Just before today’s WonderCon panel, featuring the filmmakers and cast of Dark Phoenix (the latest X-Men film from Fox), a message over the public address system informed the crowd at the Anaheim Convention Center that no time would be allotted for audience questions. There was an amused murmur from the crowd that seemed to say: That figures.
Dark Phoenix won’t hit theaters until June 7, but the film’s reputation has taken a beating for months with some of the harshest advance criticism of any major superhero sequel since, well, the franchise’s previous installment, X-Men: Apocalypse in 2016. It was not clear, however, how much of that negative word was informed by genuine firsthand knowledge or how much of it was an early-bird pile-on by haters.
With the Disney acquisition of Fox, Dark Phoenix can be viewed as a lame-duck entry in a short-timer superhero universe that will soon be reconsidered, revamped, recast, and relaunched. The movie has a first-time director (longtime X-Men screenwriter Simon Kinberg), a second-hand story (it was adapted already in X-Men: Last Stand in 2006), and a fallback release date (it was originally slotted for last November). The last film also sapped energy out of the franchise, its fanbase, and (reportedly) its cast as well.
Dark Phoenix tells a classic 1980s tale from the pages of Marvel Comics that may be the most revered epic in Marvel’s 80 years of publishing. The story focuses on Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), the X-Men character whose vast powers may surge beyond those of any other mutant on earth. After a space mission goes awry, however, Jean’s powers threaten to consume her and the entire world with her if she cannot find a way to control their dark appetites. It’s the 12th film in Fox’s venerable X-Men franchise dating back to Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000.
The panel began with writer-director Simon Kinberg and producer Hutch Parker (later joined by a half-dozen cast members), who both made comments that were candid (and even contrite) regarding the lapses of a franchise that turns 19-years-old this summer.
“You let us know when we got it wrong,” Kinberg said at one point. Parker, while praising the classic X-Men comics, admitted the franchise stumbled when it didn’t conform to the source material: “The underlying material is just so good and frankly it’s better than we’ve been as storytellers in some cases. This is a film that aspires to try to tackle the potential of all of that while honoring the legacy and the characters.”
With all of that as a preamble, it was easy to expect the worst when the arena lights went down and new footage filled the screen. Instead a funny thing happened. The 10-minute sequence from the first act of Dark Phoenix wasn’t bad — it was, in fact, the opposite of bad. Which is to say it was good. Very good. Like X-Men: Days of Future Past kind of good.
The crowd cheered enthusiastically for action-packed scenes, which were brisk, evocative, and intense. There was humor and conflict. Team unity and character traits were revealed through action, team division and inner conflict were communicated with subtlety. To avoid mild spoilers, skip the next two paragraphs, which summarize the first-act footage shown.
The scene begins with the X-Men — Jean Gray (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and team leader Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) — embarking on a desperate rescue mission in space. Professor X (James McAvoy) is in communication with the team and with NASA as well and reveals the details of the crisis. A disabled shuttle and its crew are in the path of a solar flare, time is short. Mystique crisply directs the team into action — as Beast pilots, Cyclops slides down into a one-man turret on the belly of the Blackbird jet and uses his power blasts to steady the shuttle. Storm uses her power to contain its escaping air. Nightcrawler and Quicksilver teleport to the craft and retrieve the crew. But there’s a problem — one astronaut is still missing.
The solar flare is approaching and Professor X and Mystique debate the wisdom of going back for the remaining astronaut. In the end, a frustrated Mystique relents. Nightcrawler and Jean go aboard the shuttle. Jean uses her power to hold the blistering and disintegrating hull intact while Nightcrawler finds the crewman. The flare hits. Nigtcrawler and the astronaut make it back to the Blackbird but Jean does not. Instead she absorbs the flare in dramatic fashion. The X-Men think she’s dead when they bring Jean back aboard but she is seemingly uninjured. The X-Men are greeted as heroes back on earth by a grateful nation and adoring youngsters with blue face make-up and action figures. Back at the mansion headquarters of the team, Quicksilver boasts about his exploits in space, Beast begins medical tests for Jean and tension simmers between Professor X and Mystique. She ends their terse exchange by pointing out that the men on the team aren’t the ones who do most of the risk-taking in the field. “You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women,” she said.
The audience cheered long and loud, especially for the X-Women line, which resonates strongly with the current female empowerment trend in Hollywood superhero cinema. The studio has been releasing X-Men films for 18 years and they have prominently included three Oscar-winning actresses (Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Jennifer Lawrence) but Dark Phoenix is the brand’s first movie with a female title character — a sign of the times as female superheroes break the traditional mold of Hollywood superhero fare.
The panel discussion continued with the six cast members (Turner, Sheridan, Hoult, Shipp, Smit-McPhee, Peters) joining the on-stage presentation. Sheridan talked about the challenges of acting with his eyes obscured (he’s become a master of “eyebrow acting”). Turner noted that she researched schizophrenia to find performance insights for Jean’s transformation, and Shipp explained the cast’s rather alarming drinking game (it involved tequila and face-slapping). Hoult noted that he ingested so much blue fur from his Beast costume that he coughs up indigo hairballs.
The fans loved the banter but all the footage shown during the panel (and its impact in the room) was the big takeaway. If Dark Phoenix rises to success this summer, it’s turnaround might be traced back to the reputation rescue mission that succeeded in Anaheim.
WonderCon runs through Sunday with notable Hollywood-related presentations for projects that include The Big Bang Theory, Child’s Play, Hanna, Deadly Class, Into the Badlands, Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, Legion, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, The Twilight Zone, A Conversation of Witches, and an unspecified project preview from Warner Bros./New Line. The 80th anniversary of Batman, which arrives this Sunday, will also be a major theme of the weekend.