Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's eighty-seventh installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This week, we're finishing up the X-Men: The Animated Series adaptation of The Phoenix Saga. Thanks to commenter Joshua Grey, who suggested I cover this five-part storyline. And, hey, if you have any suggestions, leave a comment or contact me on Twitter.
Written by Mark Edward Edens, the serial comes to a close by depicting mad emperor D'Ken's ascent to godhood. Much of the episode is inspired by Uncanny X-Men #108. Not only the comics' conclusion to the initial D'Ken/Phoenix arc, but also the Uncanny debut of legendary artist John Byrne.
The opening of the episode, "Child of Light," is interesting. Very little dialogue, no exposition. Just the X-Men (joined by the Starjammers and Imperial Guard) facing this impossible threat. It feels abrupt and dangerous, creating a sense this is something the team's never encountered before.
After returning from the first commercial break, a more traditional feeling returns. More dialogue, more banter between the characters. Still, the stakes are raised as Phoenix explains the M’Kraan Crystal will soon consume all existence. Both the comic and the cartoon take time to cut back to Earth, detailing how Marvel's heroes are dealing with the crisis.
In the comic, the Avengers and Fantastic Four are resigned to their fate.
In the cartoon, whichever heroes the producers could get permission to use help out against a growing tide of natural disasters. Sunfire, M’Jnari (the mutant teen from episode sixteen), War Machine, and Alpha Flight lend a hand. Spider-Man cameos were tricky to pull off, however. Only the wallcrawler's hand appears.
One divergence from the comic to cartoon is the use of D'Ken. In the original story, D'Ken's driven "almost catatonic" by the Crystal's power. Instead, the X-Men face two guardians of the M'Kraan Crystal. The diminutive (but powerful) Jahf...
...and the monstrous robot Modt.
(Their names are a play on Mutt and Jeff, the stars of the first true comic strip in the early 1900s. John Byrne has indicated he wrote them in the page margins as a joke. Claremont used them, not picking up on the reference, due to the order of names being reversed.)
The cartoon, however, ignores the figures. Continuing the theme of simplification and streamlining, the team faces D'Ken. The emperor revels in his apparent victory, until Phoenix expresses her full power.
Conventionally, this would mark the winding down of the plot. The formerly mild-mannered Jean Grey shows her true power, the villain is trapped inside his mystical crystal, and everyone returns home. And the producers seem to be selling this. It feels like a standard X-Men victory, right down to the team joining forces to take down the villain. (Although, in this case, it's a more esoteric kind of teamwork. The X-Men haven't joined their life energies together to help power a cosmic entity in the past.)
Interestingly, the animators actually include an image of the X-Men forming a representation of the Kabbalah Tree of Life. Claremont included this in the narrative captions of Uncanny #108, but it's not rendered by Byrne in the comic.
Yet, this isn't the ending. And if you're a reader of the comics, or simply a new fan brought in by the show, you don't see this coming. Phoenix declares that no one else can ever abuse the M’Kraan Crystal this way. To keep it out of mortal hands, the Crystal must go where it can't be found. She's speaking of the heart of the sun. And, the clear implication is that her human body won't survive this journey.
Fans of the comics know "The Dark Phoenix Saga" ends with Jean's death. But not the initial Phoenix arc! That's the one that has Jean expressing her fantastic powers, as the long-running subplot from the earliest Chris Claremont/Dave Cockrum days is finished. Jean returns home with the team, John Byrne joins as artist, and then a new subplot begins. (The corruption of Jean via the Hellfire Club's manipulations, of course.)
She's not supposed to die now. Jean makes the ultimate sacrifice on the moon, taking her own life after realizing the world will always be at danger now that Phoenix has been exposed to mankind's darker nature. And, c'mon, it's not like they can kill someone on the cartoon!
It's really the finest swerve the show ever pulled. The producers had to know the censors (and probably Marvel) wouldn't allow Jean to die. But to swap endings, to have her temporary "death" happen here, is very smart. Fans who thought they knew what to expect were proven quite wrong. And those unfamiliar with the comics experienced the shock of Jean's death, even as the comics' themes remained consistent. It's still a story of Jean, now a being beyond man or mutant, making the ultimate sacrifice.
And the closing moments don't shy away from selling this death. The X-Men's reaction all feel very real. Jean flies into "the light," wishing that only Cyclops could see it, a mournful Wolverine retrieves the photo of Cyclops and Jean he tore back in Season One, Beast gives a moving quote from Emily Dickinson, and then Cyclops snaps at Xavier, when his mentor attempts to comfort him. It's the most raw the show's been. A montage of human moments, as the series wraps up its first "cosmic" story arc.
THE WRAP -UP
Lilandra departs Xavier at the episode's end. In the comics, she sticks around as a supporting player for a few issues, as her place on the throne is now in doubt. Amusingly, the animated Xavier tells Lilandra that even though he loves her, he can't abandon his school for her. He does just that twice in the comics! (Under extenuating circumstances, admittedly.)
APPROVED BY BROADCAST STANDARDS & PRACTICES
Beast quotes Emily Dickinson, "Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell." Obviously, it isn’t used as a profanity, but it is likely the only time the word “hell” ever showed up on afternoon kids TV.
OVER THE KIDDIES' HEADS
Decades later, when writing New X-Men, Grant Morrison based his idea of the "White Phoenix Of The Crown" on Kabbalah. (Later appearing in the 2005 Endsong miniseries.) The genesis goes back to this story, although I've got to guess the kids watching had no idea what that tree was supposed to symbolize.
AND IT ALL STARTED WITH THE REAVERS...
What's impressive about the animated "Phoenix" adaptation is just how well it brings the original story, coming from a very different time and context, into the world of the show. Remember that Jean Grey was considered a sort of "backup X-Man." Budget limitations prevented too many characters from appearing in each episode, and Jean was selected as one of the less important figures, very likely to get dropped from any story. Now, not only is she the star of an arc, but it's also the longest and most ambitious tale yet for the cartoon.
In the context of the 1970s X-Men, Jean's only now emerging from "The Girl" role. Traditionally viewed as weak, a figure for the male heroes to have crushes on, or bravely protect in battle. The cartoon, drawing most of its inspiration from the 1990s comics, has Jean in more of a motherly role. She stands beside Xavier, usually not in battle, observing from a distance. She comforts Jubilee, advises Cyclops on how to handle Rogue's fragile mental state, or attempts to temper Wolverine's more violent urges. She's important, but quite...stable. From a kid's point of view, probably a bit boring.
Now, she's the most important person on the team. Whether as "The Girl" or "The Mom," having Jean evolve into Phoenix shocks the audience. And, again, no one could've seen that ending coming. "The Phoenix Saga" is one of the series' boldest achievements. Sadly, the network's order to kill the extended story arcs, and tendency to air later episodes out of order, prevent X-Men from truly topping this moment.
So that’s all for now. You can also check out my Kindle Worlds novels for free over at Smashwords. Also, I've begun a new review series on Chris Claremont's 2000 return to the X-Men on my blog!