Dark Phoenix ended up being a largely disappointing conclusion to X-Men movies, especially since the original installment in 2000 laid a lot of the groundwork for the modern superhero movie boom, but things could’ve been even worse for Marvel’s mutants if some attempts to make an X-Men movie had worked out a few decades ago. Polygon put together a deep dive on former Marvel executive Alice Donenfeld-Vernoux’s mission to convince Hollywood that sueprhero movies could be big money, and while that seems very obvious to us now, she says it was anything but obvious back in 1979 when Stan Lee personally tasked her with breaking into the movie industry. “I wish I had a buck for every time I got thrown out of one of the majors pitching a superhero movie,” she told Polygon, saying that no studio was willing to put money toward something that they believed would be exclusively for kids.
Marvel eventually made a deal in the early ‘80s with Nelvana, a Canadian animation studio that primarily worked in TV but believed that The X-Men could make for a successful movie. Nelvana’s Michael Hirsh had good intentions, bringing soon-to-be-iconic X-Men writer Chris Clarement on board, with him putting together a pair of different pitches that both revolved around Kitty Pryde, but neither worked out and he eventually got replaced by Marvel’s Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway. At that point, Nelvana made a distribution deal with Orion Pictures—the studio behind loads of ‘80s genre hits—and a pair of unnamed producers who clearly had no idea how to make an X-Men movie came on board.
Thomas and Conway pitched a story that was fairly faithful to The X-Men of the comics, with newcomer Kitty Pryde arriving at a weird school full of kids with powers and eventually fighting a super-powered villain, but the unnamed producers didn’t like it, and as Polygon explains, each draft after that went further and further away from the source material. The details are so bizarre that they’re worth reading in full, but the basic idea behind the final story that Thomas and Conway pitched is that The X-Men are just a team of superheroes, there’s no school, no mutants, and therefore no prejudice against mutants. There was also a climactic battle at Easter Island, with Wolverine knocking a villain out of a statue’s nose (even though the real statues aren’t nearly that big).
Luckily, Orion started to fall apart by the mid-’80s and it sat on the X-Men project for so long that Nelvana lost the rights to the characters. Fox eventually came along and scooped them up, and in 2000 it turned The X-Men into an actual hit movie that had mutants and a school for mutants and all the things you’d expect to see in an X-Men story. Nearly 20 years after that, there have been so many X-Men movies that we’re all pretty sick of them. Life is funny.