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How Fox failed the X-Men

Fox never really cared about telling the story of how the X-Men and Jean Grey are a family.

Jessica Chastain and Sophie Turner in Dark Phoenix (2019).
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In Marvel’s comic books, there are few things more fearsome, more awe-inducing, or more powerful than the Phoenix. First introduced in 1976 (and Dark Phoenix in 1980) and often taking the shape of the fiery, mythical bird, the cosmic force is capable of obliterating planets, creating new life, resurrecting the dead, and saving the world, all in one fell swoop.

When it combines with the mutant and original member of X-Men Jean Grey, we see everything — both good and evil — that its immense power can do.

Of all the X-Men, Jean Grey was never the one with the flashiest or strongest powers. In combination with the Phoenix, however, she gained both in one cosmic flash. And with her newfound power, she managed to save the universe by restoring the M’Kraan crystal, but she also became an intergalactic threat, a planet killer who was feared by some of the most powerful beings in the universe, as well as her friends and family.

Grey’s omnipotence became her downfall, and a story of hope and power quickly became a tragedy. It changed the X-Men and superheroes forever.

But the awe, the emotional tale, and the immense power of the Phoenix have never been translated well onscreen, where two movie adaptations of the Phoenix Saga — 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and 2019’s Dark Phoenix — have both been flops that fans would rather forget.

The Last Stand was critically panned, and the X-Men franchise was rebooted in 2011. Dark Phoenix, the most recent entry in the rebooted franchise, hasn’t fared much better; released on June 7, it was met with poor reviews and a disappointing $33 million domestic box office opening.

Given the combination of fan disappointment, the low quality of the movie, and Disney/Marvel’s recent reacquisition of the film rights to the X-Men characters from Fox (in plain English, the X-Men can be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe now), Dark Phoenix is likely the last chapter of the rebooted X-Men franchise. At best, it’ll likely be years before Disney makes an all-new X-Men movie. But with the Phoenix failing to take flight, it’s time to think about the X-Men’s cinematic future, and what’s worked and hasn’t worked in trying to bring Marvel’s merry mutants to the big screen.

Jean Grey’s story has been done many times before

One of the main problems with Jean Grey’s story is that there have been many similar ones inspired by her arc in the original X-Men comic. In telling the story of Jean Grey and the Phoenix, writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne told a story about a female superhero who wasn’t just someone else’s love interest, but rather someone with agency and autonomy who first became powerful beyond imagination — and then became inebriated with power beyond imagination.

That story was radical in the ’80s but now has become common.

Just this year, Netflix’s Umbrella Academy, an adaptation of the Eisner Award-winning comic of the same name, ended its first season with the reveal that Vanya Hargreeves was a telekinetic powerhouse and the strongest of the show’s superpowered children characters. And after suffering psychological trauma that included finding out both her father and her boyfriend had lied to her and that her sister used her mind-warping power against her, Vanya also almost ended the world.

Then there was Game of ThronesDaenerys Targaryen. In the show’s final season, which ended in May, the dragon queen went mad and ordered her trusty dragon son Drogon to burn innocents and children during the siege of King’s Landing. She brought the city to its ashy demise because of her obsession with ringing in her vision of justice.

Neither Vanya’s story nor Daenerys’s was wholly original, as both touched on themes that were first explored by Jean Grey. And both were still better than how Jean Grey’s story was handled in Dark Phoenix.

The takeaway here is that in order to stand out, a story about the Phoenix and Jean Grey needs to do more than hit the beats that Claremont and Byrne created and tell a story that’s more complex and more nuanced than “powerful emotions corrupt a powerful woman” — a.k.a. the only story the Dark Phoenix movie told.

Jean Grey and her X-Men family have never been well-established onscreen

The X-Men are a chosen family. For one reason or another — being abandoned, being an orphan, being an outsider, being scared of hurting people — these mutants come to Professor Charles Xavier’s school and find a place where they belong. Each mutant has a story about why they’re there and what makes them stay.

And the common thread in lesser X-Men films (like The Last Stand, 2016’s Apocalypse, and now Dark Phoenix) is that they don’t really care about the personal lives of any X-Men who aren’t named Magneto, Professor X, Wolverine, or, as of 2011’s X-Men: First Class, Mystique.

The familial relationships between the X-Men are what make them tick. Each of the X-Men has a different relationship with Jean Grey: Storm is Jean’s best friend; Cyclops is the love of her life; Beast is a brother to her; Kitty Pryde functions as a younger sister. X-Men writers, artists, and fans alike are invested in the pushes and pulls, ebbs and flows of these relationships. This investment in Jean’s story is what makes Jean’s turn against her fellow X-Men, against her family — and then their turn against their sister — so pivotal in the comic books:

Jean becomes Dark Phoenix and turns on the X-Men.
Uncanny X-Men No. 135/Byrne

The Last Stand tried to give Jean autonomy and agency, but boiled down the rest of the X-Men into one-note characters who either were in love with Jean (Cyclops and Wolverine) or mad at Jean (everyone else).

In Dark Phoenix, Jean and her fellow X-Men again don’t really have personalities beyond reacting to the Phoenix (by expressing genuine alarm) and reacting to Jean not being able to control the Phoenix (by expressing more alarm). Storm exists to shoot lightning bolts; the same goes for Quicksilver and his super speed. Since they don’t have any moments with Jean beyond their space mission, there’s no reason to believe they feel any kind of emotion in going up against her.

Storm clocking Cyclops’s sadness.
Uncanny X-Men No. 135

Cyclops has the slightest suggestion of a relationship with Jean. He’s given a few moments to make out with Jean and then be sad in Dark Phoenix, but nothing that compels anyone to root for the pair or understand what kind of relationship they had, or to believe he knew anything about her other than that her first name is Jean.

In the comic books, thanks in part to the ability to tell multiple stories a month, these relationships are much more fleshed out, built on week after week, month after month, year after year.

Jean herself is underwritten in Dark Phoenix. She gets a small origin story, about how she unwittingly and accidentally killed her mother with her powers. But beyond that, Jean simply exists to tell us that she can’t control the cosmic Phoenix force. There’s no real sense of what kind of person she is or what parts of her personality make her prone to such carnal megalomania. Not knowing who Jean really is undercuts her transformation in Dark Phoenix because the movie misses an opportunity to make a statement about how all it took was a small push of power to turn a hero into a villain, or to urge viewers to feel the loss of someone genuinely good and heroic.

Instead, we’re left with neither and no tension or feeling.

The cinematic future of the X-Men shouldn’t have to revolve around the Phoenix

Despite only appearing in two of Fox’s X-Men movies, the Phoenix has always been a looming factor. Before the story was brought to the big screen in X-Men: The Last Stand, it was teased in 2003’s X2. And before Dark Phoenix, the Phoenix was teased in the final battle of X-Men: Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix’s predecessor.

Fox continually guiding the franchise toward the Phoenix Saga is, at this point, a lazy effort. The story is without a doubt the most iconic and recognizable X-Men story Marvel has ever created. And so it’s understandable that Fox would want to capitalize on that familiarity.

The problem is that Fox has never seemed very interested in telling stories about the X-Men, as a collective, that go beyond how they’re affected by the Phoenix. Movies about the greater whole of the X-Men have often reduced characters like Storm, Jean, Cyclops, or even Nightcrawler and Quicksilver to tertiary roles that are seemingly only included to show off their superpowers.

To be clear, Fox has excelled at telling the stories of one or two X-Men in movies like Logan (Wolverine), X-Men (Wolverine and Magneto), X2 (Wolverine), and First Class (Magneto, Charles Xavier, and, to a lesser extent, Mystique). But the running theme is that the best X-Men movies are often just about one to three main characters. It’s much more difficult to tell a story like the Phoenix Saga, because it involves establishing all of the X-Men instead of just a select few.

What’s more, the X-Men comics contain plenty of good to great X-Men stories outside of the Phoenix Saga that are ripe for adaptation, like the 1986 crossover event known as the Mutant Massacre, which saw the X-Men and their allies face off against their comic book enemies the Marauders.

Or 2005’s connected House of M and Decimation storylines, which saw Scarlet Witch eliminating the world’s mutant population by altering reality. Those events were eventually followed by the Second Coming crossover storyline in 2010, which involved a time-traveling hero bringing back and protecting the last mutant hope. All these storylines would feel fresher and more welcome onscreen than another stab at the Phoenix.

Or I would be more than happy with an X-Men movie where the X-Men just go on various missions as a team (which would make a fun television show too).

Perhaps with the flop of Dark Phoenix and with Marvel’s reacquisition of the movie rights to the X-Men, the apparent formula for making X-Men movies will shift the focus to the characters beyond the ones we’ve already seen in X-Men movies over and over again. I hope Marvel will give these characters more reason to exist beyond showcasing their superpowers. But given the current state of the X-Men franchise, anything would be an improvement.

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