This past weekend, reports were coming in from sources like Comic Book and others that Twentieth Century Fox already had their next film in the Bryan Singer-directed X-Men franchise lined up after this summer's upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse. If rumors are to be believed, it would be an adaptation of arguably the X-Men's greatest storyline ever -- The Dark Phoenix Saga. Or rather, it would be a re-adaptation of The Dark Phoenix Saga, as that story was the centerpiece of the third X-film, X-Men: The Last Stand.
Except, it also kind of wasn't. To say that director Brett Ratner and Fox botched that particular story the first time is an understatement. And it stung all the more, because to fans, the Dark Phoenix Saga isn't juat any X-Men story, it is THE X-Men story. It's the one you can't screw up...and yet, they did.
The Dark Phoenix Saga is the storyline that put the X-Men on the map commercially, over thirty-five years ago. Up until that point, the X-Men were kind of the red headed stepchild of the Marvel Comics heroes. The original X-Men comic had debuted alongside the other Stan Lee/Jack Kirby collaborations of the sixties, but never quite caught on like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four or the Avengers. In 1970, the X-Men comic was cancelled, although a few months later the series returned as a reprint title, with new covers repackaging old stories.
Finally in 1975, a new X-Men team was introduced, with some old standbys from the original roster, but featuring a mostly new cast of international mutants. The book was a cult hit with fans, but still wasn't selling anywhere near what Spider-Man or Hulk sold. Not until 1980, when the writer/artist duo of Chris Claremont and John Byrne unfolded The Dark Phoenix Saga over the course of the year. From that point on, The Uncanny X-Men shot up to the top the sales charts, where it stayed for decades. But the seeds of this story were planted years earlier, when Chris Claremont took original X-Man member Jean Grey, then called Marvel Girl, and amped her powers up by 1000% and made her the godlike Phoenix.
For those out there who have never read it (or seen the cartoon adaptations) in the Dark Phoenix Saga, the sinister organization called The Hellfire Club tries to seduce the powerful Jean Grey to their side, using psychic manipulations. Unfortunately, those psychic manipulations break down whatever inner conscience that Grey was using to hold her power in check, and the Dark Phoenix is unleashed. After fighting the X-Men, she sets off to space and consumes a whole star for sustenance--killing billions on a neighboring planet. Eventually, Professor X is able to get into Jean's mind and establish psychic barriers to prevent her dark side from taking over. But that's when the shit really hits the fan.
The alien Shia'r Empire then shows up, and wants retribution for the billions killed in the Dark Phoenix rampage, but Xavier uses his knowledge of Shia'r law to allow a trial by combat for the life of Jean Grey. The X-Men then face off -- on an artificial and breathable portion of the Moon called the Blue Area -- against the Shia'r Imperial Guard, for the life of their friend. But when Jean breaks down Xavier's mental barriers and goes dark again, she realizes she's a danger to the universe, and in a tearful moment, says goodbye to her love Cyclops and and take her own life, for the good of all reality.
It's huge, cosmic, heartbreaking storytelling...and X-Men: The Last Stand basically botched it all. Now, there is a toned down, less Star Warsy version of the Phoenix saga that could work on film, one without aliens and Hellfire Clubs and the like, but the important part of the story -- Jean's struggle with her own power, and her decision to take herself out of the equation for the sake of others -- are the lynchpins on which everything else rests. And Brett Ratner's film skipped all of that.
Instead, his Dark Phoenix is essentially a version of Stephen King's Carrie, a mute angry telekenetic who barely shows any struggle with her dark side. The movie's worst offense is when it takes away Jean's own agency, by having Wolverine kill her, instead of making that decision for herself. The movie even failed at giving us the Phoenix fire-bird effect, despite the fact that there is literally a scene where Famke Janssen as Jean is surrounded by flames and could have telekinetically shaped them into a giant bird behind her. And they didn't even give the fans that.
Judging by the end of X2, as well as other things director Bryan Singer has said over the years in regards to what might have been had he been able to conclude his X-Men trilogy himself, the Dark Phoenix Saga was always his end game. So if it's all true, and the Phoenix is indeed coming to movie theater screens again, here are five things to consider to make sure it's done right this time.
1. Make It A Two Part Film
The Dark Phoenix Saga is maybe too big a story to be contained into one film, and would work a lot better spread out over two movies instead of cramming it all into just one. With Bryan Singer tackling 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as his next project, the soonest another X-Men film directed by him could hit theaters would be 2019. I think a two-part Dark Phoenix Saga film, concluding in 2020 -- the twentieth anniversary of the original film -- would be a great way to end Singer's run on these films, and end this particular iteration of the X-Men mythos.
2. Ditch What Doesn't Work
An exact beat-for- beat adaptation of the comics is obviously not going to be in the cards, especially for the X-Men franchise, which has always played fast and loose with the source material anyway. But there are some things we don't need from the original comic.
First off, Jean's initial possession by the Phoenix force, which in the comics, happened while on a mission in space. I actually like the approach that the movies have taken, where the Phoenix, whatever it may be, has always been inside Jean, a true extension of her own powers. Maybe she's tapping into something cosmic, maybe not, but we don't need a possession scene in space, as per the comics.
Also, the entire Hellfire Club's manipulation of turning Jean to the dark side involved getting her caught up in a psychic fantasy world where she was an 19th century noblewoman called "Lady Grey." All of that should probably be dropped from the movie. The Hellfire club can mess with her mind is ways that don't result in her wearing black corsets and speaking in cheesy romance novel dialogue. Let's skip all that.
3. Show Jean's Inner Struggle
By far the biggest screw up that X-Men: The Last Stand made to the Phoenix story is that we never saw Jean's true struggle with the Phoenix inside her. She was just destructive and evil (and apparently really horny?), without any explanation given, or any visible struggles beyond a couple of very brief scenes. Jean trying to control her overwhelming power is the heart of what the Dark Phoenix Saga is all about.
Other things from the comic can come and go, but this part is crucial, otherwise it's not really the Dark Phoenix Saga at all. A perfect example of how to approach this is how actress Eva Green approachs her role as the frequently possessed Vanessa Ives in Showtime's Penny Dreadful.
4. Bring in Mr. Sinister
Arguably the last truly major X-Men villain who has yet to appear on film is Nathaniel Essex, better known as Mister Sinister. The centuries-old genetic manipulator is maybe behind only Magneto and Apocalypse in terms of the great X-villains. They ended up giving a lot of his traits to Sebastian Shaw in X-Men: First Class, so I'd suggest --given Shaw's fate at the end of that movie -- that Sinister be given the reigns of the modern day Hellfire Club in a Dark Phoenix Saga film. Sinister is a master manipulator, and the Hellfire Club is all about manipulation, so the pairing of the two makes sense.
5. Go Ultimate
The Ultimate X-Men comics from the early 2000's took a lot of the classic stories and streamlined them, and made them a little bit more "movie ready" in a lot of ways. A pefect example of this is their interpretation of the Dark Phoenix Saga, which tied in the Hellfire Club and the Shia'r (not aliens in this comic, but a cult with ties to ancient aliens) as offshoots of the same ancient religion which worships the Phoneix entity, but with vastly differing ideas of what the Phoenix's role in the universe is meant to be. If Bryan Singer doesn't want to go full Star Wars when dealing with the Shia'r, then this is one way to go.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has take a lot of cues from the Ultimate line of comics over the years, while keeping some classic Marvel Universe elements as well. The X-Men movies have done this before too - Bryan Singer's X2 was combination of the classic Chris Claremont graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills and the second story arc of Mark Millar's Ultimate X-Men. If they choose to mix elements from both versions of the story, that might be the best course to take.
So what do you out there think? Should the Dark Phoenix Saga get a massive cinematic do-over? Sound off in the comments below.
And gets excited for X-Men: Apocalypse with our look at the latest trailer!
Images: Twentieth Century Fox/Marvel Comics