'Dark Phoenix' didn't have emotional power of the comics -- nor could it

 

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Dark Phoenix includes younger characters with less weight than their comics counterparts, including (from left) Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp).

 

By Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

June 13, 2019 -- Box office numbers indicate that movie-goers have found Dark Phoenix a bit underwhelming. That comes as no surprise to longtime X-fans.

For one thing, Phoenix had three strikes against it, just from a movie perspective:

  1. The Dark Phoenix story has already been told (badly) in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006).
  2. No Wolverine. While the Canadian X-Man isn’t a big player in the Phoenix storyline, he is the most popular X-character.
  3. Dark Phoenix is the unplanned finale to a franchise. Avengers: Endgame was thought out years in advance, but “Dark Phoenix” had to tie up all the plotlines abruptly, by virtue of Twentieth Century Fox being sold to Disney.

From a comics perspective, the situation is even more difficult. Dark Phoenix tells a pretty good story, but it’s not the “Dark Phoenix Saga” of comic book fame – nor could it be.

The heart and soul of the “Dark Phoenix Saga” was what, at the time, was the heart and soul of the X-Men itself: The love story between Scott “Cyclops” Summers and Jean “Marvel Girl” Grey.

Scott – initially called “Slim,” if you can believe it – started having sad thought balloons about Jean pretty quickly after the team’s arrival in 1963. But given his deadly, uncontrollable optic blasts, he felt he had no right to voice his feelings.

Jean, for her part, was also having sad thought balloons about Scott, but didn’t voice her feelings because … well, she was a teenage girl in 1963, written by Stan Lee, a fortysomething square who was a teenager in the ‘30s. Good girls simply weren’t that forward!

Cover art by John Byrne. Copyright Marvel Comics.

As suggested by this scene from the climax of “Dark Phoenix Saga,” the heart of the story is Scott Summers and Jean Grey.

Eventually, though, the two managed to break through all the plot devices in order to be a couple – only for X-Men to be canceled in 1970. Talk about star-crossed romance! Fortunately, all those sad thought balloons weren’t wasted, because when the team was re-launched in 1975 with a mostly new (and really popular) cast, Scott and Jean were still together – and actually shown to be happy.

But then came a fateful mission in a space shuttle, where Jean stayed behind in order to save everyone, and was struck by a solar flare. Thanks to her efforts the other X-Men all survived, but obviously Jean couldn’t have …

… except she did. She popped out of the wreckage, which had landed in Jamaica Bay, in a brand new outfit and shouting gibberish: “Hear me, X-Men! No longer am I the woman you knew! I am fire! And life incarnate! Now and forever – I am Phoenix!”

Well, that was certainly odd! No one could explain how Jean survived, and she herself couldn’t explain (or even remember) those inexplicable pronouncements. Then came the power surges …

Jean kept getting stronger and stronger. Her telepathy and telekinesis grew so powerful they were virtually magic. She could even hold Scott’s optic blasts in check, so that he could take off his protective eyewear for the first time since adolescence. (This came in handy for smooching.)

Meanwhile , a villain named Mastermind – whose power was creating illusions – began romancing Jean as a handsome fellow named Jason Wyngarde. (Ironically, his real name.) Supported by Emma Frost’s psychic powers, Mastermind was able to project a reality in Jean’s mind where she was living the life of a perverse Victorian aristocrat who was the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club.

Eventually, though, Jean saw through the illusion, but the damage had been done. The Phoenix Force– a cosmic entity that had saved her life in the space shuttle and had been inhabiting her all the while – was free. Exhilarated, and hungry, Jean/Phoenix promptly flew off into space and ate a star. That wiped out five billion members of the D’Bari, a broccoli-headed race first seen in a 1964 issue of Avengers.

And while she was at it, she ate a starship from the Shi’Ar Empire, an alien race introduced a few years earlier in X-Men comics. The bird-like aliens had long known, and feared, the Phoenix Force. “Summon my ministers, Chamberlain,” quoth Empress Lilandra, Majestrix of the Shi’Ar. “The threat must be dealt with once and for all – no matter the cost.”

Jean/Phoenix returned to Earth, with more mayhem in mind. The X-Men tried to stop her/it, but it was only the mental power of Charles Xavier that managed to bind the creature in Jean’s mind “within an unbreakable network of psychic circuit breakers.”

But no sooner had they achieved victory than the Shi’Ar arrived and kidnapped them all. Lilandra and the X-Men were buddies, but “as Empress, my first responsibility is to my people. To ensure their safety – to ensure the safety of the entire universe – Phoenix must be destroyed!”

“Over our dead bodies,”  said the X-Men, or words to that effect. In time-honored adventure fiction tradition, Xavier whistled up an ancient Shi’Ar “duel of honor” rule that had to be respected. So a contest was arranged. The X-Men would battle for Jean’s life against the Imperial Guard, a group of super-powered aliens that, if you squinted just right, were recognizable as the Legion of Super-Heroes from DC Comics. The battle would take place in the Blue Area of the Moon, a former Kree outpost with breathable air, introduced long before in “Fantastic Four” comics.

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Dark Phoenix includes a heroic Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who is a villain in the comics and wasn’t even in the comics version of the story.

But even with the X-Men roster of the time (Scott, Jean, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Storm, Wolverine),  joined by Beast and Angel from the original team, the mutants were badly outnumbered. The battle filled an extra-sized issue, but one by one the X-Men fell. Eventually, it was just the aforementioned heart and soul – Jean and Scott – left. And when Scott was overpowered … well, Jean got emotional. And the Phoenix feeds on emotion.

Yep, the big bird got out again, and overcame the Imperial Guard. But it wasn’t going to stop there. It was going to destroy everything! That’s sort of the Phoenix’s gig: Blow everything up, rise from the ashes, and start over. No wonder the Shi’Ar were so scared of it.

But there was one fly in the Phoenix’s ointment: Jean. She was still in there, and her love for Scott and the team gave her the strength to stop the Phoenix, by essentially committing suicide. Her final line was a shouted “Scott!” He, of course, shouted “Jean!”

The story ended much as it began, with two lovers separated by fate.

The main reason it was such a powerful story, though, was that the comic book version of “Dark Phoenix” had built up over five years of comics, through multiple storylines. Taking into account the emotional weight of the central romantic relationship, “Dark Phoenix Saga” was really 27 years in the making! No two-hour movie could hope to shorthand all that emotional weight.

Also, the cast is entirely different. “We’re the last of the First Class” says Beast (Nicholas Hoult) to Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), which is wildly different from the comics, where the first class consisted of Angel, Beast, Cyclops, Iceman and Marvel Girl. (And Mystique is a villain.) Instead of Mastermind unleashing Jean/Phoenix, it’s Jessica Chastain as Vuk of the D’Bari (hey, a name-check), whose background is vague and whose emotional impact is nil.

And instead of eight familiar, valiant X-Men battling an interstellar empire to save the life of an adult Jean Grey, it’s a mish-mash of characters fighting for and against a teen Jean (Sophie Turner), including teenage versions of Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp), plus Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and some unidentified flunkies (one of whom seems to fight with his dreadlocks).

Dark Phoenix is loaded with talented actors, and tells a decent story. But it suffers in comparison with the comics,which themselves diluted the story by later resurrections and reveals. But the original “Dark Phoenix Saga” was a gut-punch to comics fans in 1980, and remains a testament to how powerful comics can be.

In other words, the book was better.

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Expert analysis, Captain!  Although I liked the film, but from my point of view the characters hadn't been built up enough so that we knew their personalities and how they felt about one another.  The worst is with Scott Summers, who seemed too much of a cipher in the films.  Anyone who has read at least most of the Silver & Bronze Age X-Men comics could see how they oh so gradually fell in love, how Scott had to struggle with the fear of his own powers and his sense of responsibility to the X-Men that nearly ended his relationship with Jean when she, and the other old X-Men, decided to leave, and how, when circumstances brought them back together, she willingly, even forcibly, risked her life to save her friends, while in the movie it was Xavier who essentially forced her to do so (which was not a good change, IMO).  I never saw the first cinematic attempt at the Dark Phoenix story -- I'd read enough bad reviews of it that I decided to forego that experience, so I can't say how much better or worse this version is, but clearly both times the filmmakers didn't quite get it right. 

Sometimes seems that's a big problem in many cinematic retakes of classic stories from comics that have been around for so long -- the rush to get to the epic stories without the adequate build-up that led to the emotional significance of the story.  Even with that Spidey gets trapped under mass of debris and struggles to free himself -- when Ditko did that story, Spidey had only been around about 4 years rather than nearly 6 decades, but Lee & Ditko had spent those previous 4 years building Spider-Man up from an awkward, socially inept, and even a touch callow high school adolescent into a more responsible young adult, now just starting college, still with many problems and prone to emotional outbursts, but overall much more mature.  As a superhero, he'd endured many ups and downs but had endured.  I think that all played into the significance for those who had been following Spidey's exploits through most of that past when reading those pages in which he struggled to lift that weight he was trapped under.  If Ditko & Lee had tried that sequence in, say, the first or even second issue of Amazing Spider-Man, I don't think it would have had the same emotional impact on readers as it did coming in issue #33 after so much development of his character and which was one of the things in 1965 that made the best Marvel comics stand out from their Distinguished Competition. Of course,it also helped that in the comics version, Peter was not just struggling to save his own wife, but also to get that McGuffin with which to save his beloved aunt's life as well.  And the weight wasn't just that rubble, but the memory of that callowness by which he allowed the burglar to escape and later murder his beloved uncle as well as the knowledge that his aunt's illness was due to the transplant she'd received of his own radioactive blood, his previous attempt to do good which had gone wrong.  Pete was attempting to move not just tons of debris but a mountain of emotional debris as well.  Moviemakers have now done their version of that famous scene twice and neither time did it quite capture the magic of the Ditko & Lee original because it was easy enough to come up with the physical debris but not so easy to re-create the emotional baggage weighing Peter down and which he strove to overcome.

When reading ASM #33 at the time it came out, it was very significant. In addition to Peter's overcoming his emotional issues, he had never been portrayed as this strong before. I suppose part of it was his having become stronger with age, but the emotional component was similar to the mother lifting the car to save her child.  

I"m probably not telling anyone anything new whan I note that no less than Peter David said that they didn't need to publishe any more Spidey comics after Amazing Spider-Man #33. That was, essentially, the day the Peter Parker became a man. But first we had to see him as a boy for 32 issues, to understand the power of that change.A single movie just can't do that.

OTOH, the MCU told a story over 20-odd movies of Tony Stark becoming a man. In some earlier movie, Stark noted that Fury didn't want him on the Avengers because he was too selfish. Captain America made a speech in the first Avengers movie about how Stark couldn't make the "big play," a sacrifice to help others. By the end of Endgame, Stark had learned to make that play. So it can be done, if you play the story out over multiple movies.

IIRC, Steve Ditko also thought that #33 was the logical end of the story.

Of course, with very popular comics characters very rarely is there an actual end to the story and the rare exceptions are where the creator of the character either owns him or has enough clout with the actual owner makes the decision to end the story of the character, as Neil Gaiman did with Morpheus in the Sandman and as Robert Crumb did with Fritz the Cat.  With characters like Superman, Batman and Spider-Man there might not be a lasting end to their stories for decades, if not centuries, to come. 

Still, Ditko's run on Spider-Man did come to a satisfying conclusion with ASM #33, with his remaining 5 issues as a sort of coda, not essential and not quite as good as what came before but still entertaining enough.  Then, of course, comes the Romita era with a new tone and significant shifts in the personalities of Peter and other key characters. The Romita era, IMO, isn't quite as compelling as the Ditko, but the personal drama was still present.  Also, unlike Ditko, Romita's run was interrupted several times and there's no real conclusion to it unless one counts the deaths of Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn -- drawn by Gil Kane but inked by Romita and to my understanding Romita was much involved in the plotting of the mag even when he wasn't directly involved in the art, along with Lee and, by this time, Gerry Conway.  Romita drew or inked a few more issues, but issue #122, as it seems to me in hindsight, marked the true conclusion to his era on the title.

I think really the only way that movies can mirror the power of comics is to do interconnected, continuing movies like the MCU, which gave us a long form character arc for Tony Stark for sure, and also smaller arcs for Bruce Banner, Steve Rogers, Peter Parker, the Guardians and maybe even Thanos. It appears those long-form character arcs are just beginning for Black Panther, Dr. Strange and Captain Marvel. It was brilliant of the MCU to realize that, and courageous to act on it. It was even more brilliant to do an "Endgame" and let the actors leave organically, leaving the audience with unique memories of a time and place that will never be replicated -- just like what we Silver Agers experienced, and what each new generation of comics fans experience.

Imagine if the X-Men movies had given us the Scott/Jean romance from the get-go, so that it meant something when they got to Dark Phoenix. But they didn't, and it fell flat.

Otherwise what's needful is to translate comics is TV, which has a similar story structure -- episodic, with no planned endpoint (usually). But it has to also have movie-size budgets, which is hard to do on TV. That's why it's so exciting to see Sandman go to Netflix. If anybody can do it right, it's them.

Yep, even in 3 big budget movies, seems it would be difficult to adequately show how Scott and Jean matured as characters from adolescents learning how to control their powers and apparently fearful of intimacy to more self-assured young adults and then having to deal with Jean's significant boost of powers and the unknown manipulations of Mastermind which sent her over the edge.  It would take at least 4 tv seasons of 10 or more episodes each to do any sort of justice to all that, which occurred throughout 100 or so issues of the X-Men (even subtracting the reprint issues).

And Gaiman's Sandman would also work better as a tv series than a "blockbuster" style movie.  Superhero/fantasy movies tend to rely so heavily on fight scenes, explosions, massive destruction, adrenaline rush excitement, which is not what the Sandman was about at all.  The typical modern movie audiences would likely be befuddled by the confrontation between Morpheus and Lucifer in which Morpheus is prepared for a big fight but finds Hell nearly empty and is invited to accompany Lucifer as he goes about locking the gates and ensuring all the damned souls have departed, and then handing the key to Morpheus and informing him, essentially, "it's all yours now.  I'm retired.  Have fun."  And, then Morpheus having to figure out what to do with that damned key.  Great story and I hope the tv series is able to do a version of it, but I have my doubts that it could be done well as even a two or three hour movie that would generate sufficient profits for another Sandman movie.  Same goes for all the other Sandman story arcs.  

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