The trailer for Dark Phoenix dropped this week and it’s safe to say that it didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Some people, like myself, are still curious and still hoping for the best. But that’s mostly because that’s what I try to do with any movie. From the trailer and the film’s long troubled production, it’s more than likely that “the best” isn’t what we’re getting. The writing is literally already on the wall as the Fox merger with Disney comes closer and closer to being complete. It’s a hard situation for anyone to make a movie in, and it’s not entirely the filmmakers’ fault. We’ve got an X-Men flick on the way while the X-Men themselves are already packing their things to move studios and join the MCU. I don’t know the whole story about what’s been happening behind the scenes with Dark Phoenix and I won’t pretend to.
But I do want to talk about the story it’s adapting, because this is the second attempt to tell this story on the big screen and at this point it looks like its best possible hope might be to somehow match that film’s lukewarm success. The decision to drop the trailer at midnight on a Wednesday did not spark confidence, I’ll admit. And a lot of people underwhelmed by the trailer and much of the news surrounding the movie have claimed that this is proof as to why the Dark Phoenix story, as classic as it might be, is impossible to adapt. And I’m not sure that I agree with that. Shoddy CGI aside, if there’s one problem with Dark Phoenix from the trailer, it’s that it looks like the exact same film we got last time.
The story itself is one of the very best X-Men stories ever told and one of the best comic events of its era. It’s one of the high points of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s seminal run on the book, telling a story about betrayal and tragic loss after assembling one of the best teams in the series’ history, only for that dynamic to be all but shattered at the end. In addition to that, it introduced three of the most well known X-Men characters ever in Kitty Pryde, Dazzler and Emma Frost, as well as giving one of the most sidelined villains—Mastermind—a major role to play.
More than anything, Dark Phoenix—at least in the comics—is a space opera.
It is also fundamentally Jean Grey’s story. That was one of the biggest problems with The Last Stand. Jean was a supporting character in the movie and the Phoenix wasn’t even the focus of the plot. To its credit, the new film does look like it is putting much more of the focus on her. In addition to that, Last Stand completely stripped the cosmic elements from the story, instead depicting the Phoenix as nothing more than a split personality of Jean’s. Dark Phoenix also clearly reinstates the cosmic nature of the Phoenix force. I’d even venture a guess that Jessica Chastain’s character is a manifestation of the Phoenix in Jean’s mind.
In the original comic book arc, and from the comics that have revisited it since, Jean’s journey toward becoming the Phoenix began when she watched her friend die at a young age. Without her even being that conscious of it, young Jean did not want her friend to die and tried to stop her soul from leaving her body, tried to prevent her from dying. And for one second, she actually succeeded. And across the universe, something felt that raw power and awakened.
When Jean gave up her life for her fellow X-Men on a mission to space, making the conscious decision to sacrifice herself, the Phoenix force took over her body. At first, no one really understood the kind of power she was demonstrating or what had happened to her. Tests conducted on Jean at Muir Island only concluded that they had no clue as to the nature of the Phoenix, and on some occasions they didn’t even want to question it because Jean’s new level of power was so helpful in so many situations that both they—and especially Jean—didn’t want to be without it.
As time went on, Jean started using her new powers for anything, changing the molecules in her clothes and holding back Cyclops’ optic blast without even thinking twice about it. She even established a psychic link between herself and Cyclops so that one would always know what the other was thinking, always feel what they felt, and would always know if the other was in danger. She would use more force than necessary, even be more aggressive, without even noticing she was doing it.
Jean’s total confidence in her new powers and the X-Men’s inability to understand the Phoenix left them open for attack, as the Hellfire Club did, invading Jean’s mind to get her to turn against the X-Men so that she could be adopted into their club and unknowingly awakening the Dark Phoenix as a result.
There’s always been some debate among X-Men fans as to what the Dark Phoenix persona was, if it was simply the Phoenix force struggling for control, or an aspect of Jean herself, or both. Jean Grey is an incredibly powerful mutant and while the Phoenix itself is powerful, most of what it did was to amplify things that were inside of Jean already. Her powers, her emotions, her rage. That’s what makes her transformation into the Dark Phoenix so tragic. Throughout the story, she is being taken over and used by something outside herself, but even though the Phoenix is out to ultimately fuel itself, all of that rage she directs toward her teammates stems from somewhere deep inside of her.
The stakes of the Dark Phoenix Saga are as massive as they’ve ever been in the Marvel Universe, especially when you take the larger cosmic universe into account. In her wrath as the Dark Phoenix, seeking to fuel the entity that has claimed her body, Jean destroys an entire planet and takes millions of lives. Representatives from all over the galaxy meet to declare her fate, from the Shi’ar Empire to the Skrulls and more, and determine that the universe is not safe while Jean Grey is alive. The X-Men fight to save her from execution in a move that absolutely cements them as one of the best family units in comics. Jean has taken part in something horrible and everything these different representatives are saying might be right, but she is their friend and they will fight for her to her last breath.
But the ending drives the point home that this is Jean’s story, not theirs. When everyone in the universe is trying to decide her fate, it’s Jean herself who realizes that even if the Phoenix is temporarily gone, it might still be back, they don’t know for sure and it is too huge a risk not to be certain about. She makes the decision to take her own life in order to ensure the safety of the entire universe. Because of her psychic link with Cyclops, when she dies he not only feels the loss of watching the love of his life incinerate right in front of him, he also feels what she feels as well. It’s heartbreaking, truly Shakespearian comic book storytelling.
Many have said that it’s impossible to tell that story on the big screen and that might have been true the first time they attempted it in 2006. But in a world where we’ve already seen the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War, it doesn’t hold up. But that doesn’t matter, because I don’t think Fox has ever come to understand that.
Over a twenty year period, they’ve only slowly warmed to the idea of making their comic book movies actually feel like comic book movies. Even in the best X-Men movies, the comic iconography has been few and far between. It’s just not something that the filmmakers have been comfortable with, to the point where they’d usually average about one character looking like the comic version per movie. X-Men: First Class gave us blue and yellow uniforms and Magneto’s helmet, Apocalypse gave us Mohawk Storm and Psylocke with comic-accurate costumes being showcased in the last two minutes. And every single thing has carried this air of “OK, is it enough yet?”
A lot of people have misunderstood what Simon Kinberg and Co. have meant when they’ve talked about going back to Dark Phoenix and doing it right. So many interviews have talked about what went wrong on Last Stand, how the Cure focus took away from attention on Phoenix herself, how the entity came from space, and what a great idea they had had before the project shifted directors. It’s surprising, having heard just the notion of doing that over again, and then watching the trailer, because everything about it looks like they’re attempting to just do that film again with a few cosmetic changes that will hopefully be for the better.
It’s not the angle I think anyone wanted, but I’m not sure if it was ever actually sold as being anything else. Even from the early interviews, this seemed like there was never even any question of just going back to their plan for Last Stand and tweaking that to make it better. Someone might die instead of someone who died last time, Cyclops is the love interest instead of Wolverine, the Phoenix comes from space rather than Jean’s mind, while the entire story structure appears to be more or less the same. We expected a return to the source material as fans, while the filmmakers appear to be coming from a practical standpoint of going back to that movie specifically to see what went wrong without realizing that the entire approach was kind of off.
In general, Dark Phoenix can be adapted even as an emotional, epic space opera. But it has never been at a studio that was ever going to make that movie.
To be clear, though, I am all for adaptations taking drastic liberties with the source material. All of the MCU movies have. But there’s something that’s just abundantly clear when a film has an understanding of what works in the source material and why it’s important and when it does not. You don’t need to have the story set in space to encapsulate its themes. I think there is some understanding of that, I think there’s a clear understanding that a teammate turning to the dark side is a breeding ground for heightened emotions and tragic storytelling. That’s why I was still excited for Dark Phoenix for so long. But I am not sure that they get what it means for Jean as a character, or why it matters for Cyclops to be seeing this transformation take place in her rather than Wolverine.
It’s almost less an adaptation of Dark Phoenix in any form than it is adapting that concept to fit the kind of movie that they wanted to do. Again, though, it almost doesn’t matter if they’re simply remaking the same movie they’ve already made once and are somehow expecting different results.
As long as Jean is at the forefront, as long as her arc with the Phoenix is central to the story, as long as her relationship with Scott and the fear and vulnerability shared between the two of them is made clear, Dark Phoenix can still work. Because aside from all of the massive cosmic backdrop that admittedly would make for an exciting movie, that’s all the Dark Phoenix Saga is actually about. The core themes still resonate and they can still be handled well. I’m honestly hoping for the best.
But 20th Century Fox has always had a certain relationship with the X-Men franchise, believing that if you give fans anything, if you have a character on the screen for two seconds that they recognize, if you see a familiar suit or helmet in the background, they’ll be happy. And that doesn’t gel with a world in which Marvel’s giving people like Ant-Man their own movie, where classic comic book costumes are being regularly adapted and the Avengers are confidently going to space.
Could this movie have happened and been fairly representative of the comic book art after the Disney/Fox merger? Absolutely. I think Marvel Studios could have made a version of this event that was visually recognizable as the Dark Phoenix Saga and understood what made it great, and now—no matter how good or bad the movie is—they definitely won’t.
But that doesn’t take away the fact that 20th Century Fox could have done a great adaptation of this story and still could, no matter how different it might be. It’s not going to happen, though, if they’ve just gone back to The Last Stand and made a few grammatical tweaks before releasing their new revised edition, somehow expecting the results to be different.