With X-Men: Days of Future Past in the theaters I’ve decided it time for a little hindsight. Most fans agree that X-Men: Last Stand is the weakest of the X-men films. The deaths of Xavier and Cyclops, the descent of Magneto into cartoonish villainy, and the sloppy muddling of the “Dark Phoenix Saga” and “The Cure” Storylines leave X3 as a disappointing installment that almost ended the series. The Dark Phoenix Saga was not done justice.
The Dark Phoenix Saga is one of the best comic book story arcs. It is iconic to the X-Men, but it’s hard to adapt without establishing a larger universe. It involves the Shi’ar, a vast an alien empire visiting Earth, the Hellfire Club a secret cabal on Earth manipulating the heroes to their own ends, and a cosmic esoteric force embodying life who possesses one of the main heroes. It is a story of power and corruption, the strength of the human will, and frailty of the human condition. But its not a great X-Men story.
Before I’m chased to the tower by a mob wielding torches and pitchforks, let me explain. When I say it isn’t a great X-men story, it’s because the X-men are about discrimination. The mutants are whatever minority you want them to represent. The Dark Phoenix Saga reaches deeper than the tolerance and acceptance themes to something a little simpler, something a little broader. How does good and evil play out within the human soul? It’s not a great X-Men story, but it’s an exceptional superhero story. It uses the Hellfire Club, the Shiar, the Phoenix Force, and the X-men themselves as bit players fighting for the soul of Jean Grey. Of the aforementioned fantastical elements, only the X-Men were established in the film. The Hellfire Club mostly worked in X-Men first class, but the Shiar, and the Cosmic Deity Firebird Space God wouldn’t have fit in that universe. That’s not to say that those ideas are unfilmable. You’d just need a larger sand box box to play in. The Marvel Cinematic Universe might be able to pull it off, but the X-Men Films were much more grounded, and narratively focused. So how do you make The epic “Dark Phoenix Saga” a decent adaptation in such a grounded Universe? The answer is simple really:
Jean Grey. The Dark Phoenix herself. In the Dark Phoenix story, she is the prime mover of all the drama. She is after all the titular character. In the comic and the cartoon adaptation when she’s bad, it is glorious. She howls in ecstasy as she destroys a star slaughtering billions. She laughs in terrifying glee as she devastates Mastermind with her powers. When the X-Men try to stop her she doesn’t just fight them she tortures them and loves every minute of it. Could you imagine this all portrayed by the same woman who played Xenia Onatop. She is a Dark Goddess reveling in the shear joy of evil. There are glimpses of this in Last Stand, like when she kills Xavier, and when she destroys Alkatraz Island. For the most part the Phoenix stands passively watching Wolverine and Magneto bicker. In the comic when Jean is good she is fighting as heroically as possible. She’s doing everything she can to cage the demon inside. The story ultimately end with her committing suicide, proactively choosing her own fate rather than being a pawn to those around her, or a victim of the monster within. In the film anytime the Jean persona emerges She’s lost, terrified and begging for help. A far cry from the superhero of the comics. When the time comes to stop the Phoenix, it’s Jean pleading for Wolverine to put an end to her. In contrast the the Dark Phoenix Saga has Jean choosing her own fate while her loved ones (Cyclops and Wolverine) beg her to stop.
Its a shame. Last Stand, shows us glimpses of the Dark Phoenix but ultimately the she is superfluous to the story. The Phoenix could have been removed from “the Cure” plot and nothing would have been missed. As of writing this I have yet to see X-Men: Days of Future Past. I don’t know if anything will be saved with time travel shenanigans, but a nerd can complain… can he?