Fox's next X-Men film is based on one of the franchise's most beloved story lines

By Christian Holub
April 24, 2017 at 06:56 PM EDT
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Credit: Marvel
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Following Fox’s announcement that the next X-Men movie will center on Dark Phoenix, now’s a good time to revisit one of the richest story lines in the comic’s history: The Dark Phoenix Saga. Here’s a look at the history of the character and what taking a page from the beloved story line could mean for the film franchise.

Who is (Dark) Phoenix?

When she first started out on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original team of X-Men, the telekinetic and telepathic Jean Grey went by the superhero code name “Marvel Girl.” Originally one of the weakest X-Men (a trait that would carry over into the ‘90s cartoon adaptation), Jean Grey received a massive power upgrade decades later during Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s seminal run on Uncanny X-Men. After pushing herself to the limit to save her teammates, Jean unlocked a massive power upgrade and rechristened herself “Phoenix.”

Unfortunately, her newfound power made her a target for the evil mutant organization known as the Hellfire Club, thus kickstarting The Dark Phoenix Saga. The Hellfire Club’s resident illusionist Mastermind used his abilities to brainwash Jean, creating a malicious alter ego who called herself Dark Phoenix. Though Dark Phoenix defeated Mastermind and the Hellfire Club, her massive powers and growing evil threatened the safety of the entire universe. Eventually, Jean was able to reassert control just long enough to kill herself in order to protect the universe.

Later X-Men mythology-building would reveal that Jean Grey had become a host for a cosmic power known as the Phoenix Force. The Phoenix Force later returned to Earth in the 2015 Marvel crossover Avengers vs. X-Men. With Jean Grey long dead, the Phoenix instead bonded with five other mutants: Cyclops, Emma Frost, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Colossus, and Magik. The five tried to use their Phoenix-enhanced powers for good, but eventually Cyclops went the way of his former love and was corrupted by Dark Phoenix. He was defeated by the efforts of other Marvel superheroes, but not before the Phoenix Force managed to reactivate a mutant population that had been decimated for years by Scarlet Witch’s magic.

Haven’t we seen this before?

As one of the most iconic story lines in X-Men history, The Dark Phoenix Saga has already been adapted several times, most notably in the 2006 film X-Men: The Last Stand. Director Bryan Singer had hinted at the Phoenix in the closing scene of X2: X-Men United, which featured Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) sacrificing herself to save her teammates in a scene much like the one in the comics that created the original Phoenix identity (the outline of a phoenix shape even appeared briefly on the water in the closing shot of the film). However, director Brett Ratner’s eventual adaptation of the story in The Last Stand was less-than-faithful to the original. Instead of a cosmic force, the Phoenix is a repressed schizophrenic alter ego of Jean Grey, and the emotional weight of the original story is subjugated by blockbuster action sequences and a separate story line about a mutant cure. This version of the story is not well-loved by either fans or producer Simon Kinberg, who told EW in 2016 that “I definitely would love to take another stab at the Dark Phoenix story.”

What does this mean for the movies?

Fox has announced that its next X-Men film will center on Dark Phoenix, but the seeds were already planted in last year’s X-Men: Apocalypse. During that film, Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey has difficulty controlling her powers. When she finally masters them in the climactic battle against Apocalypse, she is rewarded with the fiery bird-shaped aura that traditionally accompanies Phoenix Force users in the comics. While it’s unclear right now if this Jean Grey will survive her ordeal, and how much of Phoenix’s power will be attributed to her personally and how much to a cosmic alien force, it’s safe to assume the answers will be explosive.

Dark Phoenix is currently set to hit theaters Nov. 2, 2018.

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