The Phoenix Force in X-Men: The Last Stand
Comic book fans have tended to argue that superhero films should "stick to the source material," but writers and directors have always found that quite challenging. For one thing, an idea doesn't necessarily translate effectively from one medium to another. In the case of the Phoenix Force, though, the situation is even more complicated. Claremont's original comics were very unclear as to just what the Phoenix was in the first place; was Jean suffering from some sort of Dissociative Identity Disorder? Or was she the host of a cosmic force? The retcons only added further complexity to the issue of adapting "The Dark Phoenix Saga," given they involved Jean's actually being replaced by the Phoenix Force.
X-Men: The Last Stand ditched the cosmic side of the Phoenix Force altogether. It treated Jean as a mutant of almost unlimited telepathic and telekinetic potential, who had developed multiple personality disorder. Sensing the risk, Charles Xavier had used his own psychic barriers to lock Jean's abilities down, and to restrain her alternate persona. But a near-death experience had unlocked both the power and the personality, and Jean became Phoenix. As Simon Kinberg told The New York Times, she became the embodiment of the Electra Complex, the opposite of the Oedipus Complex: a condition where some young women become unnaturally attached to their fathers and yet secretly wish to kill them and destroy everything that stands for them in order to assume their power. Phoenix killed Professor Xavier and sided with Magneto, before finally being killed by Wolverine.
Kinberg has recently reflected that The Last Stand's greatest weakness was its failure to go cosmic. "I think that was a time in superhero movies where that just wasn't being done," he noted, "and now we live in a time with Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok and so many comic book movies are interstellar and cosmic." He has a point; it has to be remembered that, before the success of the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises, the cheesiness of Batman and Robin had briefly been believed to have killed off the entire superhero genre. That's the reason the X-Men never wore spandex and didn't go into space.
The New Version In X-Men: Dark Phoenix
X-Men: Dark Phoenix appears to be taking a more nuanced approach, just like the original comics. Many of the basic plot points seem to be similar; Jean is still a powerful young mutant who has suffered trauma, in this case the deaths of her parents when her powers were triggered. Fearing Jean's power, Xavier used his own abilities to lock them down and - it's hinted in the trailers - even erase her memory that she was responsible for her parents' deaths. Those psychic barriers began to break down in the third act of X-Men: Apocalypse, when Jean unleashed her power in order to defeat the titular villain. This time round, though, there is also clearly a Phoenix Force. Just as in the comics, Jean is caught up in a solar flare, and emerges unscathed but transformed and unstable.
Actress Sophie Turner has treated this as a kind of Dissociative Identity Order, spending a lot of time researching mental health. As she explained:
"As soon as Simon [Kinberg] kind of told me what the movie was about we just started straight away sharing ideas, sharing materials. Simon gave me a big, big book on schizophrenia. I actually found this thing online, on YouTube. And it was just kind of repeating, repeating, repeating, what it sounds like being a schizophrenic. So I used to walk around town with all these voices in my head. Kind of feel it out. And see what it felt like. We also explored Multiple Personality Disorder as well. And what that feels like to kind of wake up and not know what you did, What happened and that shear panic and how that affects you. Jean is just... this movie... She's so, so, layered. She's so complex in this movie. I really don't think that I've done more research for a role than for this one and I loved every minute of it."
What's unclear, at this stage, is whether this other personality has been a part of Jean for a long time, kept in check until after the solar flare, or whether it is actually the Phoenix itself. Given that Kinberg has stressed the cosmic aspect of X-Men: Dark Phoenix, the latter seems likely; that Jean has become a host for a malevolent entity that is influencing her and amplifying her powers. Indeed, it's been theorized that Jessica Chastain's unidentified villain could be the Phoenix Force. She could simply be the psychic manifestation of the Phoenix persona, the entity Jean is being tempted and sometimes controlled by. At this stage that's just a theory, of course, but it fits the trailers well.
One thing is clear, though - X-Men: Dark Phoenix isn't going to dive headfirst into all the cosmic mythology of the Phoenix Force. Doing so probably wouldn't fit very well with the grounded tone and style of Fox's X-Men film franchise. Rather, it looks to have taken the "multiple personality" concept and added a layer of cosmic complexity to it. It remains to be seen how effective that is, and how the fans react to it.
- X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019) release date: Jun 07, 2019
- New Mutants (2020) release date: Apr 03, 2020