Hear Us Out

Hear Us Out: TV Is the Place to Tell the Dark Phoenix Saga Properly

Telling the story on the small screen would give the characters -- and the epic plot developments -- room to breathe and evolve.

by | June 12, 2019 | Comments

Dark Phoenix is finally out in theaters and, well, it isn’t the greatest X-Men movie ever released. It’s currently Rotten at 23% on the Tomatometer  — although audiences seemed to appreciate it more than the critics – and a strange epitaph to 20th Century Fox’s 20-year relationship with Marvel’s Merry Mutants.

But considering the film is Fox’s second attempt to adapt the landmark Dark Phoenix Saga, we can’t help but wonder if the story is just too big to be contained in one film. As with X-Men: The Last Stand, it feels like vital pieces were lost and, while the casts of X-Men films are always sprawling, this one was missing a number of key characters. Does the story require a trilogy of its own? The Marvel Cinematic Universe proves audiences will wait a long time for payoffs, but building these ideas and characters in a way that resonates like the comic book series may be asking too much of the X-Men movies. Perhaps television is the best place to tell this story — we previously got versions of it on two different X-Men animated series —  and considering the way HBO and streaming services have pushed TV into feature quality, here are five reasons why Dark Phoenix is better suited for that format.


It Can Build To Proper Payoffs And Endings

Dark Phoenix trailer (@ Twentieth Century Fox)
(Photo by @ Twentieth Century Fox)

Despite marketing the film as the end of the series, Dark Phoenix can’t help but feel like connective tissue to another chapter. Of course, the same could be said for just about any X-Men project. It’s baked into the concept, thanks to writer Chris Claremont, who made ­Uncanny X-Men the most important Marvel title in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Planning to stay on the book for a very long time, he seeded ideas he wouldn’t pay off for years. One could call it soap opera plotting, as he provided enough hooks and payoffs to keep readers engaged while telling the ongoing tales of the X-Men as a whole.

But in the case of the overall Phoenix Saga – a story comprising Jean Grey’s death, resurrection, and transformation into the Dark Phoenix – Claremont had an ending in mind. It was ultimately changed for reasons we will discuss later, but in its finished form, it offered a clear endpoint for a story told across nearly four years of comics.

Tentpole filmmaking used to be comfortable with definitive endings. The first Matrix, for example, ends at a place that would have served as a satisfying conclusion had the film proven to be unsuccessful at the box office. And though we were promised a Star Wars Sequel Trilogy since 1980, Return of the Jedi is certainly an ending to the story begun in 1976. Nowadays, big movies more closely resemble the Claremont style than ever before, with endings teasing a subsequent hook for another story.

In the case of Dark Phoenix, a prestige series would have the time to properly seed ideas like Xavier’s apparent mistake with Jean, the X-Men as celebrities — a concept criminally underutilized in the film — and one key idea not in the movie we’ll discuss in a moment. With room to breathe, these concepts would have greater weight and emotional resonance than a single two-hour film affords them. And as Claremont proved in the comics, the pace is essential.


The Characters Can Be Characters

Sophie Turner in Dark Phoenix (© Marvel / © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)
(Photo by © Marvel / © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Despite Jean Grey appearing in films since 2000, what do we know about her? She was Xavier’s star pupil, she has extraordinary telekinetic abilities (with telepathy added at some point), and she has the hots for Wolverine despite dating Cyclops. It’s thin characterization when an entire movie rests on her shoulders. And while Sophie Turner does a lot with that rough sketch, it’s no accident Dark Phoenix re-frames her story in the context of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) apparently making a mistake. He is, after all, the character all the films have invested in since X-Men: First Class. That’s not a bad thing, as someone has to anchor these films besides Wolverine. But once you come back to the Dark Phoenix Saga, you need more of an emotional investment in Jean (and Cyclops, for that matter) than X-Men: Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix afforded her (or Scott).

A prestige X-Men series focusing on the Dark Phoenix Saga can actually frame the story around Jean and who she is besides Xavier’s greatest student and Cyclops’ girlfriend. Her struggle with the Phoenix Force would mean something, as viewers would know what would be lost if she let the Phoenix have complete control. In the film, these ideas are there, but rushed or inferred for the most part.

And since we’re talking characters, a series also means we get to know Cyclops – a character the films have always shortchanged because he’s not as romantic as Wolverine – Storm, and Nightcrawler beyond their powers. As a result, deaths would also carry more weight, because the characters would genuinely matter to viewers.


The Hellfire Club Could Be Utilized

Murray Close/20th Century Fox
Kevin Bacon and January Jones as Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost in X-Men: First Class (2011) (Photo by Murray Close/20th Century Fox)

One set of characters criminally absent from both cinematic versions of the Dark Phoenix story is the Hellfire Club. Created by Claremont and artist John Byrne – though apparently inspired by a 1966 episode of the British spy series The Avengers – they debuted as a social club whose inner circle was made of mutants attempting to control the course of world events. Characters like Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost (played by Kevin Bacon and January Jones, respectively, in First Class) first appeared as members of the inner circle, who try to take control of a Phoenix-addled Jean Grey.

Jean’s flirtation with domination and control is a key element of the story and something definitely missing from Dark Phoenix. Jessica Chastain’s Vuk tries to fill the role of the Hellfire Club, but the change lacks the power it should have because Vuk is more of a cipher than an actual character. Consider the satisfying biblical allusions when Jean is presented with classic, decadent temptations in the Hellfire Club. And while we’re at it, Emma Frost could offer Cyclops a temptation of his own, considering their eventual relationship during one of Jean’s many dormant periods in the comics.

Incorporating the Hellfire Club also offers the story a true, seductive evil compared to the poorly realized, grubby D’Bari of Dark Phoenix. It would also give Jean, as a character, the moment to revel in her power that she never really gets in the film, and that key pivot in Jean and the Phoenix’s time together is crucial to setting up the story’s conclusion.


Mutants In Space!

Dark Phoenix (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. / ©Marvel / Everett Collection)
(Photo by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. / ©Marvel / Everett Collection)

Because Marvel Comics featured alien species from nearly the beginning of its superhero universe, the Phoenix Force’s origin as an alien entity needed very little scaffolding. And when she left Earth following her time with the Hellfire Club, her feasting on the D’Bari star also needed little set-up; the alien race was established years earlier in an issue of The Avengers. But because neither of the Fox film cycles set up aliens, the culmination of the Dark Phoenix storyline could not be used.

In the comics, the Dark Phoenix returns to Earth after destroying the D’Bari home world, and a council made up of the Kree, the Skrulls, and the Shi’ar Empire determine the Phoenix is too dangerous. The Shi’ar arrive on Earth and pronounce a death sentence on Jean, but Xavier convinces the Shi’ar Empress to allow the X-Men to duel her Imperial Guard in an attempt to save Jean, whom Xavier has de-powered back to her original abilities. When Jean and Cyclops prove to be the last X-Men standing, she uses a Kree device to disintegrate her body and, seemingly, disperse the Phoenix Force.

It’s a big ending. But without the time to establish the Shi’ar, both Dark Phoenix and The Last Stand eschew that development in favor of smaller ideas. A television show, on the other hand, would have that time. In fact, the scenario becomes more intense if the X-Men are confronted with the reality of what Jean could do as the Phoenix and try to find an ethical outcome with the Shi’ar. It’s a moral dilemma completely absent from Dark Phoenix, as the D’Bari survivors led by Vuk never seem too broken up about the billions of dead brethren they left behind on the smoldering wreck of their world.

Dark Phoenix (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. / ©Marvel / Everett Collection)
(Photo by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. / ©Marvel / Everett Collection)

And, really, that moral dilemma is part of what makes the Dark Phoenix Saga so compelling. Its ending was changed when Marvel’s then Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter learned Jean and the Phoenix would face no real punishment for the D’Bari genocide. The Phoenix Force – meant to be a recurring X-Men villain in the story’s aftermath – was shelved for a time, and Jean was barred from returning until a writer could give Shooter a satisfactory way to absolve her of the crime. It eventually happened, as no one stays dead in the comics, but the implications gave the story a lasting importance across decades of subsequent X-Men comic book storylines.

This is the weight Dark Phoenix should have. But without the careful planning of a Marvel Cinematic Universe or the build-up of a television series, the impact will always be lost. At this point, we would favor a television show, as it could give these ideas the chance to grow and give us a live-action X-Men team we genuinely care about as they face their greatest ethical conflict. Until that happens, if it ever should, we still have the comics, which offer the story in its grandest scale.


Dark Phoenix is in theaters now.


Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

Tag Cloud

crossover medical drama Box Office PaleyFest quibi Comics on TV Holiday screenings Hallmark Christmas movies latino breaking bad cars Ovation Heroines ABC Family SDCC festivals El Rey First Reviews kids game of thrones Drama SXSW TCA Winter 2020 robots Mystery Winter TV FXX DC Universe Women's History Month travel mutant Reality Competition movies cooking theme song politics LGBTQ strong female leads Song of Ice and Fire Captain marvel war sequel sports The Witch doctor who HBO Max Cartoon Network ABC BBC America nature Election 71st Emmy Awards Disney Plus Vudu Spike Arrowverse Pop reboot Comic Book YouTube Premium true crime Sundance Disney+ Disney Plus Walt Disney Pictures CBS All Access canceled TV shows miniseries ITV 21st Century Fox Peacock Brie Larson tv talk Rom-Com Chilling Adventures of Sabrina series cops 45 hist Cosplay USA Network game show binge rotten movies we love BBC Pixar Awards Starz television Sony Pictures Ellie Kemper dc Classic Film Sneak Peek E3 comiccon Lifetime The Walking Dead Dark Horse Comics NYCC dragons cults Calendar diversity Marvel Watching Series Food Network boxoffice screen actors guild witnail singing competition teaser YA The Arrangement Apple TV Plus Paramount Comedy CMT Amazon Prime Video DirecTV what to watch LGBT stand-up comedy 20th Century Fox Paramount Network spain Netflix richard e. Grant OWN Pet Sematary TCM Fox News Oscars Marvel Studios Apple TV+ Anna Paquin Podcast Certified Fresh anthology RT History Sundance TV Mindy Kaling Creative Arts Emmys Super Bowl FOX Toys Music sitcom TCA 2017 name the review Shondaland dceu SundanceTV Premiere Dates Disney Schedule harry potter police drama Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt halloween revenge Tomatazos Marathons IFC Films Emmy Nominations facebook renewed TV shows transformers adventure Fall TV Spring TV indie Writers Guild of America PBS GLAAD 2017 Amazon GIFs Star Trek Crunchyroll HBO A&E sag awards free movies Martial Arts justice league Animation DC Comics ratings Biopics psychological thriller TIFF Lucasfilm docudrama Amazon Prime WGN award winner crime drama Superheroes 24 frames Epix Summer Interview comic Best and Worst Set visit 2015 Sundance Now Bravo Nominations Teen crime Disney Channel political drama Tubi Extras spinoff USA Masterpiece Rock First Look Avengers A24 YouTube Red Shudder See It Skip It thriller Superheroe Film Festival Disney streaming service Spectrum Originals supernatural OneApp BET Mudbound disaster Countdown Tumblr Binge Guide TV Reality Freeform San Diego Comic-Con streaming AMC Country anime Valentine's Day zero dark thirty Thanksgiving Christmas independent 2018 E! Film cancelled zombies talk show TruTV foreign mockumentary CBS The CW Trailer discovery psycho ESPN GoT 2016 Ghostbusters TCA Photos directors Fantasy science fiction Kids & Family Britbox slashers Acorn TV Stephen King Crackle Holidays vampires Apple Hallmark Turner MTV TV renewals Nat Geo Lionsgate social media jamie lee curtis Rocky Syfy Red Carpet The Purge Endgame composers cartoon green book Columbia Pictures Star Wars Trophy Talk APB space Video Games Infographic joker National Geographic Black Mirror Marvel Television YouTube period drama Horror Netflix Christmas movies serial killer Rocketman adaptation children's TV cats FX cancelled TV series Mary Tyler Moore blockbuster based on movie MCU batman Discovery Channel 007 Action DGA TBS Musicals 2020 dramedy NBC unscripted Comedy Central 2019 Pride Month casting American Society of Cinematographers Emmys Opinion christmas movies cancelled television romantic comedy spider-man TV Land Adult Swim romance elevated horror Cannes RT21 comics TLC canceled Grammys History Chernobyl finale versus crime thriller X-Men cinemax New York Comic Con Polls and Games spanish language Turner Classic Movies natural history werewolf Mary Poppins Returns Esquire Musical Quiz MSNBC historical drama Nickelodeon toy story Year in Review WarnerMedia Logo Academy Awards Lifetime Christmas movies hispanic Warner Bros. Pirates Elton John CW Seed animated Character Guide Universal Tarantino technology Sci-Fi spy thriller Trivia VH1 President zombie Winners Family cancelled TV shows golden globes Baby Yoda DC streaming service Television Academy TNT south america IFC blaxploitation video book Hulu ghosts VICE Western Showtime biography Awards Tour Mary poppins aliens CNN