(This post contains spoilers for “The Dark Phoenix Saga”, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand and Dark Phoenix)
On January 10, 1980, Marvel Comics published issue number 120 of The Uncanny X-Men, which would be the first in a 10-part series of what I believe is the best storyline in comic book history – “The Dark Phoenix Saga”. Written by Chris Claremont with impeccable art by John Byrne – who also co-plotted – “Dark Phoenix” is ultimately a tragic tale of power, love, and sacrifice that remains moving and captivating 42 years later.
The story centers around Jean Grey, a young telepath unaware of the extent of her telekinetic abilities as she struggles to balance her sense of self after unknowingly bonding with a cosmic entity known as the Phoenix Force. This symbiosis unlocks Jean’s burgeoning potential to an alarming degree, but she constructs mental barriers to maintain control.
These barriers are slowly eroded by a member of the Hellfire Club called Mastermind, who, through psychic illusions, manipulates Jean by making her believe she is slipping through time. When she ostensibly sees her lover and teammate Scott Summers (Cyclops) killed, the Phoenix Force is finally unleashed, transforming her into Dark Phoenix.
In order to separate her ties to Earth, she briefly tussles with the X-Men before flying deep into the cosmos to explore the extent of her power. She realizes there are limits, and to replenish herself, she consumes a star which leads to the death of 5 billion beings on a nearby planet. This alerts the Shi’ar Empire to her presence, who then swiftly declare Phoenix a mortal threat to the universe that must be destroyed.
With a modicum of sovereignty left, Phoenix returns to Earth to visit the home of her family. The X-Men meet her there, and she once again toys with them before engaging in a psychic battle with Charles Xavier. As they fight on the astral plane, Jean regains enough control to aid Xavier in caging the Phoenix Force once again.
By then, the Shi’ar have tracked Phoenix to Earth, teleporting her and the X-Men to their vessel and declaring that Jean must be killed. Despite their conflicting feelings, the X-Men then engage in a duel of honor on the moon with the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, where they fall one by one. Feeling the barriers start to erode once again, and knowing there is no other way, Jean professes her undying love to Scott before activating a Kree weapon and committing suicide.
If you’ve never read the 10-issue run, I highly recommend going to your local comic shop or getting a free trial with Marvel Unlimited. I left so much out in my brief recap, and nothing I can type here can give you an idea of the breathtaking details of Byrne’s artwork. In my opinion, he’s one of the best that has ever put pencil to paper. Along with Claremont’s words, his images elevate this comic book story to the lofty heights of a Shakespearean tragedy.
The real devastation for me, however, is there have been two cinematic attempts to adapt the story, and each has failed in capturing the essence and magic of what makes it a classic. Even the beloved (by some) X-Men animated series aired an uninspired attempt at re-telling Jean Grey’s fateful odyssey. The one thing that these experiments all had in common was the shortsightedness of not staying faithful to the source material.
At the crux of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” is the bond of kinship and love that the X-Men have with each other and, in particular, the star-crossed romance between Scott and Jean. It is this love that ultimately defeats the malevolent Phoenix entity and what makes the story so devastating. This is one of the many things the movies have gotten wrong.
Jean’s love for her extended family remained after she became Dark Phoenix. In both of her ‘battles’ against them, she could have easily erased them from existence. Instead, she only engaged them as an older sibling would a younger one.
However, both film versions feature Jean killing her fellow X-Men once the Phoenix Force starts to consume her. In The Last Stand, she murders Professor Xavier and inexplicably disintegrates Scott when he returns to the lake where she died saving her teammates. 2019’s Dark Phoenix shows her lashing out in a rage and ruthlessly killing Mystique.
Claremont and Byrne’s Jean so loved Cyclops and the other X-Men, she spared them the anguish and guilt they would have experienced had they been forced to kill her. Instead, she chose to end her own life. In The Last Stand, she begged Wolverine to do it, forever damning him to a long life of remorse. Dark Phoenix ends with her seemingly surrendering to the Phoenix Force, free to fly about in deep space.
The films also failed to accurately portray how powerful Dark Phoenix was. In the comic run, her power rivaled that of the mighty Galactus, Devourer of Worlds. Earth and its inhabitants held no sway over her, and only a few Omega-level mutants could even briefly stand against her. Yet in both The Last Stand and Dark Phoenix, she is used and manipulated by Magneto and then an alien called Vuk, respectively.
Both movies also take away Jean’s agency over her own abilities. Each has Xavier being responsible for constructing the mental barriers when she was a little girl that held the Phoenix Force at bay. This leads to Jean experiencing a furious rage and feelings of betrayal that were completely absent from the original story.
One thing that both adaptations get right is that Jean sacrificing herself to save the X-Men is what initially leads to her becoming Phoenix. Dark Phoenix even goes the extra mile and sets the scene for this heroic act in space. However, in The Last Stand universe, she dies by drowning in X2, which is entirely antithetical to any mythology regarding a phoenix, much less ‘The Dark Phoenix Saga’.
My fear is that we will never get a worthy adaption of Byrne and Claremont’s masterpiece. I’m encouraged that now Marvel’s deal with Fox allows them to bring the X-Men into the larger MCU, but does the public at large have a desire to see yet another Dark Phoenix movie? It’s an epic that could only be adequately crafted in a trilogy or a season or two of prestige television.
To expect an authentic, accurate screen version would be folly, but Marvel has had success in converting classic comic book stories into worthy screenplays. But then again, some things aren’t meant to be. It may be wise to just enjoy ‘The Dark Phoenix Saga’ in its original form. Where one can be transfixed by Chris Claremont’s words, John Byrne’s art and the glory and tragedy of Jean Grey will endure in the tale they so masterfully told.
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