Is This Really Dark Phoenix?
As already established, the main reason to be excited for Dark Phoenix is that it's giving us a second attempt at the Phoenix Saga. The broad strokes are the X-Men are on a spacefaring mission when Jean is hit by a solar flare and has her power enhanced, becoming Phoenix, later revealed to have been a greater force possessing her. Realising her true potential, Jean turns on the X-Men and aids the Hellfire Club in subduing them, before finding Earth-bound concerns pithy and heading into space. Here she consumes a supernova, killing billions in the process and becoming the most wanted being in the Shi'ar Empire. While Phoenix wrestles with guilt and her past, the Shi'ar decree Jean must be killed, leading to conflict with the still-protective Xavier. The Shi'ar plan to destroy the solar system to stop Phoenix, but Jean eventually takes control and sacrifices herself to save the world.
It's big cosmic epic, with Skrulls and Kree, as well as lots of differing X-factions: the Hellfire Club, the Avengers and more factor in. But it's ultimately a personal story for Jean (and lover Cyclops), an exploration of true power and what it is to be a God. That means it's not just a good comic arc, but ripe for transferring to the big screen; especially as "superheroes as Gods" has become such a key topic of discussion.
The Last Stand Messed Up The Phoenix Saga
The original trilogy made quite a few changes to the Phoenix Saga, mainly due to genre limitations of the time. Instead of being a space being or even catalyzed by solar flares, the Phoenix force was latent extreme power inside Jean Grey that had been suppressed by Professor X when she was a child but awakened by the confrontation with Magento in the original X-Men. X2 ended with Grey sacrificing herself to save the rest of the mutants, harnessing some of that power in her last moments before a final shot teasing her return.
The problems came in The Last Stand. Due to a variety of problems including a revolving door of directors (Bryan Singer left to do Superman Returns, then replacement Matthew Vaughn also bailed, leaving Brett Ratner to helm with short turnaround) the plan of a proper Phoenix Saga film was changed, with it instead forming a character backdrop to a primary narrative about a mutant cure. Even if has been the focus, though, it's unlikely Jean would have been better served.
The overall approach to Phoenix was that it simply made her an evil femme fatal, killing Scott and Professor X (a case of forced stakes-raising not dissimilar to the promised twist of Dark Phoenix) before wreaking havoc with little purpose. Her dying at the hands of distant lover Logan was a nice touch and powered an interesting thematic throughline in The Wolverine, yet it wound up with Jean being far too gone for repentance. "Missed opportunity" is putting it likely.
Can Dark Phoenix Do It Justice?
There are very few ways Dark Phoenix could handle the arc worse. It's definitely hewing closer to the comic, with the power actually coming from space and driving Jean on a deadly mission against her fellow students and mentors. We also have an outside influencer in the form of Jessica Chastain, who may not be Shi'ar Empress Lilandra (an essential role in the comic) yet is looking to fill her shoes at least a little bit.
But how much of this is window dressing? We saw in X-Men: Apocalypse that, as in the previous original continuity, there was some latent firepower within Jean, so any Phoenix possession is an accentuation of the same repression (and not the evolved Phoenix Force itself). As for the space origins, that feels like box-ticking; they go into space, sure, but by all accounts, the action is Earth-bound, evidenced by how the Phoenix sequence appears to be in Earth's upper-atmosphere and no mention of Shi'ar. If you're going into space, go all in; this is more Fantastic Four's 1962 origins than it is extreme cosmic roving.
On a more technical scale, Jean is a primary concern here. Apocalpyse's handling of the character - both Sophie Turner's breathless performance and the shoehorning in of the Phoenix setup - was so limp that it doesn't exactly instill faith in her or the producers' understanding or ability to get it right. Even if all the questionable elements do come together to make something strong, it still needs to address the lacking version of the hero-turned-villain at its core.
It's too early to call, but it looks like we could be dealing with a faux-adaptation, one that ticks the basic boxes but once again spins off in its own direction. This was, of course, true of Days of Future Past. The cross-generational film took the basic premise of trying to change the past to avoid a Sentinel-ravaged future but then spun off into a unique situation built on the established movie relationships. However, that turn was still faithful to the core idea of the source, with it just twisted to account for the movies' confused continuity and enable an effortless soft reboot (it's one of the franchise's strongest entries). For Dark Phoenix, there's no sense of the arc's original grand scale; we could have that with the "franchise-changing" twist, but nothing evidences the same level of story integration. If it's there and being hidden, Fox is doing the film a major disservice.
And we're back to that twist. Or, rather, the positioning in the franchise.
- New Mutants (2020) release date: Apr 03, 2020
- Deadpool 2 (2018) release date: May 18, 2018
- X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019) release date: Jun 07, 2019
- Gambit (2020) release date: Mar 13, 2020