Movies

Dark Phoenix’s Flaws Highlight What’s Still Great About the 40-Year-Old Story

No, not the broccoli people.

Side-by-side of The Dark Phoenix Saga cover and Sophie Turner, who portrays Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix.
The Dark Phoenix Saga cover and Sophie Turner, who portrays Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix.
Photos by Amazon and Twentieth Century Fox.

This article contains spoilers for Dark Phoenix.

It’s tempting—not always accurate, but tempting—to say that mediocre source material makes for the best movie adaptations. Nobody thinks Everybody Comes to Rick’s as good as Casablanca, or Mario Puzo’s Godfather the equal of Coppola’s. The world-beating first Avengers movie did all sorts of numbers on the fun, but stiff and shallow, 1960s comic where those heroes first teamed up.

Dark Phoenix proves the point from the other direction. Writer and director Simon Kinberg’s second attempt to bring the influential comics storyline to the screen, after the widely derided X-Men: The Last Stand, the new movie falters in ways that show what’s great about the original, why these 40-year-old comics resonate today.

The X-Men became the most successful superhero comics of the 1980s not just because writer Chris Claremont and his collaborators told exciting stories, but also because these mutant outcasts meant something. “Hated and feared,” they represented out-groups, people who might be shunned or derided or persecuted no matter what they could do. Sometimes the mutant metaphor stood for disability; less often, and less successfully, for race. And sometimes it stood for gender and sexuality: The X-Men were, if not always purposefully feminist, at least compatible with feminism, one of the first mainstream comics where multiple women could wield tremendous power without becoming wicked stepmothers, temptresses, or impediments to some guy’s heroic journey.

The story of Jean Grey—Phoenix, and then Dark Phoenix—is one peak of that long effort. Jean first died by using her powers to save the crew of a spaceship (including the other X-Men). Then she emerged with supercharged abilities, a new green costume, and a flaming aura, announcing, “No longer am I the woman you knew! I am fire! And life incarnate! Now and forever—I am Phoenix!”

This Phoenix won back the love of her loyal boyfriend Scott Summers (Cyclops), later her fiancé. She also attracted attention from the telepathic, illusion-casting, literally mustache-twirling villain Jason Wyngarde, aka Mastermind, who wanted to make Jean his girlfriend and use her powers to take over the Hellfire Club, a secret organization of super-rich baddies who dress in Regency finery and bondage gear. (One of those baddies, the schoolmistress Emma Frost, later turned good and led her own teams of X-Men.) Wyngarde made Jean believe, intermittently, that she was an 18th-century English noblewoman engaged to him (and not to Scott).

Flipping between his made-up 1700s and the present day over almost two years of comics, Jean found it hard to know what was real (or what to do with her sexuality). The uncertainty made her powers go haywire, turning the life-giving Phoenix into the voraciously destructive, spacefaring Dark Phoenix. Jean, or Dark Phoenix, scrambled Wyngarde’s brain then flew off into space, devouring stars and destroying planets—one of them inhabited by the broccoli-headed aliens called D’Bari.

Could Jean’s own personality learn to control the cosmic, amoral, now-genocidal Dark Phoenix permanently? Would she get the chance to try? Or would the agents of the Shi’ar, a galactic empire that kidnapped her and took her to the moon, eliminate her “deadly threat to all that lives”? Scott’s role as logical team leader allowed him to see the Shi’ar point of view; his love for Jean let him support her “with all my heart.” But the last decision on the moon was hers: “I want no more deaths on my conscience,” she told him, and let herself be killed by a Shi’ar laser. “You could not become Dark Phoenix,” Scott concluded, “and remain true to yourself, the Jean Grey I knew.”

Those comics take advantage of their medium: the serial storytelling, the elegance of colored line drawings; the way that comics, before modern CGI, could depict giant space battles and exploding suns, as well as expressive close-ups on lovers’ faces. The story also ends up strongly feminist. Jean becomes Dark Phoenix in reaction to Wyngarde’s gaslighting. (Mislead women long enough, the plot implies, and we’ll set your world aflame.) The Dark Phoenix Saga also reacts to the long and dishonorable tradition of superhero stories where women are killed, or grotesquely injured, in order to motivate heroic men: Jean dies, but she’s the star of her own story, and she makes the decisions herself.

The Dark Phoenix movie takes most of that power away. Movie Jean becomes Dark Phoenix, killing one teammate and trashing a lot of police cars, right after she learns that Charles lied about her past: He concealed the fact that young Jean caused the accident that killed her mother and that her father is still alive. Aliens still come after her, but they are the few remaining D’Bari, now shapeshifters with no resemblance to broccoli. Their leader, a white-blond seductress called Vuk (Jessica Chastain), dresses like Emma but is boringly evil (she kills and tortures humans without qualm).

Vuk wants Jean’s powers in order to build a new planet for her species, and she uses feminist rhetoric to convince Jean: “You’re stronger than you know. You can fight back. … Feel the power inside you.” To Charles, Vuk says “She’s not your little girl anymore.” After a long, flashy battle with the X-Men, their mutant allies, and the U.S. military on a moving train, Jean launches herself and Vuk into deep space forever so no one can misuse—or use—the Phoenix power.

Despite Kinberg’s feminist slogans (“The women are always saving the men around here,” Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven tells Charles, “You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women”), Movie Jean’s problems have little to do with how to be an adult woman, how to own her sexuality, or how to live responsibly: They belong more to a rebellious child. The movie’s weaknesses make more glaring the movie’s hollowness where the storyline’s feminism once was. Sophie Turner does what she can with the underwritten role, but Scott (Tye Sheridan) is too wooden for us to see why she would date him. X-Men comics often pass the Bechdel test (two women have a conversation not about a man), but in Dark Phoenix, every scene that passes the test ends with a woman getting killed (Jennifer Lawrence, as Mystique, is the first to go).

The film even jokes about how the Fox franchise has ended. When Charles shouts “Kurt!” at Nightcrawler in a fight scene, the English-accented actor may as well be yelling “Cut! Cut!” The soldiers who guard the X-Men on that train comprise the Mutant Containment Unit, or MCU, whose badges the camera highlights. These mutants are literally being kidnapped and transported to the MCU, and need saving from it.

That’s not to say the film has no ideas. It pushes one that fans have pursued for decades: Charles Xavier may be the series’ Big Bad. It’s Professor X who manipulates teenagers into becoming his soldiers, into defending a vision that makes him famous, a liberal integrationist vision of comity that is all his, never quite theirs. He’s the gaslighter, the one who played Jean false, and her destructive binges in the movie, like a child’s lashing out, may all aim at him. “This is your fault, Charles,” Hank McCoy (Beast) argues. “We’ve been trying to protect these kids from the world when really we should have been protecting them from you.” Later Charles admits it: “Jean was never the villain. I was.” It’s not a terrible place for the Fox X-Men series to end. But it doesn’t feel like the Dark Phoenix Saga. For that, we’ll always have comics.