Why the Best DARK PHOENIX Is Still the ’90s X-MEN Cartoon

Fans have rightfully considered “The Dark Phoenix Saga” one of X-Men comics’ best and most important stories. It took one of the founding members of the X-Men, Jean Grey, and corrupted her beyond anyone’s recognition. The nine issues that make up the saga—written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne—feature the slow downfall of Jean at the hands of villains trying to exploit the Phoenix Force within her. It’s a tragic and exciting story, and on that’s perfect for cinema.

Dark Phoenix, which opens this week, is the second big-screen adaptation of the material. Even if it’s incredibly faithful, it will never reach the heights of the comics, or of the ’90s animated series. Why? Because to properly adapt “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” you first need to have done “The Phoenix Saga.”

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“The Phoenix Saga” ran for eight issues in 1976-1977, written by Claremont with art by Dave Cockrum and Byrne. Claremont sent the original X-Men off, with the exception of Cyclops as team leader. However, less than a year after the reboot, Jean Grey, aka Marvel Girl, returned. During a mission to rescue a scientist on an international space station, she falls under the bombardment of the Phoenix Force, an ancient cosmic entity with unspeakable powers.

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Jean, for a long time, got short shrift in the X-books. She was the only woman on the team and was mostly just Scott Summers’ girlfriend, despite her telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Once the Phoenix Force took hold of her, Claremont solidified her status as the most powerful X-Man of them all. The rest of the issues send the X-Men into deep space where they meet the Shi’ar Empire. Professor X had corresponded mentally with Lilandra, the wayward princess of the empire. Her brother D’Ken stood poised to take over, using a mystical crystal to recreate the galaxy in his own image.

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The long and short of this insane space opera has Jean—imbued and fused with the Phoenix—saving the entire universe and defeating D’Ken. She gets to be the hero among heroes. And not only that, she remains the Phoenix for years thereafter. For the next 20 issues, Jean is Phoenix and Phoenix is Jean. Though not always acting to her full power, she’s no mere girlfriend. She and Storm are the team’s biggest assets, which is what makes the eventual “Dark Phoenix Saga” so sad.

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The ’90s X-Men TV series adapts both sagas in its third season. By that point, X-Men was a massive hit. The series could spend many episodes telling a story without fear of losing the audience. The series devotes five episodes to “The Phoenix Saga,” much of that spent in outer space meeting the Shi’ar and the space pirates known as the Starjammers. These remain some of the best episodes in the show’s run. Jean recovers from the trauma of Phoenix possession and saves the day in spectacular fashion, just as she’d done in the comics.

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It’s then another three episodes before the show’s version of “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” The series only devotes four episodes to it, as opposed to the comics’ 10 issues. They do their best to put as much of the comic in the show, but there are plenty of cuts.

The comics and the show introduce the Hellfire Club, a secret society of the world’s elite, and within that, the Inner Circle, a group of powerful and rich mutants who pretend it’s the 1700s. One of these is Jason Wyngarde, known as Mastermind, one of the X-Men’s earliest adversaries. The Hellfire Club try to kidnap new X-Men recruits (Dazzler and Shadowcat) before the X-Men can reach them. Along the way, Wyngarde—believing the Phoenix is the key to the Club’s ultimate victory—creates a fictional 18th Century romance between himself and Jean which confuses her mind and allows the Phoenix Force to take over.

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The Phoenix becomes addicted to the sensual delights of the flesh, including violence and murder. She pushes Jean’s personality deeper and deeper into the subconscious. Eventually, the X-Men defeat the Hellfire Club, but the Dark Phoenix is too powerful. She leaves Earth and ends up wiping out an entire planet with a sentient civilization. She must be stopped, and while the X-Men eventually do succeed in making the Phoenix dormant again, the Shi’ar arrive, demanding the Phoenix—and therefore Jean—face execution for her act of genocide. The X-Men are all aghast at learning of Jean’s crime. Despite a valiant effort to fight for her life, the X-Men can’t keep the Phoenix at bay, and Jean ultimately sacrifices herself for the good of the universe.

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This was a shocking end to a beloved character. Jean had been a staple of the X-Men for close to 20 years at that point. Her sacrifice is the final act of heroism the character deserved. The unbridled power of the Phoenix dissipates. At least for a bit. (Jean came back… a lot).

The TV series adapts the Hellfire Club and Shi’ar portions of the saga almost beat for beat, with one major exception. Since the animated series was meant for children, they had to soften the story a bit. First, they explicitly stated the planet Jean destroys had no population. Second, the X-Men offer some of their own life energy to bring regular Jean back to life after the Phoenix dies.

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Other than these changes, the saga is intact. But the only reason it works, the only reason the tragedy feels earned, is because of “The Phoenix Saga” and the subsequent adventures. We need to grow to love Jean Grey as the apex hero before we can feel the utter betrayal and defeat at her death. This is something the films just haven’t been able to do.

Jean’s initial exposure to the Phoenix Force occurs in X2, which nodded to the third film as an adaptation. But X-Men: The Last Stand starts with her returning, fully Dark Phoenix-ified. She kills Cyclops and later Professor X. She’s almost totally a villain through the whole movie. On top of that, there are other unrelated plots getting in the way. These ultimately make the end—where Wolverine has to kill Jean to save the world—feel hollow and meaningless.

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I had moderately high hopes for the Dark Phoenix movie. After all the time-rewriting shenanigans of the franchise, this was only the second film to feature Sophie Turner’s younger Jean Grey. Her debut, X-Men: Apocalypse, expected us to already care about her and Cyclops through prior knowledge of their future relationship. She does some decently cool stuff in that movie, but in Dark Phoenix, it bypasses literally everything good about Jean Grey again. Speeding right to the tragic end for the character and foregoing any of the supreme heroism.

The movies seem to think only the tragedy is worth exploring, without the earlier triumph needed to make the impact. To date, the only adaptation of “The Phoenix Saga” is in X-Men: The Animated Series, and without that, all other adaptations of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” miss the point.

Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. He hosts the weekly pop culture deep-dive podcast Laser Focus. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Instagram and Letterboxd.

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