Warning: This post contains spoilers for the movie Dark Phoenix.
Dark Phoenix ends not with its main character, Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey, but with a scene featuring the two men whose contentious relationship has propelled the X-Men film series for 19 years: Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The two sit down to play a game of chess, a callback to earlier X-Men films. In several X-Men films, the chess game motif has represented the strategic moves that the various mutants and humans make against one another. The game also represents the uneasy friendship between Professor X and Magneto, two powerful mutants with differing philosophies.
Dark Phoenix’s chess scene could also spell the end of the X-Men franchise, at least for now. Disney will likely reboot the X-Men series in the near future (more on that below), and writer-director Simon Kinberg recycling a familiar metaphor offers a sense of closure for the film franchise — and for Professor X and Magneto’s relationship in particular.
Here’s what the movie’s ending means for both Dark Phoenix and the future of the X-Men franchise.
The chess metaphor is a long-running one that appears in five X-Men films
In the first X-Men movie, we meet Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto (Ian McKellen), a mutant who can move metal and believes that humans and mutants can never co-exist. We also meet Charles Xavier, a.k.a. Professor X (Patrick Stewart), who wields mind-reading and mind-control abilities and believes that mutants and humans can live peacefully. Magneto leads a mutant team called the Brotherhood, while Xavier heads up a superhero team called the X-Men. When a senator threatens to introduce a law that would require all mutants to register with the government, Magneto tries to retaliate by using a machine to turn world leaders into mutants. Xavier and the X-Men stop him.
By the end of the movie, Magneto has been captured and placed in a plastic prison. Xavier visits Magneto at the end of the film, and the two play chess with glass pieces. As the board is set up in the initial shots, Xavier has made many sacrifices but is poised to checkmate Magneto. As Xavier leaves, Magneto knocks over his king, indicating that Xavier has won. This sets the stage for future films during which Xavier will demonstrate his understanding of the need for sacrificing some players (including himself in Last Stand) to win the war.
X2: X-Men United (2003)
In the second film in the franchise, Xavier and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) are playing chess when Xavier finds out that a brainwashed mutant named Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) tried to assassinate the president of the United States. Xavier discusses who could be behind the attack with his fellow X-Men.
Xavier later finds out that a human named Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox) secretly used his own son, who has mutant mind-control abilities, to brainwash Nightcrawler to commit the acts of aggression. The assassination attempt convinces the president to endorse Stryker’s extreme measures against the mutants. Thus Stryker is playing his own metaphorical game of chess against the X-Men at this moment in the film.
Later in the movie, Xavier confronts the president over his hostile actions towards mutants and says, “We’re here to stay, Mr. President. The next move is yours,” referencing the chess game to represent the power balance between mutants and humans.
Intentionally, it is not Xavier and Magneto who are literally playing chess in the early scene: The two mutants are not adversaries in this movie and eventually team up to fight Stryker. Instead, Xavier is facing off against Jean Grey, who dies at the end of X2 and wind ups the antagonist in the next film, Last Stand, when she returns as Dark Phoenix.
X-Men: The Last Stand
During a fight involving humans, X-Men and Magneto’s mutant brotherhood, Magneto holds back one of his key lieutenants, saying, “In chess, the pawns go first.” The strategic battles between Professor X and Magneto that have largely taken place by proxy throughout the series are now being made literal in a fight between them.
By the end of the movie, Magneto has been shot with a serum that “cures” mutants and allegedly loses his power to move metal. However, in one of the final scenes, we see him sitting alone in the park with a chess board and metal chess pieces. He holds out his hand and moves the piece slightly, suggesting he has not lost his powers. The audience is led to believe that Magneto can no longer play the game of chess that is human-mutant politics, but he proves that he is still able to make moves after all, setting up yet another sequel to the franchise.
X-Men: First Class
In this prequel, Magneto (this time played by Michael Fassbender) and Xavier (now James McAvoy) first play chess on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial while they discuss helping humans to stop a mutant named Shaw who essentially creates the Cuban Missile Crisis. Magneto lays out his concerns: That the government will identify mutants, round them up, experiment on them and eliminate them. Xavier argues that the mutants and humans share a common interest and can co-exist. They are not actually playing chess during this scene, but the board lies between them physically: They are not adversaries yet, but they are laying out their respective perspectives and taking sides.
Later in the movie, they are playing chess again when they discuss how to stop Shaw. Magneto says, “I’m not going to stop him. I’m going to kill him. Do you have it in you to allow that?” Again, the chess game represents their conflicting points of view: Magneto is willing to murder for the greater good, while Xavier is not.
The board in this scene is set up such that Xavier would have the easy win. But in the scene, he blows his lead by acting overly confident, while Magneto bides his time and eventually wins. That’s exactly what happens in the movie too: In the end, an over-confident Xavier is badly injured, losing the use of his legs, and fails to stop Magneto from doing exactly what he promised to do: kill shaw.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
The plot of this movie is extremely complicated, but suffice it to say that the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) from the Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart timeline travels back in time to get the help of younger versions of Magneto and Xavier in the Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy timeline to prevent an apocalyptic future in which all the mutants are killed.
When Wolverine first approaches young Xavier (McAvoy) in his mansion, Xavier is taking the fact that he now uses a wheelchair and has been abandoned by his friends rather poorly. He’s taking drugs and avoiding superhero duties. A chess board sits in front of Xavier, untouched, suggesting that he has stepped away from the game, both metaphorically and literally. Wolverine tries to convince him to revive the X-Men and help save the world.
Later, after Xavier has agreed to try to help Wolverine, young Magneto (Fassbender) puts down a chessboard between himself and Xavier as they fly on a plane. “It’s been awhile since I played,” Xavier says, again confirming he’s stepped away from the strategic battle between himself and Magneto and between humans and mutants. “I’ll go easy on you,” Magneto replies, signaling that they are forming an uneasy alliance. We don’t actually get to see who wins in this game, perhaps because this movie will set up an alternate universe with an uncertain future.
Xavier and Magneto play one final game of chess at the end of Dark Phoenix. After young Jean Grey (Turner) has sacrificed herself in order to save the other X-Men and the world, we hear in a voiceover that she has not died but evolved beyond humanity. Meanwhile, Xavier has decamped to Europe. He blames himself for Jean’s death. (We find out earlier in the movie he lied to her about her father surviving a car crash that Jean caused to protect Jean from her own father’s ill will.) He has confronted his own egotism and seems to have left his post at the school, and Beast has taken over headmaster duties.
We see Xavier sitting alone in a cafe. Magneto approaches him with a chess board and proposes playing another game. He also offers him a spot in Magneto’s peaceful colony of mutants. In this scene, the game is a peace offering of sorts, acknowledging the two men’s contentious past but signaling a brighter future.
The game represents their evolving relationship
At this point, Xavier and Magneto have played chess in just about every decade since the 1960s. The two men have always been the two masterminds of the series, each trying to predict the future and the best way to move their pawns in order to defeat one another.
If we examine the chess games chronologically (according to the internal timeline of the movies, not the release dates), Xavier begins as a cocky player but is humbled by his early defeats and becomes better at looking into the future and making sacrifices in order to achieve his goals. Magneto, meanwhile, vacillates between foe and friend, playing more aggressively when the two are on opposing sides and promising to “take things easy” on Xavier when the two (briefly) team up.
Ultimately, however, chess is just a game, and the two men are able to overcome their misunderstandings to become friends.
This scene likely represents the end of the X-Men film franchise — for now
The fate of the X-Men franchise is unclear, but this scene seems to suggest that Fassbender and McAvoy, at least, are retiring from these roles. It’s a nice moment of closure for the two men who have always been at odds.
Disney and Fox are in the process of merging their studios. This means that Disney, and by extension Marvel Studios, now owns the rights to the X-Men franchise. Marvel Studios will likely want to integrate X-Men characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The easiest way to do that would be to reboot the X-Men series entirely, or at least recast characters.
Several of the remaining actors in the current X-Men franchise have starred in this franchise for eight years or more and are likely ready to leave the franchise. Jennifer Lawrence, in particular, has expressed her desire to retire the character of Mystique — which is probably why Mystique was killed by Jean early in Dark Phoenix. Still, it’s hard to imagine an X-Men movie without Xavier or Magneto, so perhaps a third generation of actors will be tapped to play those parts.