So, they’re making a movie of the Dark Phoenix Saga. Again.
At least this time, they have enough respect for the source material to not make it a side plot. It’s the whole damn point of the movie. As it should be. Even so, it’s a lot to bite off in one film. As a huge fan of the character of Jean Grey, and this particular story, here is what you’d need, IMO, to do even the most stripped-down version of the Saga effectively.
1. Jean needs to acquire the Phoenix Force in an act of self-sacrifice. Based on the latest intel from Entertainment Weekly, it looks like we might get something in the ballpark of how it happened in the comics. The team is in a damaged space vehicle. There’s a huge solar flare. Jean’s the only person who can shield herself from the flare (for a while) but she goes into it fully expecting to die. This is super important. Jean doesn’t get cosmic powers because she wants them, or because like Beast she was experimenting with them for selfish reasons. She gets them because she was willing to die to save others, and thus earns her “resurrection” as the Phoenix.
2. Jean must be tempted towards a moral “fall.” Having absolute power is a corrupting influence. Having earned the power through sacrifice, Jean is tested to see if she remains worthy. Does this have to include an external influence, like Mastermind’s manipulation from the comics? No, but in film, having a bad guy screw with our hero is more visually interesting than having her wrestle internally with absolute power, so we’re probably getting it regardless.
But if we don’t also get at least some hint of Jean herself wrestling with following the rules when you’ve basically become a god, it’s not going to be a satisfying story.
3. Jean needs to really, truly go bad. Does she need to blow up the planet of the asparagus people? No – and it’s probably not happening, anyway. Does she need to disintegrate Scott? No – although that was the one satisfying thing about X3, because Cyclops is a dick.
But – it’s not the DARK PHOENIX SAGA if Jean doesn’t fall to the dark side, and become utterly corrupted by her power. They gotta have her do something that clearly demonstrates the unacceptable consequences of her “slipping off the moral wagon” again, EVER.
This is a point Batman v. Superman tried, and failed, to make: Limitless power demands absolute moral goodness. Having a bad day is not an option when you can wipe out a planet. If you can’t avoid them, the world is better off without you.
That’s the difference between Clark Kent and Jean Grey. Clark doesn’t have bad days, while Jean’s only human. Clark had a lifetime to grow into his power. Jean went from the power equivalent of a wrist rocket to a rocket launcher all at once. That’s why Clark was dead for six months, and Jean stayed dead for six years.
4. Jean needs to be willing to sacrifice herself to atone. Having found herself morally lacking, Jean must be willing to end her own life to prevent the possibility of misusing her power again. This was another of the many, many failings of X3. Having Wolverine kill Jean, while she’s sorta asking him to but also sorta trying to kill him, robs her of her redemptive moment.
Compare it to the comics: Jean doesn’t ask Scott to kill her, she immobilizes him so he can’t save her when she does it herself. Jean recognizes the most heroic use of her power is to lay it down. She dies a hero, because she doesn’t cling to her power or her life, because that’s what heroes do.
In my opinion, X3 didn’t botch the Dark Phoenix Saga because they left out Lilandra, the M’Kraan crystal, the Hellfire Club or Dazzler performing on frickin’ roller skates (although, damn, that last one would be nice). Or even because they made the Phoenix an extension of Jean’s power, as opposed to an outside force.
They botched it because, despite stating explicitly that the Phoenix was a part of Jean, they treat it like its some foreign, corrupting influence. You never see her wrestling with her own desire to abuse the power – you just see her fighting the power itself. It comes across more like mental illness or possession than a person struggling with the temptation of absolute power.
Instead of being a story of a naive hero who earns great power, is tempted, abuses it, then lays it down willingly to die a wiser hero, the story in X3 was about a hero who is unwillingly consumed by power, becomes a mindless vessel for destruction, and then kind of, sort of, maybe manages to return to consciousness just long enough to not kill the guy who has to exterminate her.
That last story sucks. Let’s not do that again, m’kay?
The thing is, despite its flaws, X-Men: Apocalypse is the perfect setup for this story. Because this movie Jean just fought a villain who gave himself over to absolute power. It’s a great mirroring device.
In Apocalypse, Jean overcame her fear of power to defeat a world-ending despot. In Dark Phoenix, she overcomes her desire for power to prevent herself from becoming one. It could work. But I’m not holding my breath.