Will 'Dark Phoenix' Finale Marketing Overcome Mixed Reviews?

The promotional campaign for the 20th Century Fox film shifted gears to appeal to X-Men fans to not miss out on a vital story in the franchise, one providing a capstone to the series and characters.
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The premiere of 'Dark Phoenix' at the TCL Chinese Theatre on June 4.

There’s been lots written about what fate might be in store for the X-Men characters both in advance of Fox’s acquisition by Disney and after that deal was finalized. Whether or not the characters — or the members of the Fantastic Four — eventually join the Marvel Cinematic Universe remains to be seen. For the moment, the franchise that began almost 20 years ago and encompassed nine previous films is coming to an end in dramatic fashion.

Fox's X-Men: Dark Phoenix adapts one of the comics’ best known storylines of the same name, one published by Marvel in 1980 featuring the work of writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne. The movie’s story follows the younger characters introduced in 2011’s X-Men: First Class, and finds the team of young mutant heroes now more established in the world. A mission to space causes Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) to absorb massive amounts of energy from The Phoenix Force, a cosmic entity with incredible powers. Those powers change her, leading her to lash out at everyone and everything, including allies like Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and others.

It should be noted this is actually the second time “Dark Phoenix” has been depicted on-screen. In 2006, X-Men: The Last Stand attempted to do so but that effort wasn’t received well by critics and the reboot the series received in X-Men: Days of Future Past has erased those events from the story’s convoluted timeline.

Thus the stage is set for what’s hoped is a more faithful adaptation. Or it would have been, but right now Dark Phoenix sits at just 23 percent on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and at a mediocre 44 on Metacritic. The movie’s marketing has emphasized Jean’s evolution from powerful telekinetic to the host of an unbelievably powerful cosmic force. It also has made it clear to the audience an ending to the story awaits them in theaters this weekend. 

The Posters

Jean is shown in profile against a massive nebula with a bright “X” on the first teaser poster (from design agency InSync Plus). The poster was notably released in March 2018, about the same time the release date was changed by Fox to February 2019. The second poster (from BLT Communications), released at the end of February, places Jean in the middle of a giant “X” with the rest of the cast arranged within the arms and legs of the symbol.

A WonderCon poster given out to attendees in late March features an artistic representation of the moment Jean is being bombarded with the forces that will give her heightened powers, her face clearly communicating massive distress.

The left side of Jean’s face is shown in close-up on the next poster (from InSync Plus) released in early April, a fiery energy visible in her eye. Later that month, a series of character posters (from BLT) showed each of the heroes and villains in close-up, their faces surrounded by flowing energy or flames, with copy promising “Every hero has a dark side.”

Early May brought a slew of new posters, starting with one whose design and approach seemed reminiscent of artists like Drew Struzan in presenting (from BLT) photo-realistic painted images of the cast on a one-sheet that’s split down the middle, with the red fire of the Phoenix Force on one side and a deep blue on the other.

Another close-up of Jean’s fiery eye was featured on the Real 3D poster, the members of her old team seen reflected in that eye. She stands alone on a pile of rubble on the one-sheet for Imax, a Phoenix-shaped cloud of dust rising in the background. The X-Men stand below her as she hovers in the air on the Dolby Cinemas one-sheet, the team symbol breaking around her to show how she upsets the status quo. 

The Trailers

The first trailer (18.6 million views on YouTube), which debuted just days before a further delay was announced in September 2018, has Jean Grey seeking out Charles Xavier for help, which he provides in a morally questionable manner. But she increasingly senses she doesn’t belong among the good guys, a path she’s nudged along by others. The pain and conflict she feels boils until it comes spilling out in a fiery flame.

The second trailer (10.8 million views on YouTube) from late February starts off with Jean mourning over a choice she’s been compelled to make, one involving hurting — or even killing — a friend. As Smith encourages her to embrace her new power, we see how she came to have it in the first place and how it frightens those around her. 

April’s final trailer (6.9 million views on YouTube) starts off by showing the X-Men taking on a mission in space to rescue a group of astronauts. When a powerful force complicates the mission and infects Jean, suspicion starts to grow at the school over what’s happened to her, amplified by her growing, terrible abilities. Some are intent on saving her, others on stopping her as the threat she poses becomes more and more clear.

Turner and Hoult introduced an Imax-exclusive trailer released in mid-May that starts out with footage and dialogue from previous X-Men movies to show how this movie continues the story begun almost 20 years ago.

A similar approach was taken in one last trailer, titled “A Phoenix Will Rise,” (1.3 million views on YouTube) that focused on how Jean Grey has played a big part in the stories told on film over the last two decades. 

Advertising and Publicity

Dark Phoenix was originally scheduled to be released in November of last year, but a delay to February 2019 was announced in March of 2018, with needed reshoots cited as the reason for the shift. At the time, the merger of Fox and Disney was already in the works and the “uncertainty” of the mutant franchise’s future under new owners loomed over the announcement.

In April of last year Fox brought bits of footage to CinemaCon, where the studio also announced it was dropping the “X-Men” from the title and just going with “Dark Phoenix.” That decision removes this movie from the rest of the series in terms of branding. It’s also outside the norm of what’s done with other comic-based movies, which have largely adopted the “Team/Character: Subtitle” format as a way to create immediate audience recognition.

Further delays were announced just after the first trailer was released in September, meaning it was now scheduled over a year from when it was originally supposed to hit theaters. It was one of a few Fox movies to be pushed.

That news came just before Kinberg appeared at New York Comic Con, where a good chunk of footage was shown to fans to try and keep them excited for the much-delayed movie. While there, Kinberg tried on multiple occasions to draw the connections, at least thematically, between this and MCU movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok.

In mid-March it was announced the movie would have a presence at this year’s WonderCon entertainment convention, including a panel conversation with much of the cast along with the debut of new footage. That appearance appeared to be well-received by those in attendance, succeeding in getting fans and others excited and dismissing some of the worries that accompanied the frequent release delays. A few weeks later, Disney, having now assumed responsibility for the film, brought more footage to an industry audience at CinemaCon 2019.

The first TV spot came out in early April, showing it’s a bad idea to threaten Jean now that she has access to incredible powers. A month later in early May, another commercial focused on how the incident in space made Jean stronger than anyone else. More spots were released following that highlighting the team, emphasizing how dangerous Jean has become and how her fate is tied to that of the whole world.

Fox declared May 13 to be “X-Men Day,” a day for the studio to celebrate the franchise’s long history and for fans to join in on that fun. Stars from the movies posted videos on social media talking about their roles over the years, while comics retailers shared photos of cosplayers in their stores and more.

Later that month the promotions ramped up, with Fox releasing the “X-Men Legacy” featurette including both new and archive interviews with the cast along with scenes from previous movies and behind-the-scenes footage. A shorter version of that video was given to AMC Theaters as an exclusive promotional spot.

Fox then began releasing clips from the movie, including scenes of Jean reacting poorly to soldiers coming to look for her and Xavier and Magneto reuniting as each seeks to deal with Jean in their own way. Another showed Jean learning more about the potential her new powers could unlock. Apple TV, ramping up its own promotions in the buildup to the recent WWDC, was given an exclusive extended clip of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) confronting Xavier in the wake of the fateful mission.

Another retrospective video focused on the power — and danger — lurking within all the mutants we’ve seen onscreen, with clips from previous movies showing them unleashing that power at key moments. Some of the cast then appeared in a “Celebration” video talking about the impact the X-Men movies have had on their lives and thanking fans for their support over the years.

Promotional partners for the movie included: 

Carl’s Jr./Hardees, which offered a movie-branded soft drink cup to customers. 

T-Mobile, which offered reduced price tickets to the movie to its customers, in addition to running a sweepstakes on X-Men Day awarding a trip to the Los Angeles premiere. 

Boulevard Brewing Company, which introduced Space Camper, a new “cosmic” IPA beer released in movie-branded cases. 

Gilt.com, which offered a “superhuman” fashion line of red outfits inspired by the movie. 

BSN, which ran a sweepstakes awarding a private screening of the movie. 

Box Lunch, which put its X-Men merchandise together with Phoenix-related items front and center. 

The original “Dark Phoenix” comics storyline concluded with what would over the course of the next 35 years be the first of many deaths of Jean Grey. Marvel seized the opportunity provided by the movie and once more resurrected the character, launching “Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey” in 2017 to reintroduce her to the world of the X-Men. The publisher wasn’t afraid to mine the archives either, using its “True Believers” line of $1 reprints to bring classic Phoenix-centric issues back to store shelves. More recently it has been releasing a series of YouTube videos titled “The History of the X-Men” to share key moments from the long history of the series. 

Online ads have used various elements of the key art, mostly focusing on Jean being at the center of the action while the other characters are arranged around the “X” symbol. Those ads have pushed people to find out more or purchase advance tickets for the movie.

Following the finale of Game of Thrones, HBO released a video interview with Turner, who played Sansa Stark on the show, where she talks about the movie and the arc that Jean goes on in the story, including what impact it has on the rest of the team.

Members of the cast as well as director Simon Kinberg were sent on an international publicity tour with stops that included Beijing, Seoul and locations around Europe, as well as a big fan event in London.

Imax will host an early screening the night of June 6 for those interested in being the first to see it. The red carpet premiere earlier in the week was live-streamed by Marvel, with streaming app LiveMe hosting the video as well while also offering exclusive interviews with the cast conducted by some of the app’s broadcasters. 

Overall

There appeared to be a shift in the campaign around the middle of May, one that changed the narrative from “come see this big superhero movie” to “this is the end of the X-Men franchise, so if you’ve enjoyed the series so far, this is your last chance to see these characters onscreen.” It’s similar to the message sent by Marvel Studios in the build-up to Avengers: Endgame, but even more so as we know Disney has no current plans for the X-Men in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That shift is exemplified by a TV spot titled “The X-Men’s Final Battle.” Like the featurettes positioning this as the ending of a story begun almost 20 years ago, the commercial wants to create a sense of both urgency and completion in the audience, encouraging fans to come out to theaters because they have to finish what they started or miss out on a vital story in the franchise, one providing a capstone to the series and characters.