'Dark Phoenix' and the Challenge Ahead

The new trailer for Fox’s Dark Phoenix dropped this week, teasing what is likely to be the final installment in the studio’s long-running X-Men franchise ahead of the Disney/Fox merger that will push the characters under the control of Marvel Studios. As such, it should be a big deal, especially given that the trailer reveals the death of one of the long-standing characters of the franchise. And yet, response has been surprisingly muted.

Part of that could be put down to the general critical and fan malaise caused by the last entry in the series, 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse. After 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past did the seemingly impossible and resurrected the franchise in fans’ hearts, the messy, overstuffed Apocalypseonly 48 percent on Rotten Tomatoes! — was the very definition of underwhelming, killing hopes of renewed momentum for the franchise immediately.

There’s also the fact that, as strange as it may seem for a series less than 20 years old, Dark Phoenix is…kind of a remake. 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand was the first attempt to adapt Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s classic “Dark Phoenix Saga” comic book storyline for the screen and, as bad as that movie was — and it was — that was just 13 years ago. Perhaps it’s still too soon to ask audiences to return to this particular well.

Of course, there’s also the Elephant in the (Danger) Room: That, after this movie, the X-Men as a property will belong to Marvel…which, for much of the audience, means that they’ll finally “count” as a cinematic property for the first time.

That’s perhaps putting it too bluntly, but the expectation and excitement surrounding the possibility for a Marvel Studios X-Men movie — and for the characters to coexist with their comic book brethren like the Avengers, Captain Marvel, Black Panther et al — is such that it potentially overshadows Dark Phoenix’s release (and also New Mutants, the other Fox mutant movie that appears to be in limbo currently). It’s a strange phenomenon, but one that we’ve seen a version of before; consider the excitement that followed the news that Spider-Man was going to debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. By that point, the character had appeared in five solo movies from Sony, but the reaction from the fan base was as if no one had ever seen Peter Parker on the big screen before.

That reaction only grew when Tom Holland first appeared in a trailer for the movie, with many reacting as if this had been the Spider-Man they’d been waiting for their entire lives; it underscored an unspoken attitude seemingly held by a lot of people — that only Marvel Studios understands how to do movie super heroics “right.”

It’s worth noting that the live-action superhero movies that have really broken through with mainstream audiences outside of Marvel Studios' output are ones that offer something Marvel purposefully doesn’t: R-rated stories (Deadpool and Logan), female leads (Wonder Woman) or absolutely ridiculous camp horror (Venom). Only Aquaman is a non-Marvel movie that hews to the Marvel formula and has found sizable success with audiences.

The prospect, then, of Marvel’s X-Men movie is obviously going to be something that audiences are impatient for; given the Spider-Man experience, what’s lying in wait is something that’s going to be worth the wait and fulfill fanboy dreams in a way that previous movies haven’t. And, when all that’s between now and that promised land is the final installment of a series that didn’t excite too many people last time and is a story that they’ve seen already…. Well, perhaps it’s not that surprising that Dark Phoenix is failing to ignite excitement, after all.

Dark Phoenix opens June 7.