WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Dark Phoenix, in theaters now.
Dark Phoenix is Fox's second take on the seminal comic book storyline, following 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. Neither was received well by critics or fans, leading us to wonder why filmmakers can't get "The Dark Phoenix Saga" right.
It all comes down to two crucial points that the movies keep missing.
JEAN GREY IS THE HEROINE
Within the pages of the original "Dark Phoenix Saga" (found in Uncanny X-Men, #129-138), there's no question that Jean Grey is the main character. The entire arc is told through her eyes, showcasing her thoughts and emotions. It seems obvious to point out that any adaptation of should, therefore, focus on Jean Grey, but the movies continually fail to understand that.
In The Last Stand, she takes a backseat in her own story just to give Wolverine more screen time. It's Logan the viewer is meant to empathize with, and it's through his eyes the story is shown. Director Brett Ratner's film is about how Jean's fall hurts Wolverine, thereby developing his character instead of hers.
Unfortunately, Dark Phoenix falls into the same narrative pitfalls as its predecessor, giving other characters the focus instead of Jean. The events of Dark Phoenix are a crutch to serve the storylines of Charles Xavier and Mystique. The movie concerns itself with showing the viewer how much the students mean to Charles, and how Jean’s dark turn is a poor reflection on him. The characters constantly question Xavier’s decision to hold back a young Jean Grey’s powers all those years ago, making Dark Phoenix a movie about Professor X’s redemption rather than Jean’s.
Compare this to the original 1980’s comic where the X-Men had been developing relationships with each other for over 100 issues. Even though the line up changed at times throughout this period, for over 100 issues, the X-Men were established as a team who saw each other as a family. The emotional crux of the story relies on how much Jean means to the X-Men and how much the X-Men mean to her. She's both the one who saves the day and the fallen hero who must redeem herself.
Additionally, Dark Phoenix makes Mystique's death the primary motivator for several of its heroes. First, Beast and Magneto seek vengeance for their fallen friend, and aim to kill Jean. Later, the two are motivated to save Jean because "it's what Mystique would have wanted." Mystique is the reason they want to save Jean, not because they care about her.
That's a direct contrast to what is seen within the panels of the original story. Here, even when her teammates find themselves questioning Jean, they are ultimately motivated by their love for, and faith in, her.
Scott Summers, her longtime boyfriend, realizes the depths of his love for her throughout the story, proposes to her and plans for their future.
THE DARK PHOENIX SAGA IS A LOVE STORY
Upon first glance, it's probably a bit odd to think of "The Dark Phoenix Saga" as a romantic tale -- but it is. It's about how much Jean Grey loves her teammates, and how much they love her in return. It's Jean's immense capacity to love and be loved that the Phoenix craves. It's no coincidence that the very issues in which Marvel Girl first contacts the Phoenix are called "Greater Love Hath No X-Man..."
In Classic X-Men #8, Jean places her life on the line to save the X-Men, piloting a ship past a solar flare as the radiation burns her alive. She calls out for help and the Phoenix Force answers. As a cosmic entity, the Phoenix has never experienced love, but is moved by Jean's dedication to save those close to her. To love is to be human, and no one does that better than Jean Grey.
Scott and Jean's love story, in particular, is integral to both "The Phoenix Saga" and "The Dark Phoenix Saga." It's Scott she imagines as she's holding on for dear life, willing herself to live in that space shuttle, and it's Scott who repeatedly is able to reach her. As the Dark Phoenix rages war on Earth, Scott stands before her and dares her to kill him, knowing full well that she can't. "You are love," he tells her as she snaps back into control.
The Last Stand misses that point entirely by having Jean kill Scott, something that she could never do in the source material. Both The Last Stand and Dark Phoenix fail by refusing to develop Jean's relationships with other characters and never showing how much they mean to her. We're told the X-Men love Jean, but we don't actually get to see it the few times she's given a spotlight in the films. Such is the problem with basing an entire arc around a character the movies elect not to use.
"The Dark Phoenix Saga" hinges on one seminal moment: Jean's sacrifice. In the comics, it's Jean herself who makes the choice to end her life, not the Phoenix. A poignant way of showing that was by putting Jean in her Marvel Girl costume, signifying that she would die as a human, not a god. In the end, it's Jean Grey who saves the day -- her humanity overpowering even the Dark Phoenix entity as she ends her life so that others may live.
The Last Stand robs Jean of her own heroic sacrifice -- and agency -- by having Logan kill her. It becomes about Logan's sacrifice, not hers, and he saves the day, not her. Dark Phoenix fails to showcase Jean's humanity in her final moments, opting instead to depict a CGI battle between two godlike creatures.
At the end of the day, "The Dark Phoenix Saga" is about a woman who is manipulated and used, but who ultimately becomes the hero of her own story. It's about sacrifice, love and, most importantly, it's about Jean Grey. Until the movies truly invest in her character and the strength of the relationships she's built, they can never do the original comics justice.
Directed and written by Simon Kinberg, Dark Phoenix stars James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters and Jessica Chastain.