directions with the franchise, including by pursuing the post-credits stinger in X-Men: Apocalypse, which introduced the Essex Corporation, a hint that something Sinister this way comes. Mister Sinister, that is, a mutant villain with a name far cooler to read in print than to speak aloud. However, by doing another story about an external mutant threat, the X-Men saga came dangerously close to repeating one of the mistakes that ultimately undercut X-Men: Apocalypse. As a a kind of Ghost of Christmas Future to other superhero franchises, should they live so long as the 18-year-old X-Men, the X-Men proper franchise has been running the risk of growing stale, even as its spinoffs like Deadpool and Logan prosper with a rulebreaking exubrance that shirks off the rest of the genre.
By contrast, one could point out that the six previous X-Men films have played into two specific types of conflict. Either the film revolves around a big bad mutant fighting the heroes, or all of the mutants fighting an even more insidious human threat who has propagated his menace via bigotry, as seen in X-Men 2 and Days of Future Past. The latter films are largely lauded as high points in the superhero genre, particularly when drenched in the mind-bending concept of time travel, the visual novelty of the Sentinels, and the shrewd advantage of an early 1970s/post-Vietnam funk found in a “Me Generation” setting. Nevertheless, the set-ups have become familiar.
The Dark Phoenix Saga, or more acutely the overall cosmic side of the X-Men mythos, is a much needed disruptor to this potentially creeping tedium.
Of course the Phoenix Saga was “adapted,” in the loosest sense possible, in X-Men: The Last Stand. Unfortunately, Jean Grey and her cosmic alter-ego were hardly even recognizable since she was presented as the Benedict Arnold of X-Men because of “reasons,” and her fiery side-persona was haphazardly introduced as something akin to a split personality disorder that was glossed over in favor of making her yet one more muted henchman of Magneto’s plan. She was neither goddess nor had so much as a say in her destruction, which was instead depicted as the male Wolverine providing a mercy killing for his damsel in distress. Both visually and narratively, the filmmakers ignored all the fire a real adaptation of the Phoenix saga could offer.
Hence the ending of Apocalypse being so provactive as Jean went supernova without it being immediately treated as “women are evil.” Instead it planted the seeds for doing this storyline properly with a line of dialogue drowned out in so much audio bombast that it is easy to miss. Apocalypse’s last words, before he turns into a marshmallow that’s been left above the fire too long, are, “At last, all has been revealed.” And that very well could be referring to the future of the X-Men franchise.
While Fox has stayed true to the franchise’s internal logic up to this point—including by having Xavier aware of Jean Grey’s potential for end times destruction since he already foresaw it due to glimpsing the future in the last film—this scene nonetheless hints at a much larger X-Men universe with potential for far crazier stories than a mutant god. Apocalypse’s body-transferring technology teased the celestials (Marvel’s grooviest aliens), and that unto itself opens the doors to more ambitious interstellar stories with Jean Grey at the center. And if we use the comics as a guide, for once the idea of a franchise “going to space” sounds not only logical, but potentially revitalizing.
Indeed, for those who have not read the trenchant tomes of countless mutant lore from Marvel Comics, and particularly of the Chris Claremont variety, the Phoenix is more than Jean Grey on her worst day; it is the most powerful cosmic force in the universe that has latched itself onto a member of the X-Men family. She is also forced into a position to choose between being a human or, for all intents and purposes, a god. She is fighting for her soul in the presence of cosmic omnipotence.
If 20th Century Fox wants to elevate the X-Men franchise beyond the critique of “been there, done that,” then the answer lies not in their past successes, but rather doing with the brand what Days of Future Past did by introducing time travel: taking relatively jarring science fiction elements ignored by other superhero films and galloping into some crazy, gnarly places with it.
In the comics, the Phoenix is a gateway to some pretty wild and madcap comic book ideas, even if admittedly not all of them are golden. For example, the Shi’ar Empire is an appealingly byzantine concept that is equal parts Star Wars rip-off and medieval iconography transposed for the space age. There is a once and future alien empress named Lilandra, gladiatorial death matches on the Earth’s moon, and the silliest of all silly MacGuffins to be found in the M’Kraan Crystal. That last bit veers closer to the Marvel Studios formula (again not all comic book ideas are gems), but much of this could be a breath of fresh air for the franchise on the big screen.
Whereas Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a five-way buddy comedy in space, the more ponderously dense X-Men movies could take these concepts of intergalactic feudalism in the direction of something akin to Game of Thrones. Which is more than apt since the center of this would be Sophie Turner, whose Jean, along with Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, Alexandra Shipp as Storm, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler, has the potential to carry the franchise forward in the way that McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence so successfully did in 2011.
And most beneficial of all is that the threat would not be from an external mutant or human; it’d be internal.
By taking the X-Men into the cosmic realm, already the franchise can differentiate itself from the competition. Granted, it would appear that both Justice League and Avengers: Infinity War will look to the heavens with films about the New Gods and Thanos, respectively. However, both conceits would appear to tread similar ground to so many other superhero movies: a big blue or purple bastard tries to destroy Earth and the superheroes must join forces to stop the destruction porn that follows.
We already are seeing the law of diminishing returns from that familiar comic book formula, but several films in the X-universe now set in space involving morally ambiguous, warring dynasties, multiple races of aliens, and the superheroes battling on the moon would be the striking contrast Apocalypse lacked. And it would build not toward a big bad guy coming from a Jack Kirby hellscape to destroy Earth, but rather it’d lead to a war within the X-Men’s own ranks.
The ending film of such a saga would need to be about the X-Men facing the fact that Jean Grey has been corrupted by a force that would consume her soul in fire, as well as possibly the whole galaxy. By internalizing the struggle for our ostensible good guys, it would be more The Exorcist than Independence Day, intrinsically lending the material a higher caliber of storytelling, just as the James Cameron-inspired Future Past trumps the Roland Emmerich-looking Apocalypse.
This advantageous changing of priorities would allow the franchise to shed names who may not want to return while spotlighting the younger cast that worked so well. In a way, X-Men: Apocalypse was one last ride in the franchise’s original form. If Fox wants to seriously continue it, the answer will not be a glimpse into the past, but to evolve with an eye toward the future… and the stars.
***A version of this article was originally published on May 30, 2016.