In all of the X-Men’s 50-plus year history, one story looms above all others with the same fiery, all-powerful conviction of its titular character: “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” Published in nine parts across “X-Men” #129 to #137 in 1980, the saga by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne served as the culmination of a years’ long storyline involving cosmic power and human tragedy. The word “epic” is tossed around a lot nowadays, used interchangeably with “awesome” or “cool”; when people describe “The Dark Phoenix Saga” as “epic,” they mean “epic.” This is a sprawling story that starts with the X-Men infiltrating a kinky high society club run by wealthy supervillains and ends with dozens of super-powered characters slugging it out in a duel to the death on the moon.
If you’re unfamiliar with the saga but have seen 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” feature film, you might be completely surprised to learn that the latter was loosely based on the former. That film, directed by Brett Ratner, tackled the “Dark Phoenix Saga” — sorta. It killed off Cyclops right away, placed Wolverine at the forefront, replaced the Hellfire Club and the Shi’ar Imperial Guard with a squad of average mutants and turned Dark Phoenix from an other-worldly being with near infinite power into an alternate personality of Jean Grey’s. There’s no last stand on the moon, no heartbreaking final goodbyes between Cyclops and Jean Grey, no throw down with the Hellfire Club — and while Kitty Pryde debuted in both the film and comic, Dazzler didn’t make it into the movie.
The reason X-Men fans are reliving all the ways “Last Stand” failed to live up to its source material is because a new X-Men movie seems to be in the works — and it looks like it will tackle the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” Numerous production websites have added entries for a film called “X-Men: Supernova” (working title: “Dark Phoenix”). While it has yet to be announced by Fox, the film has been hinted at by a number of key X-Men players over the past year. Longtime X-director Bryan Singer previously talked about the follow-up to 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse” taking the team to space and potentially adapting “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” Some fans might think this would be a retread, yet another example of Hollywood turning out the same ideas over and over again. I agree that yes, objectively this would be the second time Jean Grey would go all Phoenix-y on the big screen. Still, I think that this is a story that needs to be told — mainly because it’s still never been told on film.
For one thing, it’s not like “The Dark Phoenix Saga” has already been adapted, not really. The differences between the way the story unfolds in the comics and the way it plays out in “The Last Stand” are wildly different. There’s no mutant cure in “Dark Phoenix,” and no Magneto, Mystique or Juggernaut either. One of the main reasons the brains behind the X-movies have discussed doing “Dark Phoenix” again is because even they see that “Last Stand” left all but one of the major components of the classic storyline unadapted. The film even left the one component it did adapt, Jean Grey going totally evil, almost totally unrecognizable. The story told in the comic is of a mutant with formidable mental powers being gifted with all-consuming god-like abilities — and giving in to the temptation of those powers. The film changed Jean’s struggle with temptation, spurred on by the manipulations of Mastermind and the Hellfire Club, into a repressed, totally not cosmic personality.
Then there are the aspects that the film just totally ignored, which just so happens to be a chunk of the X-Men canon that all the films have totally sidestepped for the last 16 years: outer space. For a franchise built around the very grounded metaphor of the dangers of bigotry and prejudice, the X-Men went to space all the damn time. “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” arguably the greatest X-Men story ever told, doesn’t even really touch upon the mutants-as-metaphor angle that has served as the backbone for pretty much every X-Men film. Every X-Movie is a variation on the themes explored in the comic storylines “God Loves, Man Kills” and “Days of Future Past,” over and over and over again. The movie X-Men have yet to break up that thematic repetition the way they used to in the comics — with a jaunt to outer space.
This is why “Dark Phoenix” would really work on the big screen, and its why the X-Men film franchise needs to do the saga again with an eye looking to the stars. The Phoenix needs to be an otherworldly force beyond our comprehension, not just a psychological issue. If “Supernova” (or “Dark Phoenix” or “Jean Grey’s Very Bad Day” or whatever they call it) gets made, it’ll be the seventh X-Men team movie. The stakes need to be amped up, way up. Taking the team completely out of their comfort zone and placing them in the bewildering wilds of outer space will accomplish that.
One can understand why the team didn’t go to outer space when “Last Stand” was produced in the mid-’00s. While it was the third X-Men film, it still came early in the modern superhero movie era. The film was released two years ahead of “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight” in 2008, the two movies that proved superhero movies could veer off into fun and/or dark territory. The original “X-Men” trilogy of films had to walk a line as they (along with the “Spider-Man” and “Blade” franchises) helped pave the way for the last 10 years of superhero films. The movies couldn’t be too comic book-y and they all had to be grounded in a believable reality. Asking audiences to go along with leather-clad mutants seriously calling each other “Cyclops” and “Storm” was hard enough, but taking them to outer space to fight a purple-skinned dude with a mohawk named Gladiator? Nope, not ready for that!
All that has changed. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven that audiences are now more than used to comic book heroes and the tropes and trappings that come along with them. They now expect colorful costumes and equally colorful names, and they have journeyed to Norse realms, alien worlds and dark dimensions with the Marvel heroes. The X-Men movies themselves have evolved over the past ten years, feeling the effects of the MCU (the very franchise that the initial X-movies paved the way for). The last two installments, “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” have been unapologetically comic book-y. The characters tired on colorful costumes, some — like Psylocke’s — pulled directly from the comics. They fought purple robots and a big, blue mutant from Ancient Egypt. Not only are audiences eager to travel to weirder spaces with their superheroes, the X-Men are also ready to go there.
Considering the success Disney has had with “Star Wars” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Fox would be wise to recognize the cosmic corner of the Marvel property they own. The Shi’ar, the Imperial Guard, the Starjammers — these are characters that are just as out there as Rocket and Groot and just as swashbuckley as Poe Dameron. Fox needs to use them.
Fox also needs to recognize the fantastic new cast they’ve assembled for their franchise — and hand it over to them. Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult and Jennifer Lawrence’s contracts are expired? That’s fine. None of them have a significant role in “Dark Phoenix” anyway. James McAvoy’s done too? Well, he’s seemed the most game for more Xavier than any of them, but he could also sit out “Supernova.” The cast featured at the end of “X-Men: Apocalypse” is beyond worthy of headlining an X-Men movie. Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp) are all major players in “Dark Phoenix Saga” and present at the end of “X-Men: Apocalypse.” With his snarky, bad boy attitude, Evan Peters’ Quicksilver could fill the void left by Wolverine. Lana Condor’s Jubilee was underused in “Apocalypse,” and could easily come back for “Dark Phoenix.” The film, which would most likely be set years after “Apocalypse” in the ’90s, could use that in-between movies time jump to easily re-introduce Rogue or Colossus as the muscle of the new team. The kids of “X-Men: Apocalypse” brought a lot of life and energy to that film, particularly Turner’s haunted Jean Grey and Smit-McPhee’s reverent and delightful Nightcrawler. Most importantly, this would be an X-Men film that could potentially begin and end with a fully formed and active X-Men team — the first time that’s happened since 2003’s “X-Men United.”
The big selling point of the new cast, though, is that it doesn’t include Wolverine. Hugh Jackman’s last go round with the clawed X-Man is “Logan,” which hits theaters in March. After that, Jackman’s theoretically done, so a “Dark Phoenix” movie would be missing Logan’s gruff demeanor. That’s a bit of a shame, since “X-Men” #133 (which comes at the end of the saga’s first half) contains the moment that catapulted Wolverine into badass superstardom. With the rest of the X-Men captured by the Hellfire Club’s Inner Circle, a solo Wolverine carves his way through Hellfire Guards to rescue his teammates.
But truthfully, we kinda got that scene already in 2003’s “X2: X-Men United” when Wolverine slashed his way through all of Stryker’s soldiers in the X-Mansion. And when it comes to Wolverine, the X-Men films have had no problem making him the center of attention. Reverend Stryker went from a bigoted televangelist in the comics to the guy responsible for Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton. The “Days of Future Past” comic storyline featured Kitty Pryde in the time travel role, but Wolverine got it in the film. Jean Grey’s death in “Last Stand” played out to maximize Wolverine’s pain instead of her own; instead of Phoenix/Jean killing herself with a giant space laser as she did in “X-Men” #137, she had to beg Wolverine to do it for her. Wolverine went from being a team player in the comics to the lead character of movies based on stories (“God Loves, Man Kills,” “Days of Future Past” and “The Dark Phoenix Saga”) that were not his own. Wolverine can sit this one out.
Of course a “Dark Phoenix” film set in the aftermath of the films that preceded it would need to make some alterations, and that’s where screenwriter Simon Kinberg could experiment. The Hellfire Club was already prominently featured in “X-Men: First Class,” and the movie versions of Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost (two major “Dark Phoenix” characters) are both dead. The movie version of Mastermind, an integral part of the “Dark Phoenix” comic storyline, was kinda turned into Stryker’s mind-manipulating son in “X2.” If the movie producers consider the Hellfire Club’s box checked off, they could easily just focus on the areas that have never been captured by a camera before — like the Shi’ar Empire and the Imperial Guard. The film could even combine elements from the original “Phoenix Saga” (from 1976’s “X-Men” #101-108) and give us Mad Emperor D’Ken, deposed warrior queen Lilandra, the reality-defining M’Kraan Crystal, the Imperial Guard (including the aforementioned Gladiator, the battle robot Warstar, the whip-wielding Hussar, the feral Fang and more) and the Starjammers (a team of space pirates led by Cyclops’ father). You better believe there are more than enough space oddities to fill a two-hour X-Men movie! Put’em to work!
Over 16 years, six team films and three solo features, the X-Men films have gotten a lot of mileage out of the Earth-based aspects of its canon. We’ve seen the X-Men travel through time and fight humans, mutants and robots. We’ve also seen the X-Men break up and get back together again and again and again. We’ve not seen the X-Men go to outer space, fight aliens or actually function as a cohesive team (at least not in a very long time). A “Dark Phoenix” movie could change all of that, which is more than enough reason for the X-Men film franchise to adapt the storyline again…for the very first time.
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