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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.