X-Men: Dark Phoenix director shares what's behind the MCU Easter egg

Simon Kinberg talks about his respect for MCU producer Kevin Feige, how Sophie Turner shaped Jean Grey and what Dark Phoenix has in common with The Empire Strikes Back.

Sean Keane Former Senior Writer
Sean knows far too much about Marvel, DC and Star Wars, and poured this knowledge into recaps and explainers on CNET. He also worked on breaking news, with a passion for tech, video game and culture.
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Sean Keane
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20th Century Fox

It's not often you get another crack at adapting a classic Marvel comic book story for the silver screen, but X-Men: Dark Phoenix director Simon Kinberg is doing just that.

The 12th movie in 20th Century Fox's X-Men series, in theaters globally now, shines the spotlight on psychic mutant hero Jean Grey as her powers are cosmically supercharged to the point she endangers the planet.

If this sounds familiar, it's because it was one of the plot lines in 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand, which Kinberg co-wrote with Zak Penn. That didn't quite do the Dark Phoenix Saga arc justice, lifelong comic reader Kinberg acknowledged when I met him in a London hotel ahead of the new movie's release. His own fandom shone through in the way his eyes lit up as we talked. He seemed more than happy to geek out over his pop culture influences.

Since The Last Stand, Kinberg's worked as a writer and producer on First Class, Days of Future Past, Apocalypse, Deadpool, its sequel and Logan, but Dark Phoenix was his first time in the director's chair. Despite this, I got the sense he was quietly confident he'd gotten the Dark Phoenix saga right. 

We even talked about the movie's subtle nod to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (directly under the spoiler warning below), which the X-Men movies aren't a part of due to rights issues (these were resolved when Disney acquired Fox). Here's a transcript of our chat, lightly edited for clarity.


Jean Grey dances with the darkness in this X-Men adventure.

20th Century Fox

Q: Congratulations on your directorial debut. How do you feel?
I feel very honored to have been given a chance to direct an X-Men movie, given the fact that I grew up reading these comics . When I was reading the comics as a kid, I didn't even know if there'd be X-Men movies, let alone that I'd be actually working on them.

You mentioned growing up reading the comics. What was your relationship with the Dark Phoenix Saga?
Dark Phoenix was always my favorite story growing up. It was a little bit like The Empire Strikes Back, which is my favorite movie of all time. They both were about challenging what it is to be good and evil. You were one or the other, but this comic came along and took a character that you loved and who was a hero and imbued her with a cosmic force that took her over but made her do evil, dangerous, deadly things.

All of a sudden, I looked at the world differently. I felt like we all have that darkness inside of us, and certainly we still have the ability to recover as well.

So, it always stuck with me. It informed a lot of the way that I just saw the world, with the way that I wrote as an artist and filmmaker.


Famke Janssen played Jean in X-Men: The Last Stand, but didn't have much to say in the latter half of that movie.

20th Century Fox/Screenshot by CNET

Where do you think X-Men: The Last Stand went wrong?
It's a fair question. Otherwise we wouldn't be making the Dark Phoenix story again.

The cosmic elements of the story weren't explored at all, but more importantly, the Dark Phoenix story became the secondary story, the B-plot of that film, and the cure plot became the A-plot of the film.

The traditional heroes of the X-Men movies -- Xavier, Magneto and Wolverine -- became the heroes of the film and Jean really took a backseat, especially in the back half of the movie. And Famke [Janssen] (the first actor to play Jean) has like five lines of dialogue in the last half of the movie.

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Interesting, I'll have to watch it again.
I haven't watched it a long time, but [she has] very few lines. And listen, I say all of this with the blood on my hands of being the co-writer of the movie, so it's not as though I'm judging anyone. But it didn't focus on what is the greatest storyline in the history of X-Men comics and potentially all comics. That story itself is too much for one movie, let alone to be the background story of someone else's movie.

And it's the reason I was so desperate to get a chance to tell the proper version of the Dark Phoenix story to really tell a movie where Jean was a hero and the villain and the focus the film, where you really got into the moral, emotional, psychological complexity of what's happened to her character.

And I didn't know if I would be able to do that but when I wrote Days of Future Past and retooled the timeline, it suddenly became possible to tell the Dark Phoenix story again.


Simon Kinberg (left) directs Michael Fassbender in X-Men: Dark Phoenix.

Doane Gregory/20th Century Fox

I remember my mind reeling with possibilities after Days of Future Past. And I try not to think too much about the timelines of the X-men movies because my brain explodes.
I have a sense of what the timelines are and I can walk people through them, but certainly there is a looseness to them that over the years we've tried to stitch back together.

They're not told with the same level of precision that some of the franchises have been told because they've been handed off from filmmaker to filmmaker. And I think … sometimes we've just told stories that were one-off stories. We told them the best we could, not necessarily thinking they're part of a larger tapestry of storytelling.

What do you think Sophie Turner brought to Jean here?
She has a combination of incredible strength and power, with real vulnerability and fragility. And what Jean Grey's going through, especially in this movie, requires both. I mean she's the most powerful creature, not just mutant, she's the most powerful force in the entire galaxy. And yet she can't control that power.

So you need the humanity of the lack of control and the struggle and the trauma of that, with the power and strength of someone who actually could take out the most powerful mutants on Earth and beyond.


X-Men in spaaaaace! Nightcrawler, Jean and their friends go beyond Earth's orbit on a rescue mission.

20th Century Fox

I sat down with Sophie about a year before we started shooting, and said, "Listen, you're gonna have to occupy and explore the entire spectrum of psychological emotional colors. You're gonna have to go to some very dark, difficult places. And you're gonna be doing it going toe-to-toe in scenes with the greatest actors of all time, or at least of our time, you know, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain. And you're the center of this film."

And I'm saying this to, I don't know what she was at the time, 19, 20 years old. At 19, 20 years old, I barely could get myself to a class in college, let alone handle that.

Watch this: X-Men: Dark Phoenix: A Jean Grey history lesson

I … wanted to ground this movie as much as possible. Generally, I wanted it to have a bit more raw and gritty feel and a more human feel than the other X-Men movies and because of the storyline, I wanted you to really feel what she was feeling.

And so I wanted to ground this fantastical supernatural thing that's happening to Jean, this cosmic force, this possession in a way, I wanted to ground it in something real, and so we talked a lot about schizophrenia. I would send her books and articles and YouTube videos about schizophrenia and she would watch them and read them, and send me back questions and thoughts almost as fast as I could send them to her.


Professor Xavier's ego plays a major role in Dark Phoenix.

20th Century Fox

I had a lot of great, extraordinary people around me on this film, but Sophie was the partner in constructing this film. I asked for more rehearsal time in this film than we've ever had on an X-Men movie. We had weeks of rehearsal and Sophie came to the first day of rehearsal and script had little postmarks on every single line of the screenplay, with motivation, with backstory, with subtext, with questions. And so she brought all of her natural talent, with an immense amount of preparation.


Kinberg chats about the movie in London.

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Charles Xavier has a pretty fascinating arc in this movie. What was your thinking with his journey here, especially since the X-Men are surprisingly popular with the wider world in the beginning?
I wanted to explore this idea that the X-Men, after so many movies where they are hated, feared, hunted and hidden, would actually be embraced by humanity. With all of the characters I wanted to explore a new side of them that we hadn't seen in the other movies.

And with Charles specifically, I wanted to deal with his ego. There is an aspect to a man who names a superhero team essentially after himself and has a mansion. Or he has a bunch of kids that he feels like he's the sort of patriarch or father to -- there's an element of ego to that.

Even the sort of spiffy suits he's always wearing in movies, even that has as an element of ego to it, the fanciness of his wheelchair. There's been a lot of evidence of his ego in these movies but it's never really been like delved into and challenged.

And so the movie starts, like you say, where they are superheroes. And he's being lauded by the President at the White House.

And then over the span of the movie what you see -- and it resembles the world in which we live -- is that just the slightest incident sparks or re-sparks prejudice and fear from the people who had been persecuting and oppressing this, I guess, minority of mutants for so long.

I had this notion that maybe Charles changed everyone's mind. Because he could!
Yeah. A lot of them certainly.


The soldiers near the end were part of the "Mutant Containment Unit" -- was that a deliberate reference to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)?

Kinberg: It actually wasn't initially. My production designer came to me about the designs for the train. I was trying all kinds of different names. It all felt like a little too prisony and normal, and it didn't also pertain to the mutants.

And they came up with the idea of "Mutant Containment," which felt correct, and then the costume designer had to create patches for the soldiers and so "Mutant Containment Unit" is what he came to me with and I obviously immediately recognized that the acronym was MCU.

We kind of didn't have time to do anything else. But also, I love Kevin Feige. He's somebody who produced the first X-Men movie I ever worked on. I mean, he is quite literally the most successful producer of all time. What he's done with the MCU is beyond imagination for someone like me who grew up a fan of the comics.

So I put it in there as sort of like a wink and smile with respect to the MCU and by the end of the movie that MCU soldiers are fighting alongside the X-Men. 

I felt like this was the last X-Men movie in this current incarnation. Did you approach it like that?
Yes absolutely, from the beginning of writing the movie, which was three years or so ago, I approached it as the culmination, the climax of this particular saga of the X-Men. This cycle of X-Men storytelling that started with, really 20 years ago, and especially with the X-Men: First Class.

I felt like with these characters that were strangers, with the X-Men: First Class, they were strangers that came together, formed this family, this unit. This film, that is based on obviously the most iconic and the most popular of X-Men stories, this film splits this family apart, challenges this family, forces this family to face trauma in a way that they never had before. And that was a natural climax and culmination for 10 plus years of storytelling.

You can find out if Kinberg succeeded by reading CNET's X-Men: Dark Phoenix review.

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Originally published June 4.
Update, June 7: Adds details about MCU Easter egg.