In 1994, one of the most popular X-Men storylines ever was adapted to the screen for the first time, but not as a movie. Instead, an eight-episode storyline in X-Men: The Animated Series, brought the late ‘70s Dark Phoenix saga to an even wider audience. As a five-year-old watching X-Men cartoons in my pajamas, I ate the entire thing up, and rewatched those episodes hundreds of times on VHS tapes.
From there, my X-Men obsession only grew. I collected action figures, trading cards, and even a set of X-Men pillow cases. When the first X-Men movie came out I saw it in theaters, same with X2, and even the terrible third film, X-Men: The Last Stand. Then something happened: I stopped caring. For the next 10 years, I missed as many movies as I saw. I lost interest in the X-Men cinematic universe, and the X-Men in general, as Marvel’s lesser heroes made an epic comeback in a cinematic universe of their own.
25 years after X-Men: The Animated Series introduced me to Dark Phoenix, the same story is getting a big-budget live action movie devoted entirely to Jean Grey’s transformation into an evil, alien energy force. I should be excited, but instead, it barely registers, and I’m not alone.
Why is Dark Phoenix failing to inspire excitement just a week ahead of its release? It’s not because it looks bad (the trailers are thrilling) or because the movie lacks star power (the cast is as stacked as ever). Instead, it’s because these movies failed to do the hard work of character development that the comics and cartoon both accomplished.
The X-Men comics were around for over a decade before the Dark Phoenix saga began, and the Animated Series ran for two full seasons and 28 episodes before attempting to tackle the biggest X-Men story ever. In both cases, by the time Jean Grey was transformed by the Phoenix, fans knew her character enough to care. In the movies, we barely know Sophie Turner’s version of the hero (this is only her second film!).
In an essay for Nerdist, Kyle Anderson goes into much more detail on the finer points of the Dark Phoenix saga and its cartoon adaptation before arriving at a similar conclusion:
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.
Those “subsequent adventures” are another reason it’s hard to get excited for Dark Phoenix. In the cartoon and the comics, this story kicked off even more adventures for the X-Men, giving the characters time to reckon with Jean Grey’s transformation and all the damage she did (including wiping out an entire planet and its billions of inhabitants). But this new movie isn’t the beginning of another chapter, it’s a definitive end.
After purchasing 21st Century Fox — X-Men included — Disney’s made it clear that whatever comes next for the heroes will include a hard reboot and a brand new cast. That leaves Dark Phoenix to somehow tie up an entire cinematic universe while also telling a new story from start to finish. It would be impossible even under better circumstances.
On the plus side, maybe by avoiding any attempt to provide closure, Dark Phoenix can just thrive as a good X-Men movie. At this point, leaving fans on a high note would be impressive enough, and barring that, at least we have the X-Men’s arrival in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to look forward to.
Dark Phoenix hits theaters on June 7.