Box office numbers indicate that movie-goers have found “Dark Phoenix” a bit underwhelming. That comes as no surprise to longtime X-fans.
For one thing, “Phoenix” had three strikes against it, just from a movie perspective:
1. The Dark Phoenix story has already been told (badly) in “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006).
2. No Wolverine. While the Canadian X-Man isn’t a big player in the Phoenix storyline, he is the most popular X-character.
3. “Dark Phoenix” is the unplanned finale to a franchise. “Avengers: Endgame” was thought out years in advance, but “Dark Phoenix” had to tie up all the plotlines abruptly, by virtue of Twentieth Century Fox being sold to Disney.
From a comics perspective, the situation is even more difficult. “Dark Phoenix” tells a pretty good story, but it’s not the “Dark Phoenix Saga” of comic book fame — nor could it be.
The heart and soul of the “Dark Phoenix Saga” was what, at the time, was the heart and soul of the X-Men itself: The love story between Scott “Cyclops” Summers and Jean “Marvel Girl” Grey.
Scott — initially called “Slim,” if you can believe it — started having sad thought balloons about Jean pretty quickly after the team’s arrival in 1963. But given his deadly, uncontrollable optic blasts, he felt he had no right to voice his feelings.
Jean, for her part, was also having sad thought balloons about Scott, but didn’t voice her feelings because … well, she was a teenage girl in 1963, written by Stan Lee, a fortysomething square who was a teenager in the ‘30s. Good girls simply weren’t that forward!
Eventually, though, the two managed to break through all the plot devices in order to be a couple — only for “X-Men” to be canceled in 1970. Talk about star-crossed romance! Fortunately, all those sad thought balloons weren’t wasted, because when the team was re-launched in 1975 with a mostly new (and really popular) cast, Scott and Jean were still together — and actually shown to be happy.
But then came a fateful mission in a space shuttle, where Jean stayed behind in order to save everyone, and was struck by a solar flare. Thanks to her efforts the other X-Men all survived, but obviously Jean couldn’t have …
… except she did. She popped out of the wreckage, which had landed in Jamaica Bay, in a brand new outfit and shouting gibberish: “Hear me, X-Men! No longer am I the woman you knew! I am fire! And life incarnate! Now and forever — I am Phoenix!”
Well, that was certainly odd! No one could explain how Jean survived, and she herself couldn’t explain (or even remember) those inexplicable pronouncements. Then came the power surges …
Jean kept getting stronger and stronger. Her telepathy and telekinesis grew so powerful they were virtually magic. She could even hold Scott’s optic blasts in check, so that he could take off his protective eyewear for the first time since adolescence. (This came in handy for smooching.)
Meanwhile, a villain named Mastermind — whose power was creating illusions — began romancing Jean as a handsome fellow named Jason Wyngarde. (Ironically, that’s his real name.) Supported by Emma Frost’s psychic powers, Mastermind was able to project a reality in Jean’s mind where she was living the life of a perverse Victorian aristocrat who was the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club.
Eventually, though, Jean saw through the illusion, but the damage had been done. The Phoenix Force — a cosmic entity that had saved her life in the space shuttle and had been inhabiting her all the while — was free. Exhilarated, and hungry, Jean/Phoenix promptly flew off into space and ate a star. That wiped out five billion members of the D’Bari, a broccoli-headed race first seen in a 1964 issue of “Avengers.”
And while she was at it, she ate a starship from the Shi’Ar Empire, an alien race introduced a few years earlier in “X-Men” comics. The bird-like aliens had long known, and feared, the Phoenix Force. “Summon my ministers, Chamberlain,” quoth Empress Lilandra, Majestrix of the Shi’Ar. “The threat must be dealt with once and for all — no matter the cost.”
Jean/Phoenix returned to Earth, with more mayhem in mind. The X-Men tried to stop her/it, but it was only the mental power of Charles Xavier that managed to bind the creature in Jean’s mind “within an unbreakable network of psychic circuit breakers.”
But no sooner had they achieved victory than the Shi’Ar arrived and kidnapped them all. Lilandra and the X-Men were buddies, but “as Empress, my first responsibility is to my people. To ensure their safety — to ensure the safety of the entire universe — Phoenix must be destroyed!”
“Over our dead bodies,” said the X-Men, or words to that effect. In time-honored adventure fiction tradition, Xavier whistled up an ancient Shi’Ar “duel of honor” rule that had to be respected. So a contest was arranged. The X-Men would battle for Jean’s life against the Imperial Guard, a group of super-powered aliens that, if you squinted just right, were recognizable as the Legion of Super-Heroes from DC Comics. The battle would take place in the Blue Area of the Moon, a former Kree outpost with breathable air, introduced long before in “Fantastic Four” comics.
But even with the X-Men roster of the time (Scott, Jean, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Storm, Wolverine), joined by Beast and Angel from the original team, the mutants were badly outnumbered. The battle filled an extra-sized issue, but one by one the X-Men fell. Eventually, it was just the aforementioned heart and soul — Jean and Scott — left. And when Scott was overpowered … well, Jean got emotional. And the Phoenix feeds on emotion.
Yep, the big bird got out again, and overcame the Imperial Guard. But it wasn’t going to stop there. It was going to destroy everything! That’s sort of the Phoenix’s gig: Blow everything up, rise from the ashes, and start over. No wonder the Shi’Ar were so scared of it.
But there was one fly in the Phoenix’s ointment: Jean. She was still in there, and her love for Scott and the team gave her the strength to stop the Phoenix, by essentially committing suicide. Her final line was a shouted “Scott!” He, of course, shouted “Jean!”
The story ended much as it began, with two lovers separated by fate.
The main reason it was such a powerful story, though, was that the comic book version of “Dark Phoenix” had built up over five years of comics, through multiple storylines. Taking into account the emotional weight of the central romantic relationship, “Dark Phoenix Saga” was really 27 years in the making! No two-hour movie could hope to shorthand all that emotional weight.
Also, the cast is entirely different. “We’re the last of the First Class” says Beast (Nicholas Hoult) to Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), which is wildly different from the comics, where the first class consisted of Angel, Beast, Cyclops, Iceman and Marvel Girl. (And Mystique is a villain.) Instead of Mastermind unleashing Jean/Phoenix, it’s Jessica Chastain as Vuk of the D’Bari (hey, a name-check), whose background is vague and whose emotional impact is nil.
And instead of eight familiar, valiant X-Men battling an interstellar empire to save the life of an adult Jean Grey, it’s a mish-mash of characters fighting for and against a teen Jean (Sophie Turner), including teenage versions of Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp), plus Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and some unidentified flunkies (one of whom seems to fight with his dreadlocks).
“Dark Phoenix” is loaded with talented actors, and tells a decent story. But it suffers in comparison with the comics, which themselves diluted the story by later resurrections and reveals. But the original “Dark Phoenix Saga” was a gut-punch to comics fans in 1980, and remains a testament to how powerful comics can be.
In other words, the book was better.
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©2019 Andrew A. Smith
Visit his website at comicsroundtable.com.)
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