X-Men: Dark Phoenix – The emotional story of a divided hero, a divided family and a divided world

From writer-director Simon Kinberg comes the most radical X-Men film ever made: X-Men: Dark Phoenix, the culmination of a superhero saga nearly two decades in the making, that is part science-fiction thriller, part character-driven drama, posing intriguing questions about identity and destiny.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix marks the directorial debut of Kinberg, who has established himself as one of Hollywood’s most prolific filmmakers, having written and produced projects for some of the most successful franchises in the modern era.

Throughout the writing process, Kinberg had been weighing the idea of stepping behind the camera to direct for the first time. It was a natural evolution for the writer-producer who had been a constant presence on the sets of X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse as well as the two Deadpool movies and Logan.

“I had a feeling I wanted to direct,” he says. “I’d lived in this universe so much, but I was waiting for the story that I felt like I was uniquely suited to tell. As I got into the process and started to think about the themes of the movie, I felt like very emotionally connected to it. That made me feel like not only could I direct it, but also that I had to direct it. It was like having a child and handing it to a stranger—I couldn’t imagine that.”

Directing the film gave Kinberg the opportunity to shape the tenor and the tone of X-Men: Dark Phoenix, to ground the story in the real world visually and to help guide the actor’s performances on set. The goal was always to create a bolder, edgier, more intense, more emotional X-Men film, one that was far more character-driven and deeply human than any that had come before. As the X-Men struggle to come to terms with what Jean’s done, with what she’s become, allegiances are fractured and new alliances formed. But in the end, to save both Jean Gray and the galaxy, the X-Men must find a way to set aside their differences and work together for a common cause.

“There is something about the splitting apart, then the coming back together, of the family of the X-Men that hopefully offers an optimistic message about our ability to survive and unify through the most extraordinary and shattering challenges,” Kinberg says. “Whether it’s the surrogate families that we build in our lives or the real families we have in our lives, it’s the coming together that makes us strong.  

“My favourite movies pose provocative questions, emotional questions, to an audience,” Kinberg continues. “X-Men: Dark Phoenix asks profound, primal questions—if you love someone, at what point do you let them go? Or do you hold onto them forever, at all costs, even at your own peril? I don’t know that I have the answer to that, but maybe if I were to posit an answer to it, I would say to never give up on the people that you love.”

Simon Kinberg

It’s a fitting conclusion to the X-Men franchise’s remarkable 18-year run. With X-Men: Dark Phoenix serving as the culmination of the saga after an impressive 12 films, Parker, who was there at the inception of 2000’s X-Men, says the experience of bringing the franchise full circle feels bittersweet.

“What we were able to do with the first film was introduce a tone that would have seemed, I think to most eyes, impossible in association with what we knew comic book movies to be at that time,” Parker says. “It was a game-changer in my opinion. Since then, comic-book films have become such an exciting and fertile platform. I feel like we’re only beginning to see the diversity of storytelling that’s possible within these worlds and with these characters. I’m grateful to have been a part of it, but I’m also aware that it will continue on long after all of us have moved on.”

It follows the iconic story of Jean Grey’s transformation from gifted mutant into the most powerful force in the universe. During a life-threatening mission to outer space, Jean Grey is nearly killed when she absorbs a cosmic entity that leaves her with powers far beyond anything she or any other mutant has ever possessed. Once she returns home to Earth, she struggles with these near-godlike abilities, but the force inside her is too overwhelming to contain. Spiraling out of control, Jean hurts the ones she loves most. Her actions tear the X-Men apart, and the heroes find themselves deeply compromised at a time when they must face their most dangerous enemy yet—one of their own.

What do you do when the person you love becomes the world’s greatest threat?

It’s the question at the heart of one of the most enduring storylines in the decades-long history of the X-Men comic books, the Dark Phoenix saga.

Written by industry legend Chris Claremont and illustrated by artist John Byrne in 1980, the story in many ways represents the ultimate X-Men tale: Jean Grey is transformed into a force that not even her mutant family can comprehend. She becomes an outsider among outsiders, a being beyond the reach of even those closest to her. 

“The Dark Phoenix saga is one of the most beloved of the X-Men series in its long lineage, primarily because it’s not a story where you have heroes and villains, black and white,” says Simon Kinberg.

A lifelong comic book fan, Kinberg felt it was important to tell the Dark Phoenix saga on the big screen in a way that would truly do justice to its distinguished legacy.

The writer-director has been a presence on the X-Men films since 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, having either written or produced every installment in the series (in some cases, serving as both writer and producer).

The 2006 film included aspects of the Dark Phoenix story, but more than 10 years on, the time was right for a darker, grittier, much more faithful adaptation that would serve as a capstone to nearly two decades of superhero filmmaking.

Kinberg not only wrote the script for this new telling, but he also makes his directorial debut with the film.

At its core, this is a tale of a woman struggling with her personal demons, and only the love of her family—the X-Men—can save her soul, and the world. “This movie’s very different from the previous X-Men movies,” Kinberg says.

“The source material is different from the other X-Men comics that we’ve drawn upon in the past. It’s more psychologically complex and emotionally volatile. The emotions it gets into are rawer than a lot of the other X-Men comics.”

Kinberg had a supportive partner in his quest to make a more character-driven X-Men film—producer Hutch Parker, who has been involved with the franchise since the beginning, first as an executive at 20th Century Fox and later as a producer on the series beginning with 2013’s The Wolverine. “X-Men: Dark Phoenix was an opportunity to do something unique and more specific in ways that previous movies haven’t really had the opportunity to be,” Parker says.

“This film is a much more thorough investigation and much truer to Jean as a character. This feels very different, with a different tone and a different sense of cinematic style that is appropriately suited to the story we’re telling.”

“What was most intriguing to me and why this story has spoken to so many people is that on a very human level, it’sabout someone you love starting to unravel psychologically,” Kinberg says. “What happens when people lose themselves in real life is that their loved ones hold on and want to help or save them. Sometimes you get dragged down with them and there are others who, at a certain point, give up on them. This movie is about that question of, when do you let go and give up on someone you love.”

It was more than three years ago that Kinberg began to contemplate the idea of tackling a definitive version of the Dark Phoenix saga. At that point, production on 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse was nearing completion—that film told a disaster story writ large with elaborate set pieces and eye-popping special effects, which left less time for exploring the ever-evolving relationships among the mutants. When considering what adventure could logically follow in the wake of such a massive blockbuster style of film, Kinberg wanted a complete change of pace.

“I missed some of the more intimate character work of the other X-Men films,” he says. “I wanted to do something more grounded.”

By that point, the X-Men franchise had progressed to a place where the series could easily accommodate something less stylized and more daring—comic book movies as a genre also had proved time and again that they could serve up substantive themes and compelling character work inside mass entertainments. No film underlined that fact better than 2017’s Logan, which saw Academy Award®-nominated actor Hugh Jackman reprise his signature role as The Wolverine for one final time in an R-rated, powerfully dramatic standalone story of sacrifice and redemption.

“Certainly, Logan was a validation of the belief that you could do a drama in this space and still satisfy the traditional comic book audience, in fact maybe exceed that expectation,” Parker says.

It was also finally time for an X-Men movie to have a female lead.

The women in the X-Men films—played by powerhouse actresses from Famke Janssen to Halle Berry—were complicated, dynamic, and always had agency, but their stories never quite came to the fore. After nearly 20 years, X-Men: Dark Phoenix is squarely focused on the journey of Jean Grey and the women who surround her—including Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven and Jessica Chastain’s Smith, a villainous new presence who encourages Jean to abandon her humanity and give in to her darkest urges.

“Now was the time for a female-led superhero movie, and the Dark Phoenix story is the most powerful female-led storyline in X-Men history,” Kinberg says. Additionally, Kinberg sought to craft an adventure that would offer a much more nuanced depiction of good and evil appropriate to our turbulent times. He wanted to emphasize the duality that can exist within the same person, the darkness and the light.

“We’ve gotten to a place where audiences are ready for a disruptive, radical story where a good guy goes bad, where a hero loses control and becomes destructive, even homicidal,” Kinberg says. “Comics, and even comic book moves, tend to tread in good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains. When the hero does something villainous or when a good guy does something bad, it’s shocking. You’re not sure what you’re rooting for.

“Right now, we’re living in a world that is a little upside-down politically and socially,” he continues. “Everything’s not as binary as it used to be. There’s not a lot of unity. Everybody feels like they’re splitting apart. A story about a character who is herself splitting apart, and as a result of that, is splitting apart the family of the X-Men, it felt very relevant.”

Months before he began writing the screenplay in earnest, Kinberg met with actress Sophie Turner to discuss his ambitious plans for the superhero drama. Turner had played Jean before in X-Men: Apocalypse, but X-Men: Dark Phoenix would require a different kind of commitment from the Game of Thrones star.

Sophie Turner

“I told her that her character essentially becomes schizophrenic, starts to lose her identity and ultimately it coalesces into two identities, which is Jean, who’s getting smaller and weaker, and Phoenix, who’s becoming stronger and stronger,” Kinberg says. “I told her she was going to have to play the trauma of losing her mind and killing people that she loves, and every possible colour on the emotional spectrum.”

From the outset, Turner was excited by the opportunities afforded by the storyline and was eager to tackle the central role in the new film. “It was daunting,” says Turner. “Simon really wanted to put the story and Jean’s journey at the forefront because so often in superhero movies the real arcs and the stories can get lost behind the big, fabulous stunts.”

“The thing about the Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix story is that she’s not a villain, but she’s not a superhero who’s going to save the world and everything’s fine,” Turner adds. “She’s one of the few characters that’s very tormented and broken. There’s a realism to her, it’s painful and her experiences remind you of mental illness. It’s not too fantastical for people to comprehend. There’s no black or white with her, it’s a very gray area. It’s a struggle that’s very true to a lot of people and that’s why people love her.”

After Kinberg and Turner’s initial meeting, Kinberg began sending the actress research material to prepare her character. “I went home and found a ton of YouTube clips and other documents to send her about schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder to get her to start thinking intellectually about it before thinking about it emotionally,” says Kinberg. “She devoured it all and came back at me with a bunch of questions and ideas almost instantaneously.”

Their ongoing dialogue influenced Kinberg as he completed various drafts of the script. As he worked, another important story point emerged that called into question Charles Xavier’s role as the leader of the X-Men and the inadvertent catalyst behind Jean’s transformation. When the film opens, Charles is relishing his privileged status as the leader of the mutants—something he enjoys, Raven rightly points out, even though he’s rarely the one on the frontlines.

“There were a lot of things that I wanted to explore that we’ve never explored in these movies before—like Charles creating a superhero team called the X-Men, named after himself,” Kinberg says. “He’s a guy who lives in a mansion, who doesn’t leave that mansion and throws a whole lot of other people in harm’s way, many of them who are quite young. I wanted to examine that and problematize that. There’s an ego attached to that and a very patriarchal, paternalistic quality to it. We live in an age now where that doesn’t go without notice, and it has gone without notice for decades of the comic book and for now two decades of the movies.”