Comics Features Film

Dark Phoenix: Or, the (De)Evolution of Jean Grey

Poor Jean Grey. In the comic, she was legendary: the godlike Dark Phoenix, a clash of rage and passion and hate against human love and warmth, a force of fire and life itself. Onscreen, though, Phoenix was reborn into movies that were exercises in wasted potential. First, her story was stuffed in the storm of character assassinations and the unwieldy mishmash of a plot known as X-Men: The Last Stand. A decade later, history repeated itself: the X-Men franchise quietly fluttered out of the public consciousness on the wings of the utterly generic X-Men: Dark Phoenix. The film is a lifeless two hours of characters spouting cliches like text-to-speech sock puppets, meaningless platitudes delivered in painful voiceovers, and stake-less, tensionless action. No wonder it crashed harder than the subway train Magneto shoves into a building halfway through the movie.

It seemed that somehow, despite originating in legendary source material, the Phoenix storyline was cursed to fail. In the fallout, Jean’s story became a cautionary tale of the perils of executive involvement in storytelling—the studio was responsible for the mutant cure subplot in The Last Stand, and sparked a flurry of script rewrites after cutting Dark Phoenix down from two films to one. But what’s lost in those debates is a fundamental fact that neither of the films grasped. the Dark Phoenix storyline is, at its core, the story of Jean: not crazy superpowers and special effects, not Magneto or mutant cures or Charles Xavier or aliens from outer space. Plots can be shifted and X-Men changed, writing polished and movies added, but fundamental misunderstandings about Jean and the Phoenix can’t be fixed. Ultimately, no amount of tweaking can save a story with a rotten core.

The Comic

During 9 shocking issues in 1980, Jean Grey transformed from a wholesome and morally upright X-Man into one of the greatest cosmic threats facing the universe. The Saga allowed a beloved character—and, notably for the time, a female character—to explore the violent, lustful, power-hungry corners of her psyche. It boldly embraced the concept of hero-as-villain, a potent exploration of the evil in even the most heroic heart.

The beginning of the Saga seems like X-Men business as usual: Jean, harboring the Phoenix within her, is manipulated by the villainous Hellfire Club. But Jean breaks free of their control, furiously destroying them—and then turns on the X-Men. Consumed by the Phoenix, she ruthlessly stomps her former teammates and then flies into space, triggering a supernova that violently murders a couple billion lives. The X-Men are torn between protecting their friend and enforcing justice for the atrocities she caused. It’s a difficult moral dilemma, and one that the comic rightfully offers no clear answers for.

The comic works because Jean’s evolution from a passive figure to villain is intense, harrowing, believable. The problem with many “dark” storylines is that the “dark” side is simply portrayed as an alter ego of the hero or an external force manipulating them, shielding them from the consequences of their actions, their image as an unambiguous Good untainted. The Saga, however, establishes that the Phoenix is a fundamental part of Jean’s identity rather than an external part of her; the two of them are, as Jean herself observes, “[a] symbiote…neither can exist without the other.” The Phoenix freed the repressed parts of her psyche, the self-serving, power-hungry, ruthless parts of her soul; confronting the Phoenix meant confronting the darkness within herself.  It’s this complexity which truly distinguishes “The Dark Phoenix Saga”: it’s not a possession story, but a character study.

Jean Grey propelled her story. She destroyed the concept of a world where heroes were pure-hearted and good and kind, where good beat evil and all was well at the end. She was complex: caring yet ruthless, vengeful yet empathetic, she shattered traditional expectations around the typical role of heroic female characters. She directed her own narrative and chose her own fate: at the end of the comic, she chooses to die rather than remain a liability to the universe. As the comic pithily observes, “Jean Grey could have become a god, but she chose to remain a human.” The dichotomy is the central conflict of her character, but it’s her choice that defines her legacy.

No wonder, then, that “The Dark Phoenix Saga” is a keystone comic in X-Men oeuvre—and no wonder the complexities of Jean’s character are so tricky to adapt. If the symbiotic relationship between Jean and the Phoenix isn’t stressed, Jean loses agency, becoming nothing more than a host for the Phoenix. If the focus is solely on Jean’s powers, she loses characterization. Superpowers are not character traits but, done right, they reflect, develop, even distort the personality of their users. An adaptation that only focuses on the Dark Phoenix’s powers as a special-effects driven plot device without considering characterization is bound to fail.

The Last Stand

Jean’s second reincarnation somehow managed to do all of those things wrong. It established Phoenix as a parasite, an unambiguous evil possessing “the real” Jean, leaving only a husk behind. It reduced the Phoenix to a weapon, a whirlwind of special effects that casually dissolved, smashed, and exploded everything in sight by vapidly standing around.

This incarnation of the Dark Phoenix—stripped of agency, ambiguity, and personality—is a far cry from the nuances of the comic one. Here, the Phoenix is a pawn, standing silently in a dramatic scarlet coat while the plot unfolds around her. While Magneto rouses his Brotherhood against the mutant cure, Phoenix stares blankly with the cliche black eyes that signify just how ~evil~ she is. When Professor X visits Jean to try to stop her she silently stands and obliterates him. She’s not defined by her choices, agency, or internal conflict. Instead, she is wordless, motiveless, inhuman—a blank, an empty vessel, stripped of emotion and utterly devoid of personality.

During the production of The Last Stand, Famke Janssen, the actress playing Jean Grey, asked writer Chris Claremont if he was “going to write me a really great Dark Phoenix.” Sorry, Famke—as the final product shows, superpowers are not character traits. If only The Last Stand had featured the loving yet conflicted Jean Grey that Janssen had played so perfectly, but pushed her towards villainy. If only the movie had actually challenged Jean’s love for Storm, Wolverine, and the rest of the X-Men instead of wasting time killing characters for dramatic effect, introducing unnecessary love triangles, and slinging around dopey syringe guns that didn’t even work.

If only The Last Stand had lived up to its potential. No wonder everyone was so eager to wipe it away and start anew.

Dark Phoenix

What is “darkness,” anyway? It’s the only compelling question the Dark Phoenix film manages to muster—mainly because it gets the concept so wrong. In the original comic, it’s Jean Grey herself—or rather, the unbarred part of her psyche the Phoenix awakes. In Dark Phoenix, though, it’s essentially synonymous to Jean losing control over her powers. And this is the fundamental mistake Dark Phoenix makes: “darkness” defined by lack of intentionality isn’t really darkness at all. The movie is centered around moments when Jean loses control; crucial moments such as Mystique’s death, supposedly evidence of Jean’s “darkness,” are unambiguously framed as accidents. 

The film refuses to commit to creating a dark Jean Grey. It’s telling that Jean isn’t even the ultimate villain of her story—or even a villain in the story. That distinction belongs to Vuk and her crew of unquestionably (and hilariously) evil aliens, destroying any semblance of the film’s moral complexity. Even Professor X claims that “Jean was never the villain. I was” for psychically repressing her childhood memories. The movie’s far too sympathetic to Jean’s good side to engage with any part of her that’s disturbing or immoral, that would make us question her good nature. The comic fully committed to Jean’s fall from grace (she committed genocide, after all!); the movie has Jean recommitting to Unambiguous Good after hearing some vague cliches about the power of family and inexplicably dominating the Phoenix with ~the power of love~. The comic forced Jean to make a final devastating choice between her humanity and her powers; the movie attempts to have it both ways, showing her flying through the sky as the Phoenix while monologuing platitudes about how she’s “evolved” (whatever on Earth that means) in its final frame. 

Without the boldness and complexity of the original, Jean’s arc is stunted and generic. Which is a shame— Dark Phoenix has tons of potential. It lays the groundwork for a compelling Phoenix, but barely engages with it. Jean could’ve been, at minimum, a compelling antihero. It’s tragic that she was flattened into a hollow facsimile of herself instead.

The Future

The onscreen story of the Phoenix so far is, sadly, the story of Jean Grey’s de-evolution. But there’s hope again—the X-Men are being rebooted in the competent hands of the MCU, and it’s hard to imagine they won’t attempt to adapt “The Dark Phoenix Saga” again.

For their attempt to succeed, the writers need to take the time to understand the complexities of her character. The studio, meanwhile, will need to commit enough runtime to setting up and developing her story (over multiple films or a TV series). If together they can create a legitimately dark Jean Grey that’s faithful to the comic—if they’ll commit to the darkness in the Saga’s title—they just might be able to break the curse that’s become attached to one of the X-Men’s most loved comic storylines.

What do you think about Jean Grey’s future in the MCU? What would you like to see in a new Dark Phoenix film? Let us know in the comments below or send us your thoughts on Twitter!

About the author

Julia Tong