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4 superhero storytelling lessons from Simon Kinberg, the architect of the X-Men movies

Simon Kinberg, who wrote and produced several X-Men movies before making his directorial debut with Dark Phoenix, shares lessons about epic storytelling.

4 superhero storytelling lessons from Simon Kinberg, the architect of the X-Men movies
Director Simon Kinberg (left) and Michael Fassbender (right) on the set ofDark Phoenix. [Photo: Doane Gregory/Twentieth Century Fox]

Simon Kinberg’s superpower is knowing the X-Men characters inside and out.

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The filmmaker grew up immersed in the venerable comic book series, getting blissfully lost in metaphor-laden stories featuring space aliens and violent telekinesis. Several decades later, while cutting his teeth as a writer on 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, Kinberg finally fully teleported into the world of these powerful mutants. Of the three writers credited on that film, Kinberg spent the most time on set, becoming the de facto conduit between studio notes and production. When 20th Century Fox asked for Kinberg’s creative input on what to do next, it was he who suggested going the prequel route. Kinberg shepherded 2011’s franchise-rejuvenating X-Men: First Class into a respectable hit, and then gradually assumed a role as architect of the series.

Sophie Turner stars as Jean Grey Dark Phoenix. [Photo: courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox]
Nearly a decade later, that series is concluding with Kinberg’s directorial debut, Dark Phoenix. It’s a film based on the fan-favorite Dark Phoenix saga, which finds Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) taking on an all-powerful—and possibly corrupting—strength that causes a rift within the X-Men. As Kinberg confirms, it’s also set to be the last X-Men film with the current cast.

“From the beginning, I always saw this as the end of this cycle,” he says. “This is really a franchise about family, and the Dark Phoenix story is one where the family gets ripped apart more than ever before. I felt like that was a natural sort of final challenge and complication, and as a result, the completion and culmination to this cycle of X-Men storytelling.”

After so many years steeped in X-Men storytelling, Kinberg has a rare insight into what it takes to keep a major superhero franchise going. On the eve of Dark Phoenix’s release, the filmmaker spoke with Fast Company about character considerations, verticality of storytelling, and rising stronger from the ashes of one’s previous efforts.

Creative considerations drive long-range planning

A successful series of comic book movies like the X-Men franchise can’t exactly fly by the seat of its pants. Each film is part of a continuum, and so it must be considered that way during every stage of planning.

“We talk through at least a couple of movies in advance,” Kinberg says. “It’s not as many movies in advance as what the MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe] does—and it’s extraordinary what they’ve done—but we will be thinking about not just the one we’re making, but how it connects with the rest. So as I’m writing one thing, we’re already starting to talk about what the next thing’s going to be, and then as we start outlining and getting into more serious conversations about that thing, we’re shooting the first thing and talking about the thing that we’ll do after the next one. So it’s a very continuous process. But the considerations are creative more than they are about the marketplace: What does the audience want to see from these characters? What can we do with these characters that’s surprising? What are the best storylines from the original comics? And what is something new?”

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Jennifer Lawrence as Raven Darkhölme/Mystique in in X-Men: Days of Future Past [Photo: courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox]

Find subgenres within the superhero genre

The three-point superhero landing, made famous by Iron Man, has become a symbol of same-iness in these kinds of films. After years of saturation, superhero movies can fall too easy on common iconography, plot trajectory, and style. Anyone looking to make a mark in this crowded field has to continually shake things up to keep audiences interested.

“One of the things that we really prided ourselves on and tried really hard to do is with each of these films is provide a new kind of experience for the audience and a new subgenre,” Kinberg says. “Logan was a Western, X-Men: First Class, we sort of treated like a spy movie, Days of Future Past was a time-travel science-fiction movie, Apocalypse was a disaster movie, and Dark Phoenix for us was very much a psychological thriller. It has fantastical elements and all that comes with these movies, of course, but it’s also a psychological thriller about someone losing control. We look at it from a perspective of character and we look at it from the perspective of what can we do that’s different, that we haven’t done yet.”

Ian McKellen as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto in X-Men: The Last Stand. [Photo: courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox]

The verticality of storytelling

Movies based on comic books have the gift and the curse of an overabundance of source material. Choosing which details to include in a film, and why, is a delicate balancing act that requires deep consideration. Ultimately, character beats are what count the most.

“I prioritize the verticality of storytelling—going deep into the characters rather than the horizontal version of storytelling, where you’re telling as many subplots and as many action sequences as you can cram into a movie,” Kinberg says. “I’d rather take my time and do something dramatic and emotional than create a movie full of things that are more disposable. A studio head may tell you something different, but I’ve had the privilege of working on X-Men movies that have these extraordinary characters, so we’ve always focused on the idea that this is a character-driven franchise. People come back for the character more than they come back for the action, knowing that there is going to be action too. I’m not naive, there is plenty of fantastic supernatural spectacle, in all of the X-men movies, but they are still very character-driven, emotional movies and they’re about something too. The Dark Phoenix saga, as a comic, has all kinds of other subplots–it has the Hellfire Club ,it has an alien race called the Shi’ar, with a leader called Lilandra who has a relationship with Charles [Xavier]. If I were to fit all those elements in, that would be a horizontal way of telling the story. Instead I made a very concerted decision to tell Jean’s story, tell everything from Jean’s point of view as much as possible, and then secondarily from the point of view of the tight-knit circle around her that loved her the most and cared the most about her and would have the most consequences from her losing control, losing her mind.”

Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine in X-Men: Days of Future Past [Photo: courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox]

Learn from Mistakes

Anyone overseeing a multi-billion-dollar franchise must be able to admit their own missteps. It’s the first step toward not repeating them.

Dark Phoenix has that kind of intimacy of storytelling, immersion of emotional storytelling, that’s different than filling a movie full of action sequences and plot mechanics, a totally different way of telling the story. That’s not always the case,” Kinberg says. “Frankly, there’s a lot of things I’m proud of that we did with X-Men: Apocalypse, but one of the things I think we did is we might have stuffed it with just a few too many characters and subplots. By doing so, certain subplots or characters didn’t get the kind of attention or vertical depth of storytelling that they could have benefited from. We definitely took a different approach with Dark Phoenix.”

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