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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Dark Phoenix's director explains why the iconic story needed a redo and how the MCU helped

By Todd Gilchrist
Dark Phoenix Sophie Turner Jessica Chastain

Phoenixes rise from the ashes, but it's looking like this is the last hurrah of the X-Men as we know them. What's definitely certain is that Simon Kinberg is saying goodbye to the X-Men franchise with Dark Phoenix, his second adaptation of an iconic X-Men comic story.

Kinberg, who makes his directorial debut with Dark Phoenix, tackled the story as a writer for 2006's The Last Stand, and the new film offers a chance to right some creative wrongs and conclude a storied saga. Whenever Disney brings the X-Men into the MCU, things will probably look quite different from the franchise Kinberg helped build. As the Phoenix Force rises for the second and, for now at least, last time, Kinberg spoke candidly to SYFY WIRE about his experiences with a franchise that changed the way audiences saw superheroes, and why this particular story was worth telling twice.

Dark Phoenix

The X-Men franchise has always been understandably reliant upon the big storylines from the comic books. Why has that been such an important backbone for the franchise and what advantages and disadvantages has that presented you over the course of the series?

I think part of it is the fact that fans of the X-Men are perhaps the most religious about the comics of all fans. Obviously, all comic fans are very fervent about the source material, but our fans are really, really dedicated to it. And it may just also be the filmmakers; of the mainline X-Men movies, the vast majority of them were directed by Bryan Singer. And Bryan is someone that the cartoons as much as the comics were really important growing up for him, as they were for me as well. And so I think that's a big part of it.

The advantages obviously are that they're extraordinary, enduring stories; I mean, there's a reason why a story that might've been written 30, 40, 50 years ago is still resonant today — it means the story itself is just a really, really strong idea. Because really, usually we use the basic concept and the essence of the storyline but we change a lot of things within it obviously, we take license. The process of adaptation is taking something that can span many, many issues, and we're trying to boil it down to roughly two hours of storytelling.

But, it's a great story. The disadvantage is that it's hard to know what to exclude. These stories have so much great stuff in them, but they're told over a span of time that you can't cover in a single movie. And so that sort of editorial process is hard. And I think what comes with it is inevitably fans of that part of the comic being disappointed.

Jean Grey

You already took one stab at the Dark Phoenix story in The Last Stand. What were the things that either you felt you didn't get right or could benefit from being updated? What lessons did you learn from the intervening installments?

The biggest thing was that we didn't make Dark Phoenix the main plot of X-Men: The Last Stand. It became the background or secondary plot to the cure plot in that film, and the male characters Xavier, Magneto, and Wolverine remain the protagonists and antagonists when in fact Jean is the antagonist and protagonist of the Dark Phoenix story, so I just felt we didn't fully commit to telling the Dark Phoenix story.

Then there were other smaller but still crucial elements like having there be a cosmic storyline — none of that was explored before. So I thought that was something not just new to the Dark Phoenix story but new to the X-Men franchise that we could do that would be vastly different than anything we'd done before.

How was that reflected in the choice to jump from one decade to another one, particularly in the last four?

There's no question that idea gave us the opportunity to explore what was going on in the world in those decades that might have related to oppression and persecution and xenophobia. Something like the Cuban missile crisis in X-Men: First Class became a huge part of the story and a critical part of it, but then there were also very personal moments in that movie like Mystique's struggle with her identity as a mutant, with the Charles side essentially asking her to pass or integrate, and the other side with Magneto telling her that the blue side, the more radicalized side of her was the truer her side of her.

And then, jumping forward into Days of Future Past, the '70s was the time obviously of not just persecution, but an immense amount of paranoia given the Vietnam War, given Nixon. And so that was something we really wanted to explore in the film in terms of the actual plotting of the movie itself — I mean, Nixon is an actual character in the movie just as JFK was a character in X-Men: First Class.

One of the things we wanted to explore was that the '80s was a sort of blissfully ignorant time unlike the '60s that were so radicalized and highly political, or the '70s that were coming out of that. That was one of the reasons why the Apocalypse story was such a great story to tell in the '80s, because that's the ancient past coming back to haunt the X-Men in the world.

The '90s is this sort of like angsty era of rebellion and starting to be countercultural in a new way, that is what Dark Phoenix is. And also being a time where we have a sort of moral greyness in our country that heroes and villains are a little bit harder to discern, that was something that Dark Phoenix obviously really explores as well, this notion that someone who's a good guy, so to speak with Jean, can do horrible destructive things. So each era has provided a backdrop sometimes more explicitly than others, but we were always aware of ways that we could use or reflect the period while also keeping it relevant to today.

Sophie Turner's Jean Grey in Dark Phoenix

How much has the ascendancy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe made it easier to introduce ideas further out from those core concepts and audiences accept them?

I wasn't involved in the first two X-Men movies, but when they first started making X-Men movies, it was still a really young form, and the way that Bryan approached the X-Men movies, the seriousness of purpose with which he approached them, the way that he didn't treat them like they were cartoons, but in fact were more like a drama, that was radically new, that was something really different, and I think led to the MCU and led to The Dark Knight and so many other superhero movies that came after it. But over the last 20 years with the proliferation and the popularity of comic book movies, the audience has become so fluent in this.

The comic book audience was always fluent in it, but they're still a small minority of the general audience that goes to go see these movies. So to the general audience, now it's not just Avengers: Endgame, but you go back to Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and Thor: Ragnarok, and the technology of Ant-Man. There's so much that audiences when done right, are willing to suspend their disbelief about, and have in some ways come to expect from this genre now.

Certainly, Dark Phoenix is my attempt to make a grounded version of a superhero movie, but I think we certainly have the freedom and green light to explore some areas that we wouldn't have been able to explore if not for the popularity especially of the MCU movies going into outer space and doing some really cool radical things that were maybe more aligned with the comics than those earlier movies were allowed to do, and we feel emboldened to do it because we like it, just from a sensibility and taste standpoint, and we also feel like the audience does as well.

Dark Phoenix Mystique

Was there a degree of inevitability to tackle this story at whatever point you knew was going to be sort of the final film in this cycle?

I did feel like the culmination of this cycle of X-Men storytelling should end with the Dark Phoenix story. And not because of any regrets or guilt I had about the way it was handled in The Last Stand, but because it is the ultimate X-Men storyline, it's the most beloved, the most iconic. And so I felt like to end with that felt fitting. I also felt like the actual material of the Dark Phoenix storyline felt like the culmination of a saga that was about building a family, bringing strangers together into this family.

The notion that someone within the family would become the danger or the antagonist of the movie felt really like the ultimate challenge to the family, and it rips the family apart in a way that we'd never seen before. They have to endure trauma in a different way than they ever have before. All of those things felt very much like the climax or the culmination of the saga.

Did you seed the previous films with details or set up that would ready audiences for the story either for the first time, or for the last time?

We obviously do a little bit of it in Apocalypse, but I wasn't sure when we were making Apocalypse if Dark Phoenix would be the next movie or for there'd be a movie in between Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix, so I wasn't doing too much to set it up, but certainly like Days of Future Past, once I reset that timeline at the end of Days of Future Past, it made it possible to do the Dark Phoenix story without contradicting The Last Stand. And that was something that I was very aware of as I was writing the end of that movie.

Dark Phoenix

Do you feel a sense of catharsis not just from having directed one of these in addition to writing it, but creating a pretty spectacular finale for a very beloved film series?

I certainly feel a lot of pride. I feel a lot of gratitude for the fact that I got to live in this universe as a filmmaker for 15 years in one form or another. I grew up reading these comics, so I feel that. I'm still a little bit dizzy, to be honest with you from the world tour that we did for this movie, so I think in a week's time I'll probably feel more catharsis and more of a sense of completion. But I do feel like we told a lot of really great stories, and for me that's not just the X-Men movies, it's Logan, it's the Deadpool movies.

I got to really see a lot of these films, these characters that I loved growing up, I got to help bring them to life. And that's not something a lot of people can say as artists. And I do feel a really nice sense for me of coming full circle, having started on a movie that had a Dark Phoenix story in it to a movie that is the Dark Phoenix story.