The days of X-Men fans griping over how poorly X-Men: The Last Stand adapted “The Dark Phoenix Saga” may soon be in the past, as Fox has officially announced that the next X-Men film set to be released on November 2, 2018 will be titled X-Men: Dark Phoenix. With that, the studio formally confirmed what’s long been rumored – that the X-Men movie franchise is mounting a do-over of perhaps the most beloved X-Men tale of all. But should fans rejoice at the franchise taking another pass at “The Dark Phoenix Saga”?
X-Men: The Last Stand is a particular sore spot for fans. Arguably the worst entry of the franchise, the Brett Ratner-helmed debacle was a mashup of Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men story “Gifted” and “The Dark Phoenix Saga” that ended up failing to do both tales justice. The story of the mutant cure being discovered, with Magneto (Ian McKellan) leading a mutant army in revolt against humanity, took center stage, reducing Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) to a mostly inactive minor player except for two big moments: killing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and then finally being killed by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) at the end. Oh yes, Jean also killed Cyclops (James Marsden) off screen, which is easily forgotten as the film doesn’t make a big deal out of it.
It’s heartening that one of the multitudes of who agree The Last Stand was a rotten attempt to adapt “The Dark Phoenix Saga” is X-Men writer-producer Simon Kinberg:
The main mistake we made in that movie was taking the Dark Phoenix story, which is such a vast and profound saga, and making it the subplot of the movie as opposed to the main plot of the movie. I think if we were to make a Dark Phoenix movie in the future, it would be a Dark Phoenix movie about her struggle, and really should be the A plot and the primary of the movie.
X-Men: Apocalypse did aptly set up X-Men: Dark Phoenix. In the revamped post-Days of Future Past timeline, Apocalypse re-introduced Jean Grey as a teenager (played by Sophie Turner) matriculating at the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters in 1983. Jean is tormented by the psychic powers she possesses, which manifests uncontrollably as she sleeps, disrupting the mansion and frightening her fellow students. In the climactic battle with Apocalypse, Jean unleashes her full power, which takes the shape of a flaming bird – the Phoenix – and destroys Apocalypse. Exploring Jean’s power and what it means for her and the X-Men is the logical next step.
While it’s rare to see a major movie franchise outright do a story twice, it’s not entirely unprecedented. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002 referenced the famous “Death of Gwen Stacy” story but substituted Mary Jane Watson as the Spider-Man girlfriend whom the Green Goblin throws off the Brooklyn Bridge. A dozen years later, after Sony rebooted the franchise, Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 also decided to adapt the “Death of Gwen Stacy,” this time by actually killing Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). While it hewed a lot closer to the comic book story, fans didn’t think much of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on the whole.
2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness was a reboot of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. This attempt was pretty ill-advised, since Wrath of Khan is generally hailed as the finest Star Trek film of all, and fans did not particularly want to see the rebooted Trek movie franchise literally remake Star Trek II. After the filmmakers denied the film’s true nature throughout production, Star Trek Into Darkness unraveled its mysteries and it was revealed the film was indeed a Wrath of Khan redux – complete with Kirk taking Spock’s place in the pivotal scene where Spock sacrifices his life to save the Enterprise and his friends in the original. Fans were not best pleased.
The difference between Star Trek Into Darkness and X-Men: Dark Phoenix, however, is that no one was asking for J.J. Abrams to remake something already regarded as near-flawless. X-Men fans agree that the Dark Phoenix saga was not done properly in 2006, and Kinberg is saying all the right things about their intentions on this second try.
Still, should fans be skeptical? The X-Men film franchise is like a roller coaster of quality. The core franchise itself came off two crowd-pleasing hits with Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class and Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past that rejuvenated the franchise, until Singer returned with the less-than-stellar X-Men: Apocalypse. With no director named for Dark Phoenix, it’s difficult to get a sense of whether this will indeed be the adaptation fans of the beloved comic book have waited so long for.
DARK PHOENIX REDUX
To be fair, “The Dark Phoenix Saga” can’t and shouldn’t be adapted exactly as it is in the comic books. The early-1980s Chris Claremont and John Byrne epic is a dated product of its time, and the movie franchise itself is set up very differently, with many characters missing, dead, or different by design from their comic book counterparts.
The comics are about the corruption of Jean Grey, first by a mutant illusionist named Mastermind, who poses as Jason Wyngarde of the Hellfire Club. Mastermind makes Jean believe she’s Lady Jean Grey, her 18th century ancestor, and that they’re madly in love. Meanwhile, Jean is also being tempted by the Phoenix Force, the malevolent cosmic power within her, which finally possesses her. As Dark Phoenix, Jean becomes an intergalactic menace; she consumes a star and destroys the planets that orbit it, committing genocide. The alien Shi’ar Empire brings Jean to trial for her crimes, and it concludes with the X-Men battling the Shi’ar over Jean, who chooses to end her own life. The comics are an overwrought but grand and unforgettable superhero space opera. Themes of corruption, guilt, passion, and love took the X-Men to sweeping heights of storytelling.
The working title Dark Phoenix was using, X-Men: Supernova, indicated that going to space is fittingly part of the plan in its new film. The X-Men films post-First Class have been gradually growing more epic in scope: first the Cuban Missile Crisis, then time travel to prevent a post-apocalyptic future, and most recently, many world landmarks laid waste by a rampaging Magneto while Apocalypse launched the planet’s nuclear arsenal and aimed the missiles at Earth. Going to space is the next step for the X-Men movies, and for longtime fans who have read the X-Men’s many comic book outer space adventures, it’s a move that’s long overdue. Dark Phoenix also puts X-Men on a bit more even footing with Marvel Studios, which will take the Avengers to outer space to meet the Guardians of the Galaxy in Avengers: Infinity War next year.
With the X-Men films each taking place a decade after the previous film, Dark Phoenix is expected to be set in the 1990’s. Jean Grey, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and the other X-Men will be in their mid-twenties, the same age as their comic book counterparts. If Dark Phoenix plans to stick closely to the comic book story, the Hellfire Club was already introduced in First Class, though Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and Emma Frost (January Jones) died in the 1960s, before Days of Future Past revamped the timeline. It would be cool to see how the Hellfire Club evolved into the 1990’s. Mastermind, who was a villain in X2: X-Men United, can be reintroduced in this new timeline, and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) remains at large and could be substituted for Emma Frost as the Hellfire Club’s resident mutant psychic.
Hugh Jackman has retired his adamantium claws in Logan, but luckily, Wolverine is a minor player in the comic book story. Dark Phoenix certainly won’t be centered around Wolverine’s love for Jean Grey and the sacrifice he makes by killing her as in The Last Stand; at this point in the new timeline, the Wolverine only briefly encountered the young X-Men at Alkalai Lake in 1983. Most of the other X-Men in “The Dark Phoenix Saga” – Cyclops, Storm, Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smith-McPhee), and Professor X (James McAvoy) – are neatly in place in the films. Missing are Colossus (who was seen in Deadpool in modern day, but could be reintroduced as younger), Kitty Pryde (who could also be reintroduced with yet another actress playing her), and Dazzler.
Whatever story beats Kinberg plans for Dark Phoenix, and whether or not he introduces the Shi’ar or another alien race to the X-Men movie universe, the key to adapting “The Dark Phoenix Saga” properly is capturing the operatic drama in the comics. Dark Phoenix must be primarily about Jean’s corruption – “mind, body and soul” as the comics repeat – by the primal elemental force of the Phoenix, and how it’s a metaphor for a girl coming of age into womanhood and coping with the passions, confusions, decisions, sense of self, personal responsibility and empowerment inherent – on the grandest scale imaginable. “The Dark Phoenix Saga” is also about love, friendship, sacrifice, and loss.
The role of Jean Grey, properly executed in Dark Phoenix, will be a career-defining challenge for Sophie Turner. In six seasons, she has grown into one of the stronger actors in Game of Thrones as the increasingly emboldened Sansa Stark. However, Turner didn’t necessarily turn heads as Jean in Apocalypse, but it can be argued the entire cast was hardly utilized to their full potential by the film. Jean and Scott Summers’ teenage love story was only just beginning in Apocalypse. Turner and Tye Sheridan must convince the audience of the depth of their romance as adults – and the emotional impact of Scott losing Jean to the Phoenix Force – when Dark Phoenix picks up the story a decade later. Even without Jackman’s Wolverine, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto or Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique – the latter two movie stars may sit Dark Phoenix out – the X-Men have a talented young cast led by James McAvoy who could do Dark Phoenix justice.
Whether Dark Phoenix can adapt its comic book source material into an engaging, crowd-pleasing blockbuster like Days of Future Past or become another overstuffed, incoherent special effects spectacle like Apocalypse remains to be seen. If Kinberg is indeed committed to doing justice to “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” he is hopefully focusing his scripting efforts on making the characters as emotionally resonant as possible. The ensuing mutant superpowered action and expected outer space conflagrations must be character-driven and not plot driven. Fans long to see Jean Grey as the Dark Phoenix destroy a star in all her glory in a movie, but what they want most of all is to feel deeply for her struggle to save her soul against her own overwhelming desires. Audiences shed a tear for Logan. When Dark Phoenix concludes, we want to moved just as much by the fall of Jean Grey.