The Dark Phoenix // Comics to Cinema
It's hard to find someone into comics who hasn't heard of the X-Men. Not only have they been around since the 1960s, but executives just can't get enough of the X-Men's first major story arc from the Chris Claremont era: The Phoenix Saga.
Stretching from issues 100 to 138 of Uncanny X-Men, Claremont, and co-plotters Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, the story has Jean Grey becoming one with the cosmic force of the Phoenix in the background of a lot of other stories. Slowly, she becomes corrupted by the villain Mastermind as he worked with the Hellfire Club to bend her abilities to their whims, only to have the Phoenix itself corrupted and turn evil - or at least amoral. The tale is of heroism in the face of certain death, of humanity winning out over Godhood, and of love. While later Claremont tales would be better in execution and pacing, there's a reason this story is one of the best-known.
In fact, issue 137 of The Uncanny X-Men, a double-sized affair titled The Fate of the Phoenix, is arguably one of the best chapters of the entire X-Men franchise. It's even one of the few issues of comics Marvel offers as a digital reward for being a member of their website.
As if that wasn't enough proof, we're also getting a second movie based on the Phoenix itself, coming out in just a few months. Unless it gets delayed again for more reshoots, Dark Phoenix will be the last of the Fox X-Men movies made without Disney input. With Jean herself having been introduced in X-Men: Apocalypse, there is a slight concern that the nuance and the slow burn of Jean losing herself to the power of the Phoenix and the corruption could be turned into "woman goes crazy" for a plot point.
The problem lies in the execution of the material, not in the material itself. For a good example, there are two other screen adaptations of the Phoenix Saga. One comes from the original 2000s movie trilogy and the other about a decade earlier with the first animated X-Men series. Both have their flaws and are solid examples of both how and how not to adapt the material.
The first adaptation was from the X-Men animated series. While the character designs almost entirely come from 1991 retool of the X-Men with designs by Jim Lee, the series didn't mind adapting older stories with new twists. Having already covered Days of Future Past and the Island of Genosha in the first season alone, the third season of the animated series chose to bend into the old Phoenix Saga. This would be a slow burn plot across the entire season, thanks to the nature of television, showing Jean come into her new powers, using them for good, and eventually being corrupted by the Hellfire Club. However, it was not perfect.
For one, the show did not feature Colossus or Nightcrawler. They were key members of the X-Men during the Dark Phoenix Saga, but the show was able to write around them by using Rogue and Gambit as substitutes in combat. This wound up being awkward, but still worked well for Saturday Morning Television. The other was more glaring: there was no death on Fox Kids. And the Dark Phoenix Saga ends with the death of Jean… after she wiped out a solar system of life.
This was written around by making the sun that Phoenix devoured be one that had no life around it. Ironically, this did allow for the originally-rejected ending of the Dark Phoenix Saga to be used. Rather than killing off Jean, Claremont had wanted the character to be purged of the Phoenix and instead psychically neutered. A similar variant would be used in the show, allowing for Jean to live on free of the Phoenix. And then, we have X-Men: The Last Stand.
The original movie trilogy did well to hint at the Phoenix during the events of the second movie X2: X-Men United. A few scenes of flames erupting around Jean as she pushed herself hinted at the Phoenix starting to join with her and the end scene of the movie literally shoved the Phoenix in everyone's faces. It was a low-key introduction of the Phoenix Force, but the movies were already low key, and it could have worked with the right direction in the script.
We didn't get that.
The Last Stand chose to combine two plots into one, using the recent Gifted storyline from Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men to set up a final showdown on if Mutants could still exist or not. This actually could have been a good start for a movie, but the screenwriters chose to toss in the Dark Phoenix with almost none of the trappings that made up the saga. Gone was the cosmic space bird, replacing it was Jean Grey being a crazy psychotic who was psychically neutered by Professor Xavier. Gone was the temptation of power and the corruption by Mastermind, replaced by Jean just being randomly evil and killing Cyclops offscreen and Professor Xavier onscreen. Gone was Jean's supreme self-sacrifice, replaced with Wolverine dragging himself against disintegration winds to stab Jean in the chest out of love.
Needless to say, this was not the Dark Phoenix Saga. There were other ways to angle this, such as revealing that movie Jean had her powers activate similarly to comic canon (feeling a friend die near them in an accident), and that friend was the corrupting force nicknamed Phoenix. They also could have gone full Cosmic and dropped the Gifted storyline. While The Last Stand did have some positive aspects to it, mainly Hugh Jackman's performance and Kelsey Grammer's near-perfect Beast, the script was just a miserable mess of cliche and plot holes.
This brings us to the new movie, X-Men: Dark Phoenix. Original trailers did give me some hope that we could be getting an abbreviated version of the comic storyline. Accidents in space, Phoenix seeming to be a cosmic entity, you get the idea. However, when doing research for this article, something jumped out at me that explained why so many of the recent X-Men movies have been either ok or trainwrecks.
Simon Kinberg, the director, and writer of Dark Phoenix, also worked on The Last Stand as one of the scriptwriters, as well as the writing for the solid Days of Future Past, the abysmal Fan4stic, and the muddled Apocalypse. This is his directorial debut, but his time as a scriptwriter for the Fox Universe of Marvel has proven to be incredibly messy, convoluted, and ultimately confusing.
Combine the history of Kinberg's X-men writing with the fact that this will be covered in a single movie means we may lose a lot of the nuance of Jean's fall from grace and corruption. Kinberg has gone on record to explain that he does regret how The Last Stand turned out and has mentioned he would do it differently. It has also been over a decade since The Last Stand crashed into theaters so this could be a better movie.
However, the track record does not inspire confidence.
I also now firmly expect a Hugh Jackman cameo shoved in at the last moment that ultimately gives nothing to the movie.
It's happened in almost every other movie this guy's worked on, after all.