Why do we always skip the Phoenix Saga?

I love the X-Men. I watched the animated series as a kid in the 90s and when I first started picking up superhero comics, X-Men was the first team I fell in love with. At the risk of sounding a little bit pretentious, I’ll admit that I haven’t been completely satisfied with the film adaptations – sure, there are exceptions (Days of Future Past and Logan were phenomenal, and other films have their moments), but overall, I’ve felt that the big studios are trying to make a quick cash grab.

That’s why when the upcoming Dark Phoenix film was announced, I had to roll my eyes.

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Jean Grey is one of my favorite superheroes, and the films have never really done her justice. X-Men: The Last Stand is notorious for its butchering of the Dark Phoenix Saga, and though I’m not a critic who insists that movie adaptations need to follow the source material to a T, the mishandling of the famous comic arc has been the subject of a number of feminist criticisms. Generally, the film is lambasted for making the Phoenix a part of Jean rather than the cosmic entity as portrayed in the comics. In The Last Stand, Professor X reveals that he had to suppress Jean’s innate power because it posed a threat – not just to humanity, but, implicitly, to the symbolic order in which men are the most powerful heroes.

Part of my fear with the upcoming Dark Phoenix film is that it will do the same. Entertainment Weekly revealed that the movie will feature a space journey in which a solar flare “awaken[s] a long-dormant power in Jean Grey.” iO9 comments: “What’s interesting here is that these details are implying that rather than being a cosmic force that encounters Jean (as in various iterations of the comics canon), the Phoenix is something that’s always been inside Jean, just waiting for the right trigger to appear.”

While a number of critics have unpacked the implications of trying to suppress innate female power in the X-Men films, I want to focus on something slightly different. The current X-Men franchise is repeating the sins of its past in not only changing the essence of the Phoenix Force, but in failing to set up the Dark Phoenix storyline by completely ignoring what made the original Dark Phoenix Saga so impactful in the first place: the preceding Phoenix Saga. In this post, I want to briefly discuss how ignoring the Phoenix Saga makes adaptations of the Dark Phoenix Saga more problematic, both on the level of narrative and the level of portraying female characters with cosmic power.

In a Nutshell: A Summary of the Phoenix Saga

In the X-Men comics, the Phoenix Force is not an innate power inside of Jean, but a cosmic entity that bonds with her after a space mission goes awry. The space shuttle becomes damaged, and Jean bravely volunteers to pilot the craft back to earth, despite the lethal levels of radiation. In her desperation to save her teammates, Jean calls out for help and the Phoenix Force (basically the sum of all life in the universe) answers, motivated by its admiration for Jean’s love for her friends. The Phoenix Force manifests as a duplicate of Jean’s body and psyche (placing the original Jean in a healing pod elsewhere), becoming so overwhelmed that it believes itself to be Jean Grey. Although the space ship crashed back to earth, the X-Men are unharmed, and the Jean Grey/Phoenix Force entity emerges from the water, calling itself “the Phoenix” and donning the iconic costume.

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With these cosmic powers, Jean becomes a formidable superhero. In a follow-up arc, the universe is put at risk when the M’Kraan Crystal (the “nexus of realities”) becomes fractured, threatening to collapse the universe into a giant black hole, and Jean uses her power to repair it. At this point, the immense power threatens to corrupt Jean Grey, but her strong sense of humanity and morality ultimately keeps the power in check (at least, until Mastermind comes along in the Dark Phoenix Saga).

Why We Need Phoenix to Have Dark Phoenix

I’ve been thinking a lot about why jumping straight into Dark Phoenix does an incredible disservice to Jean Grey’s character, and a lot of it has to do with the disservice it does to the core of Jean Grey as a superhero. Before encountering the Phoenix, Jean’s powers were run-of-the-mill: she was a telepath and had some minor telekinetic ability, but nothing that was portrayed as particularly threatening (at least, not on the level that her Phoenix powers are portrayed). Her defining characteristic, therefore, is not her superhuman abilities, but rather, as the comics emphasize over and over again, her humanity.

Jean’s love for her teammates is what sets her apart in a majority of the stories where she accomplishes great things. Part of this goes hand-in-hand with her empathic abilities, but I would argue that her powers alone are a poor substitute for the emotional depth that Jean shows for others. Whenever Jean is in a crisis, her powers don’t receive the amount of attention that her emotions do: The Phoenix Force responds to her original call for help because it is moved by her love, Jean is able to repair the crystal because she can tether herself to the love and compassion for her friends, and even after she is corrupted, she is able to reject the influence of the Dark Phoenix because of her love for humanity. While her telepathic abilities may indeed be the cause of her ability to feel love and compassion for others, I rather read her powers as a symbolic reflection of her empathy: in other words, her love is her superpower, her telepathy is the symbol.

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The Phoenix Saga shows us that when given phenomenal cosmic power, despite the temptation to give into its seduction, Jean resists and uses her abilities for good. It is only when attacked by an outside force that Jean turns that power towards destruction. In making the Phoenix part of Jean and skipping all the good that is done with the Phoenix Force, the films fundamentally alter Jean’s character from one based in love and compassion to one who is only a hero because her full potential must be controlled. Lenise Prater observes this phenomenon in comparing the comics with The Last Stand: “In the comic books, Jean’s initial transformation into the Phoenix is a positive one; the Phoenix is not inherently bad. Jean Grey/The Phoenix is slowly corrupted by power thanks to the machinations of the Hellfire Club, and this narrative closely follows a storyline of Professor Xavier losing control of his dark side… Professor Xavier’s psychic break is remarkably similar to that of the Phoenix in The Last Stand, where Jean Grey splits into two personalities. Thus this story of a man who is always in control and cares greatly for others, whose dark side embodies the opposite of what he stands for, is displaced onto the female character of Jean—the challenges a male character faces in controlling his power are erased and added to the narrative of a woman’s difficulties with controlling power.” This mirroring of Professor X, I suggest, is not inherently a problem – but the films never take the time to fully establish Jean’s character. Sure, Jean is shown to be compassionate in the movies, but the films never really explore the cost of being completely selfless that would make this struggle with her dark side more compelling. It works for Xavier because we’ve seen the sacrifices he’s had to make in order to ensure the survival of mutants and humans in peace; with Jean, we don’t get the same level of emotional depth.

From the looks of it, the upcoming Dark Phoenix movie is going down this same path by focusing on Xavier’s demons while launching into the Dark Phoenix Saga before taking the time to explore what it means for Jean Grey to be a hero. The film is supposed to open 10 years after Age of Apocalypse, with the X-Men as heroes and Xavier letting his ego put his team in danger. Director Simon Kinberg (who was responsible for writing the screenplay of The Last Stand, mind you) is quoted in EW as saying, “Pride is starting to get the better of [Professor X], and he is pushing the X-Men to more extreme missions.” EW continues: “After they’re dispatched to space for a rescue mission, a solar flare hits the X-Jet and the surge of energy ignites a malevolent, power-hungry new force within Jean (Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner)— the Phoenix.” The film, therefore, sets up Jean Grey’s story to be a response to Xavier’s pride – a move which, done right, could be compelling. However, the films are skipping 10 years of story: we don’t get to see how Jean grows as a hero before we see her downfall – and it will be a downfall. James McAvoy (who plays Xavier) says: “There’s a lot of sacrifice and a lot of suffering” in the movie, and Sophie Turner (who plays Jean) is said to have studied schizophrenia and multiple personality disorders to prepare for the role. “What happens when the person you love the most falls into darkness?” she is quoted in the article. To me, it sounds like the Phoenix is being likened to mental illness, and a mental illness that is inflicted on a woman as a sort of punishment for man’s hubris. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with exploring the dynamic between Xavier and Jean, but I can’t help but feel that the films are altering the outcome by changing the context around the Dark Phoenix.

Of course, the movie could turn out fine. But I’m skeptical mainly because the film seems so engrossed in exploring darkness before exploring light. Of course, the original Dark Phoenix Saga is no feminist manifesto – it comes with its own problems regarding women with power and female superheroes, but without the context of the Phoenix Saga, Jean’s character (at least for me) changes quite dramatically, and it’s a change that I’m not sure I like.

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