Why The 'X-Men' Movies Can't Quit The Dark Phoenix Saga

The most beloved comic book storyline gets another swing at the cinematic plate.

The Dark Phoenix Saga
Marvel Comics

Few stories are as revered in comic book fandom as The Dark Phoenix Saga. Written by Chris Claremont, illustrated by John Byrne, and published in 1980 between issues 129-138 of The Uncanny X-Men, the epic storyline was meant to plunge the mutant heroes to their most dreadful low. Centered around the cosmic corruption of founding member Jean Grey, the Marvel comic has been adapted multiple times on television and now twice in the same cinematic timeline. None quite work.

With the release of Dark Phoenix, director Simon Kinberg endeavors to right the wrongs of X-Men: The Last Stand by taking a second stab at Claremont’s plot. We wish him the best of luck, but it’s hard to look beyond the death spasms of 20th Century Fox and approach this latest entry in the franchise as anything more than a wake. Based on the film’s trailers, we catch a glimpse of the source material but, once again, the adaptation feels loose and removed from the operatic sci-fi scope of the comic book. Is that really a problem?

The Dark Phoenix Saga appears to be a convoluted mess to outsiders. When Jean Grey nearly dies of radiation sickness during a NASA rescue mission orbiting Earth, an alien entity known as the Phoenix Force inhabits her being, granting her ultimate access to her telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Recognizing the terrifying potential of her new existence, Jean places a psychic dampener on her new god-like power.

Her mastery over matter attracts the attention of Hellfire Club member and one-time Magneto associate Jason Wyngarde. He uses his psychic prowess to trick Jean to bend to his will, and for a brief moment, she masquerades as his diabolical Black Queen. Scott Summers (a.k.a. Cyclops) enters an illusionary world to battle Wyngarde for Jean’s hand, but the superior skill of Wyngarde quickly eradicates his mental projection.

In witnessing her lover’s apparent death, Jean breaks free from Wyngarde’s control, but she must fully access the Phoenix Force to do so. The sudden rush of power overwhelms Jean, effectively shattering her humanity. Dubbing herself “The Dark Phoenix,” Jean makes quick work of the X-Men and flees to the far reaches of space. The creature within her demands tremendous energy, and she feeds the beast by consuming a nearby star. In doing so, she causes a supernova that obliterates a nearby planet.

The Dark Phoenix engages with an alien Shi’ar vessel that attempts to contain her. She slaughters the crew, but not before they send a distress signal to their homeworld. The Shi’ar form an intergalactic council along with the Skrulls and the Kree, and they determine to destroy the monster. When Jean returns to Earth, she experiences an internal civil war; her original personality struggles to reach the surface of her mind. Professor X arrives and manages to reconstruct the psychic barriers that Jean first placed after receiving the Phoenix Force.

Unfortunately, the damage is done, and the Shi’ar appear, demanding justice for the extraterrestrial genocide. Refusing simply to stand aside while they execute one of his students, Professor X challenges the Shi’ar Imperial Guard to a duel of honor. Societal law requires that the Shi’ar accept the summons and the X-Men, along with Jean Grey, battle the Imperial Guard on the Blue Area of Earth’s moon. During the combat, The Dark Phoenix reveals itself again, and the X-Men are forced to turn on Jean once more. Finally realizing that she’ll never have total control over the Phoenix Force, Jean allows a Kree laser cannon to vaporize her just after she bids farewell to Cyclops.

Woof. That’s a lot to cram into one movie, especially in a franchise that has never recognized a realm beyond the Earth. The X-Men arrived in cinemas on the heels of Blade and The Matrix. Black leather was in; yellow spandex was out. 20th Century Fox understood the mutants and humanity’s fear of them as an allegory for civil rights, but in 2000 they certainly couldn’t envision a universe that stretched further than a school for the gifted and into the cosmic horror of fiery space birds.

When X-Men proved to be a minor hit, the sequel flexed its muscles. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) went berserk. The peaceful resistance of Professor X (Patrick Stewart) was convincingly questioned by Magneto (Ian McKellen) through the eyes of Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Pyro (Aaron Stanford). Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) sacrificed herself to an onrushing torrent of lake water to allow her friends a few extra minutes to escape. The final moments of X2: X-Men United hinted at some form of the Phoenix storyline when an outline of the bird is seen beneath the surface water. It was a tiny pledge to fans of the comic.

However, three films into the franchise and the X-Men were not ready for space or its aliens. X-Men: The Last Stand could afford a resurrected and insane Jean Grey, but nothing more. The third film spends most of its time rummaging through the woods with Magneto (a natural home for the master of magnetism) and contemplating the end of mutantkind thanks to a pharmaceutical cure. The Dark Phoenix is explained as a repressed alternate personality of Jean Grey, which was released at the moment of her death in X2. During the climax, Wolverine finishes her once and for all when he jabs his adamantium claws into her gut.

While the franchise would still have room to sink (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: Apocalypse), reception to The Last Stand was so critically severe that the series necessitated a soft-reboot. X-Men: First Class is a welcome breath of fresh air that buries the miserable end of Jean Grey by reaching into X-history and embracing joyous comic book theatricality. Taking a cue from the MCU (which in 2011 was reaching the end of its Phase One), First Class revels in the costumes, the superpowers, and the teen melodrama. There is no mention of the Dark Phoenix; instead, the film twirls its mustache with the Hellfire Clube and Kevin Bacon‘s manic villain Sebastian Shaw. Allegory – shmallagory. Cuban missiles and the roguish charm of Michael Fassbender are enough to sustain our attention.

X-Men: First Class was not a blockbuster, but it was all 20th Century Fox needed to maintain the momentum for three more sequels, two more Wolverine spin-offs, and the Deadpool renaissance. Nineteen years after the release of the first film, the franchise seemingly has the confidence to redeem the Dark Phoenix storyline they so bungled in The Last Stand. It’s the bloody title of their new attempt after all, and that sounds like a promise to us impatient die-hards.

A good movie is a good movie. It doesn’t matter if it’s a perfect recreation of another beloved property or not. The source of your love will always be there. This is not new information. Nor is it reassuring. It just is. What’s so difficult about translating this particular narrative to the big screen? It’s all right there on the page. General audiences certainly don’t care about the details, and honestly, neither do the fans. It’s not like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Avengers: Age of Ultron resemble their respective comics. The MCU makes it their mission to adhere to the spirit of the material while radically altering the mechanics of the scenario. Give us something true, and you can run wild with your mutation.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.