From Cleopatra to The Predator, nothing gets Hollywood going quite like a nightmare production. Whenever a film shoot veers so far off course that no one can quite remember which direction they were supposed to be going in the first place, any sense of solidarity quickly gives way to face-saving, finger pointing mode. Others in the industry can’t help but laugh at it all and the press can’t help but obsessively search for the most salacious stories from the set. Very rarely will anyone step forward to take responsibility for everything that went wrong. Success has many authors but failure is an orphan and all that.
Of course, the man who first said that famous line was JFK. We know him as a very human U.S. President whose assassination confounds conspiracy theorists to this day. In the X-Men film continuity, he’s a mutant who was killed for being different, though Magneto tried to save him. This revelation comes as a bit of a throwaway line in Days of Future Past, the 2014 team-up movie which combined the original X-Men with the First Class cast and coasted to a franchise high box office total. Those were the good days. There haven’t been many of those since, at least not for the main X-Men films.
2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse came in nearly 30% lower than Days of Future Past at the worldwide box office, and now Dark Phoenix has turned into the biggest superhero movie disaster since Fantastic Four. That particular film was partially torpedoed by an ill-advised “they done me dirty” tweet from its director, Josh Trank, the night before it opened. He disowned the finished product and blamed excessive studio meddling for corrupting his original vision. With Dark Phoenix, the aggrieved parties at least waited for the film to open before disowning it:
“Save your condolences. I had zero, nothing to do with Dark Phoenix. Or Apocalypse, or New Mutants,” Lauren Shuler Donner claimed in a since-deleted tweet. Once instrumental in ushering the X-Men from the page to the screen, Donner has been more of a ceremonial figurehead in recent years, earning her contractually-obligated producing credit in exchange for staying away and keeping the peace in the press.
According to THR, what she claims in the tweet is entirely correct: she had nothing to do with those films and hasn’t, in fact, been an active participant in the franchise since Days of Future Past, which she left halfway through due to “creative differences.” However, as recently as earlier this year she was making convention appearances talking about her hopes for an “X-Women” team-up movie, and she’s been more than happy to see her name in front of those actually successful films she also had nothing to do with – Deadpool, Deadpool 2, and Logan.
But this is what happens when Hollywood experiences a disaster – time-honored veneers of bullshit PR fall away only to be replaced by something closer to how people actually feel. As the woman who helped birth the X-Men film universe, Donner probably does feel a little peeved to have seen it fall apart the moment she left, but the anonymous Fox insiders talking to THR also feel she’s being hypocritical, publicly disowning their failures without clarifying she also had nothing to do with their recent success stories.
Donner’s not the only higher-powered woman coming under the post-Dark Phoenix fire. Stacey Snider, the former CEO of 20th Century Fox who was pushed out after the Disney sale, doesn’t come off too well either. She backed producers Simon Kinberg and Hutch Parker’s assumption that Apocalypse fell short financially simply because they had gone too big with the spectacle and not that audiences had maybe finally fatigued of the franchise or were ready to simply switch over to Deadpool as the new de factor X-Men franchise.
No, the answer was they needed to simply make a darker, smaller movie X-Men movie, like Logan but with the First Class cast and Apocalypse new recruits. Kinberg could direct it, largely because he’d secretly already directed parts of Days of Future Past and Apocalypse on those days when Singer wouldn’t show up. After all of that, Kingberg had the trust of the cast, meaning he’s the only one who could get Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Nicholas Hoult to re-up for one more movie even though their contracts were all up. Snider understandably gave him her blessing.
Dark Phoenix officially started shooting in June 2017, the same month that Snider officially replaced Jim Gianopulos as 20th Century Fox CEO, although she’d already been doing his job for months. Once Kinberg finished making his moodier, more character-based Dark Phoenix movie in October they realized extensive reshoots would be necessary, a pretty common occurrence for all X-Men movies and most superhero movies in general these days. Here’s where Snider walked into disaster:
Due to scheduling reasons they wouldn’t be able to regather the Dark Phoenix cast until October 2018, one month before the movie’s release date. So, if they were going to do reshoots the movie needed to be pushed back, maybe to February, the same slot the first Deadpool had occupied. Easy enough. Problem is, James Cameron.
The once “king of the world” and certainly no stranger to nightmare productions, Cameron rightly feared his Alita: Battle Angel movie would get crushed at the crowded December 2018 box office by the combined might of Bumblebee and Mary Poppins Returns, to name just two. He demanded Fox give him the February 2019 release date newly occupied by Dark Phoenix, which could be held for the summer.
“[Fox Films Vice Chair] Emma [Watts], Hutch and Simon begged her not do it,” says this source.
Part of the reasoning was that Dark Phoenix was not designed to be a summer movie, says the Fox insider. In some ways, it was designed to be an anti-Apocalypse, to have less spectacle and scale. Big for off-season, too small for summer, says this person.THR
Snider did it anyway. Context matters, of course. James Cameron was only in a position to make such a demand of her because her predecessor, Gianopulos, put him there. As Deadline reported, “Gianopulos was integral in signing James Cameron to a new deal to make more Avatar films, at a time when the Oscar-winning director was discussing making the Cleopatra film at Sony with Angelina Jolie and Scott Rudin. Cameron will spend the better part of the next half decade or longer, banging out new installments of Avatar, still the highest-grossing film of all time.”
It was more important to keep Cameron happy than to keep Kinberg and the X-Men people happy, even though delaying the film yet again was seen a vote of no confidence and contributed to a marketing campaign which never managed to convince audiences this was anything other than a disaster. For those older fans who still remembered The Last Stand, why exactly was the franchise doing the Dark Phoenix storyline again? No idea. Just cuz, I guess. At least that’s what you got from the trailers.
In truth, however, Snider’s “betrayal” is exactly the kind of thing a director, actor, or producer can cling to in a desperate bid to scapegoat their way out of accepting blame for their own failings. “If only we hadn’t come out in the summer,” they can all say. “If only we hadn’t been forced to do those re-shoots,” they can complain.
Which, fair. Dark Phoenix, as it currently exists, has clearly been re-shot to death, with an entirely new third act tacked on in stark contrast to the tone of the first two acts.
However, even if Kinberg’s original vision of a Captain America: Civil War-like finale where instead of action setpieces the story culminates with more emotionally-grounded confrontation he’d still be stuck with a Dark Phoenix movie anchored by an actress struggling as much with her American accent as the emotions of her character. Plus, it’s a Dark Phoenix movie bent around a version of Jean Grey we barely met and got to know in Apocalypse. At least the original trilogy devoted two full films to establishing Jean and building toward her Dark Phoenix transformation.
The larger story of the X-Men franchise is one of excessive studio meddling and rarely-ever seamless productions. Multiple scripts are frankensteined together into one. A planned X-Men prequel and planned Magneto prequel becomes the same movie. Jim Gianopulus blocks a Deadpool movie until the internet and a leaked visual test forces his hand. Bryan Singer keeps getting hired even though he sometimes fails to show up to set for no good reason. I could go on
In short, Fox rarely comes off good in these stories. Logan is one of the only examples of an X-Men film which got to be hits own thing from beginning to end. However, even the nightmare productions often turned into great or at least passable movies. What felled them, in the end, was failing to realize when to call it quits or either reboot and retool. Apocalypse was lackluster, but not a total disaster. Dark Phoenix, on the other hand, is. Everyone shares the blame for that, and now Kevin Feige gets to fix it, though that probably won’t happen for a while now.