We watched the Dark Phoenix trailer. At the end, we had a few questions. Primary among them was: Should the movie really be titled Dark Phoenix? Or should it be called “Professor Xavier’s No Good Very Bad Mistake”?
Look, judging a movie by a trailer is typically unfair, even if the trailer is pretty clear about what you’re getting into. But this isn’t an issue with the Dark Phoenix trailer all by itself. (Although we do have one substantial clarification we’d like.) This is an issue with the X-Men film series at large, and how these characters have been presented to us over their tenure on screen. And that issue is roughly the size of three guys: Professor X, Magneto, and Wolverine.
When you watch the trailer for Dark Phoenix, you might notice that the titular character (who is Jean Grey, for the record) doesn’t say much. You might also notice that there’s only one other woman in the trailer who speaks at all—Mystique, who has all of a single line. It’s a pointed line in a pointed plot that’s well-known by X-Men fans; while the Dark Phoenix Saga is about Grey’s transformation into a being of pure thought whose destructive capacity is unimaginable and dangerous, it is also a story about the agency, rage, and incomparable power of one woman… who is not being served well by the cues in this trailer.
1.) Of all the musical cues to use, why pick The Doors’ “The End” for this trailer?
Specifically, why are they using a song by The Doors (any song by The Doors) for what should be a story about Jean Grey’s struggle to control her powers? And of all the songs by The Doors, why did the trailer makers choose to score what should be a film about a young woman’s battle for sanity with an aggro, hyper-masculine song about patricide and rape?
None of the other mutants were subjected to such musical horror.
Way back in 2011, X-Men: First Class went with a brooding fuzzy rock score that sped up with the action. It was fairly neutral, exciting, if a bit anachronistic given that the film took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963. But most importantly, it allowed plenty of space for the actors to talk. And talk they did! Or at least, JFK, Charles Xavier, and Erik talked. Raven and Moira MacTaggart never speak, and while the male mutants get to wield knives and BAMF, the women mostly stare sultrily at the camera, use their mutant powers to provocatively cover their nudity, and arch their back while leaning in to kiss men in silhouette.
That has nothing to do with the musical choices—it’s just a fun thing I noticed.
The trailer for Days of Future Past is set to a piece from John Murphy’s score for Danny Boyle’s Sunshine “(Adagio In D Minor)” blended together with “Journey to the Line” from Hans Zimmer’s score for Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. It’s orchestral, epic, swelling, and designed to make you tear up.
Again, only the men speak, and we get a super fun shot of Magneto dragging an openly terrified Raven across the ground in front of a crowd of onlookers.
Apocalypse’s teaser trailer begins with a flirty, understated BWAAHHHMMM before it segues into Snow Ghost’s “The Hunted.” Jean tries to tell Charles Xavier about APOCALYPSE, but he shakes his head and tells her it was just a dream. Obviously, he’s super wrong. But at least both Moira MacTaggart and Raven get to talk in this one?
Fun fact! The official music video for “The Hunted” features a naked woman fighting off an attempted rape by a Pict, running through the woods (still naked), and ultimately defeating him by becoming a mystical, toothed vagina.
Finally we come to Logan, which used Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” It fits perfectly—Logan and Charles are both getting older, looking back at their lives and choices. Full of regret. Charles’ “empire” is collapsed, Logan’s life of pain hasn’t saved anyone, but maybe he can still help this one last person.
See? Perfect. Although of course Smol Mutant doesn’t talk, so we only hear Charles and Logan again. But for this one I’m kind of okay with that.
And now…we come to “The End.” The trailer for Dark Phoenix devolves into male characters musing over Jean’s true nature, her choices, her search, and, best of all, declaring that they know what “evil” is, and she is it.
This is all frustrating enough. But what got to me was the opening notes of music, when it became clear what song they had chosen. Obviously, it’s because this is The Last X-Men Movie Of This Current Iteration Of The X-Men—I get that. The phrase “this is the end, you tearful friend, the end” kicks the trailer off and I was very curious whether they were going to continue with the lyrics, because a few verse-chorus-verses later, you get:
The killer awoke before dawn
He put his boots on
He took a face from the ancient gallery
And he walked on down the hall
He went into the room where his sister lived, and then he
Paid a visit to his brother, and then he
He walked on down the hall, and
And he came to a door
And he looked inside
“Father?” “Yes, son?” “I want to kill you”
“Mother? I want to…”
Come on yeah
Fuck fuck, fuck, fuck
Come on baby, fuck me baby yeah
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck
Come on baby, fuck me baby
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck
Kill, kill, kill, kill
It hurts to set you free
But you’ll never follow me
The end of laughter and soft lies
The end of nights we tried to die
This is the end
Which could be relevant to the plot, it could be an interesting play on Jean’s journey. (It does seem like she might have, on some level, wanted to cause the car crash we see in the trailer.) But that doesn’t change that this song is about a seemingly male murderer who seemingly has maybe-consensual-but-probably-fucking-not sex with a girl, whom he then kills.
This seems like an unnecessarily incendiary and emotionally fraught choice to make for a trailer, no? Especially given that all the other X-Men trailers have had musical cues that perfectly fit their moods? Especially given that this film seems to be about a woman whose choices were taken away from her by a man who should know better? Especially in a trailer that seems to be casting Jean as not just struggling but evil?
2.) So Basically…Does Dark Phoenix Want to Avoid Its Main Character?
See, when the first X-Men movies were made, that focus was primarily on Wolverine’s journey and history, as well as the philosophical differences between Professor X and his best frenemy Magneto. X3: The Last Stand made an attempt to cover parts of the Dark Phoenix plot, but that film was a widely (and rightfully) derided mess that didn’t seem to know how to handle a single one of its well-wrought characters. So a peculiar kind of retcon was later provided; the series was rebooted with X-Men: First Class and then intertwined with the previous films by virtue of X-Men: Days of Future Past. X-Men: Apocalypse brought the films up to the 1980s and allowed audiences to reconnect with their favorite characters from the first films as teenagers, and Jean’s Dark Phoenix powers were hinted at in the film’s climax.
It cannot be overstated that the only reason the Dark Phoenix plot can happen all over again without the application of Wolverine is because the character is going to be on something of a hiatus until the studio finally decides they want to replace actor Hugh Jackman in the role. Wolverine has been at the center of the X-Men films from the start, cameoing in movies he had nothing to do with (he shows up in both First Class and Apocalypse to grunt and curse, just to make sure fans know he’s around) to keep everyone happy. With a final bow in Logan, the character can finally be laid to rest for a bit after nearly two solid decades on screen.
Even without Wolverine, the X-Men universe remains centralized via the push and pull between the group’s conceptual fathers, Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. The chemistry between these two characters was always fascinating on page and on screen. So much so that when the films were rebooted, First Class was completely centered on the building of that friendship, on the connection these two men had from the very beginning. Then Days of Future Past provided a much-needed course correction, suggesting that perhaps Wolverine could alter the future well enough these two men wouldn’t get caught up in decades of errors and loggerheads that would cause the extinction of mutantkind. We see that future. (Logan shows a different future, but it’s also an outlier in all this, an alternate universe from the central films much in the way that Deadpool likely is.) People were whole and happy in it and it seemed as though, for the first time, the X-Men films were finally prepared to tackle the stories of characters that fell beyond the spotlight of this central trinity.
Then Apocalypse happened and ignored that growth completely. After spending the previous film letting Charles Xavier learn something about his mistreatment of Mystique, after preventing Erik Lehnsherr from enacting an assassination that would have thrown the world into chaos, we find that neither of them has learned much of anything. Erik’s trauma is retread, his unknown wife and daughter fridged to give him a reason to ally with Apocalypse for the majority of the film. Though Charles doesn’t have Raven around to try and control this time, he exerts that same pressure on Jean Grey. By the end of Apocalypse we’re left with the impression that perhaps this time around the duo will have learned something. Erik comes to Charles’ aid and later helps to rebuild his school with Jean. Charles restores the memories of Moira MacTaggart, stepping back from his leadership of the X-Men and allowing Raven to head up the team. Apocalypse wasn’t a very enjoyable film, but it seemed as though the changes that Days of Future Past was meant to enact would finally come to pass.
Except now we’ve got a trailer for Dark Phoenix. And it appears as though nothing has changed at all. Charles is still hiding things from Jean, and when Raven finds out, she’s understandably mortified. Erik is living somewhere ostensibly off the grid, and exists primarily to coax Dark Phoenix out into the light. This is the same story all over again, a story that we know the entirety of, back to front, start to finish, in alternate timelines even. Instead of a story about what pushes Jean Grey into becoming Dark Phoenix it looks like a movie about how Professor X and Magneto feel about and react to Jean Grey becoming Dark Phoenix.
My love for this duo aside (and I really do love them—First Class remains my favorite X-Men film to this day), these films don’t need them anymore. Comics are different, and they will always brings characters back and re-center certain narratives, but the movies are free to do what they’d like. If they wanted, we could have whole films about the current crop of X-Men and never see these two at all. In the middle of a Jubilee solo film, she could go to ask Professor X for some advice and walk in on Erik and Charles playing chess (since we know they don’t fight with each other all the time). We could get them in small doses or not at all.
We’ve had decades of X-Men films and now we get to see Jean Grey star in her own movie–featuring one of the most pivotal and dramatic storylines in its 50+ year history–only to find that what we’re likely to see is the fourth go-round of That One Argument Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr Love Having Only This Time It’s About Dark Phoenix.
Maybe the film will be better than that. But as it stands, we’re getting a real object lesson in what happens when you build your entire labyrinth of movies on the emotional journey of three guys. Namely, that no matter the title of the film, you already know who is going to be front and center.