The Dark Phoenix Saga And The Sexist Treatment Of Jean Grey: God Dammit, She Deserves Better

I’ve talked about how much I hate how the X-Men movies thus far have treated Jean Grey here and here, and I think a lot of that is rooted in the way the Phoenix has completely taken over Jean’s character, both in the comics and public knowledge.

Even though the actual Dark Phoenix saga was much less sexist and oh ho, ho, look at that crazy chick than people tend to remember it, the way the comics treated Jean after that was still gross. I don’t have a fundamental objection to an exploration of a movie about power corrupting, except it’s always the women. Throughout comics, heroic characters destroy a lot of things for a variety of reasons. But somehow, Jean is one of the only people that has ever had to pay a price for it. Everyone else? They’re forgiven incredibly easily, no matter what their crime. Jean’s death may have made The Dark Phoenix arc iconic, but it wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right.

Xavier has the power to use people as marionettes and has canonically manipulated and gaslighted people for years. He’s never “gone crazy from too much power”. Magneto has been having a Heel Face Revolving Door in both the comics and movies for decades and the list of people killed by him on the Marvel wiki is five pages long. He gets immediately forgiven and hasn’t had to spend decades trying to make up for it. Wolverine has been a raging hypocrite that kills people whenever he deems it necessary, both when he’s been mind controlled and not. He’s never gotten called out for it (He once went on a self righteous rant about none of the people he killed mattering in front of one of the people that he killed. That guy didn’t call him out, either.)

Jean has expressed huge amounts of remorse for what she’s done. At times, so has Magneto, even if he’s never had to pay an actual price for it. Xavier and Logan, not so much. Every comic she’s been in since then has had references to that time she lost control and time dedicated to her guilt and need to atone for “what she’s done”. Even her younger self freaked out about not wanting to become her.

Pretty much no character can stand on the same level as Jean and beat her in a straight fight, unless you count her various children and other hosts to the Phoenix. Especially not when she’s at full strength. But no X-Men movie has had the courage to give Jean the full use of her power and let her use it without going into the gross sexism of the oh, this woman has too much power for her own good and can’t handle it! For all my issues with Apocalypse, that at least came kind of close – though it’s negated by the movie that immediately follows being Dark Phoenix. What I’d love is a movie about Jean Grey, who’s worth a whole lot more than just her powers, that gets to be more than Wolverine’s out of control, telepathic lust object, where the story is about her. The manipulation by the Hellfire Club would be awesome, if she got to survive! If she got to be the hero. In my eyes, the best way to adapt the Dark Phoenix saga would be to make changes to both the original comic and to the way we remember it. I doubt that Dark Phoenix will make those changes.

The Dark Phoenix saga was a well written,  interesting story that wasn’t originally about Jean having more power than she could handle. I agree with that. But she also deserves to be able to live that down. Jean Grey was one of the original five X-Men. She’s existed as a character for longer than Wolverine, Storm, Gambit, Rogue, Kitty. Longer than countless other popular characters. But the Phoenix has dominated her narrative for years. Her whole pop culture identity is based on it. It’s the focus of adaptations. She’s had other stories, but writers act as if the Dark Phoenix is the only comic she was ever in, and like I pointed out here, they often remember it wrong.

One of the reasons I find X-Men Red so refreshing is that it’s not about the Phoenix, it’s about Jean. It’s taking a step back from all of that nonsense and going back to the basic principle of X-Men comics – human mutant coexistence. Jean deserves more respect. She deserves to stop being regarded as the person that’s constantly coming back from the dead, because that’s not even true, it takes her years. Other characters have come back way more times. X-Men Red is providing me with good material for her in the comics, so now I just need a movie focusing on her as she is and demonstrating how much value she has aside from being the host of the Phoenix, the chick Wolverine thinks is hot, and a way for Xavier to show off how great a teacher and parental figure he is. She’s existed for 55 years – it’s time.

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‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’ And Shying Away From Trying Something New

I didn’t want the Dark Phoenix movie to begin with. I talked before about some of the reasons I’m unenthused, and I’m still not pleased about it. Now another reason why has occurred to me, one that doesn’t have anything to do with what the story is – it’s just another example of how Fox is just regurgitating tired storylines that we’ve already seen because superhero movies make a lot of money and they’re putting that, putting safe blandness, above creativity and artistry without learning from their mistakes.

What Went Wrong The First Time

The Last Stand had some excellent action sequences and the occasionally funny or heartfelt moment, but it was overstuffed, it didn’t respect the characters, Logan ended up taking Scott’s place as both the team leader and the romantic lead of the Dark Phoenix story, and Jean wasn’t even the main character of what should have been her story. It wasn’t an accurate adaptation of the comics arc, either, which would have been fine, if it had at least captured the spirit of the story. It didn’t.

I talked a lot about some of the issues I had with the handling of Scott and Jean here, mainly focusing on their treatment in The Last Stand. I’ve heard it said a lot that the reason they killed off Scott with the first thirty minutes of said movie was that James Marsden was doing Superman Returns, but I’m not actually convinced that’s what it was. It probably wasn’t the exact opposite of that, but it might have been at least partially the other way. I’d be willing to bet that even if he had stayed, much of Scott’s role would have still gone to Logan, and he’d have been cast aside again, if not killed off anyway. This is just speculation, of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised if part of the reason Marsden wanted to do Superman Returns was that he knew he’d get more to do in that movie than he did/would as Cyclops. I wouldn’t blame him at all for that. It’s remarkable how much better Richard White – the character that does not exist in the comics, and as such, had no protection by canon, the character that was created to be the disposable fiancé – got treated than Scott Summers, the leader of the X-Men.

Magneto and Mystique

I have absolutely no idea why Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender are coming back for this movie. None. This is supposed to be a Dark Phoenix movie. They don’t have any place here, aside from taking up valuable time and space. X-Men should absolutely be an ensemble story, but these aren’t characters that need to be there.

With Magneto and Mystique, they’re doing the same thing they did with Wolverine – they’re taking the lead in stories that they absolutely shouldn’t be. Lawrence very clearly doesn’t want to even be there. While Fassbender is a fantastic actor, and Magneto is a great villain, he’s been overused and been relied upon way too much. It was almost a different thing in the original trilogy, with Ian McKellan’s portrayal, because while he did play an antagonistic role in every movie, it wasn’t the same thing recycled. That can’t be said about the alternate timeline. How often are we going to replay the same old thing where Charles tells Erik that there’s still good in him? If I see it again, I’ll scream.

I heard a rumour a while ago – possibly confirmed by now? – that Genosha will feature in this. And had it been in any other movie, I’d have been delighted. But it isn’t. It’s in the story that’s supposed to be centred on Jean. If any mutant sanctuary should feature in it, it should be Utopia – the  one founded by Scott where the Phoenix Five once resided. But no – it’s got to be Magneto, because what’s an X-Men movie without Wolverine if Magneto isn’t there?

This version of Mystique isn’t anything at all like the comics version. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as characters should adapt when placed into different situations and be looked at through different perspectives, but Fox clearly isn’t doing it for the story or to explore the character – they’re doing it because they like Lawrence, and it’s easier to place her in the focus when she’s not playing the villain. Apocalypse  should have been the introduction of the X-Men that we know and love, but instead, it focused on Mystique training and leading them – something she had absolutely no business doing.

This is Jean’s story. Or at least, it should be. They have a chance to do things right. I can’t even tell you what The Last Stand was really about, but it definitely wasn’t Jean. Even without the cure storyline, the movie was more about Logan and even Xavier than it was Jean. Jean was an afterthought in a movie partially based on the most famous Jean-centric comic arc. The Dark Phoenix arc is supposed to be about her and her relationship with the people important to her. It’s not about her “going crazy” or being unable to control her powers. It’s about her being manipulated and scared and sacrificing herself for the people she loves.

The X-Men movies need to let other characters shine. Jean is pretty much the most powerful character in all of Marvel. She’s compassionate, she’s intelligent, she’s capable, and she deserves a hell of a lot more than a story about her “going crazy”. Scott’s my single favourite Marvel character by a huge margin as I discussed in this post, he’s arguably the lead character in X-Men as a whole, and he’s gotten shunted to the side for the past 17 years. I’m sick of it, and I want him to finally get a chance to shine. The movies have mistreated both him and Jean in a myriad of ways, and I’m really not keen on going through that again with a storyline that’s already been badly handled and that treated them terribly.

Setup in Apocalypse

We got our introduction to the Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan versions of Scott and Jean in Apocalypse, but we didn’t see much of them at all – by the end, they were newfound friends. They didn’t have the basis for their most iconic story.

In order to do the Dark Phoenix arc justice, the movie needs to be tragic. It has to rip out hearts and make the audience cry. Apocalypse didn’t build enough on the Scott Jean relationship. That’s the only time we’ve seen this version of them, and it didn’t lay the groundwork enough to make me really feel for the characters, especially when they’re so far from their comics selves.

Jean was, at least, vaguely like comic Jean – pretty nice to other people, close to Xavier, and so on. Scott, though? Scott has to be someone that’s a genius tactician, a highly skilled fighter, and the clear leader every time he’s in any group, while also being someone that wants more than anything to do the right thing and protect people. He’s got to be totally responsible and reliable and trustworthy. He needs to be a wonderfully compassionate individual, while also being the most awkward dork in the world. He has to be able to deliver the line, “Jean, you are love!” completely sincerely. He’s not that person yet, and the choices made in Apocalypse mean that Dark Phoenix will have to balance character development that makes sense in the context of the series with development that makes the movie itself work. Just like in the original trilogy, here, the characters haven’t gotten enough development for this movie to feel earned.

It’s not a question of romance. I’m not saying Jean and Scott had to begin a romantic relationship in Apocalypse to make the Dark Phoenix arc meaningful, but they needed a more profound connection, a deeper friendship, or another movie with them before the Phoenix arc. They needed to be developed as individuals. The beauty of Jean and Scott to me is that when well written, they’re best friends first. I didn’t get that impression from Apocalypse at all. Is it possible to build a powerful relationship in one movie? Sure. We’d definitely be able to care about Jean’s death, about how Scott felt about it. But with how much is going to be stuffed into Dark Phoenix, I doubt it’ll be done as well as it should be.

Release Date

The movie was announced in June of 2017. It was originally slated to come out in November of this year, but was recently delayed to February 2019. The fact that it’s being delayed is a relief to me, not a disappointment, and that’s kind of a red flag. I take it as a good sign that they’re not trying to force it to meet a release date it won’t be ready for, and they’re giving themselves more time to finish the visual effects. But I feel like I should be, on some level, disappointed that I won’t get to see it sooner. I’m not.

It’s not a question of superhero fatigue, or X-Men fatigue, it’s a matter of being tired of this particular film franchise. The X-Men movies have been ostensibly in the same universe for nearly two decades. In those two decades there’s been cast changes, timeline changes, and a whole lot of continuity issues. It’s exhausting and makes very little sense (Oh, hey – it’s been running for so long, it’s started having the same issues as actual comics!). I think it’s time to start fresh.


X-Men (2000) was a genuinely bold move. It was responsible for reviving comic book movies. There’s an argument for Blade, but that had a limited audience. X-Men was much more accessible. It was a strange combination of handling a comic book movie completely seriously and being ashamed of the fact it was a comic book movie. I’m working  on another post about that issue now, because there’s a lot to be said about how the movie has aged, but one thing that I don’t think can be denied is that it was revolutionary at the time. It opened in a concentration camp. It involved characters with a wide range of different powers. It paved the way for superhero movies about characters beyond Batman and Superman. But since then, Fox stopped making bold choices, stopped experimenting and trying new things. They found that centring their story around Wolverine worked for people, so they continued doing that for years. It was a waste of a lot of great casting and interesting characters. They’re inching towards going back to the type of bold storytelling that made X-Men a success, but Dark Phoenix doesn’t look like it’ll be doing much of that.

It has a lot going for it – all the goodwill from the franchise, Hans freaking Zimmer composing the score, some very popular actors. But they’re also making the same mistakes they always do, and it’s getting frustrating: giving unnecessary focus to the same few characters, even when the movie is supposed to be about someone else; cramming too much into the story; not respecting the history of the characters; telling, rather than showing. I think I’ve finally reached my limit with this franchise. Sure, I’ll watch Dark Phoenix. But it won’t be opening night, and it might not even be in theatres.

The Tragedy Of Cyclops: Why Fox Is Trying To Take The Easy Way Out With Characterization

Scott Summers: boring, rule following, dedicated. Sure, sometimes that gets flanderized in fanon, and he isn’t canonically nearly as much the naïve goody two shoes to Wolverine’s experienced bad boy that so many people consider him – and certainly not the jerk other people portray him as – but it’s an important part of his character to start off as the responsible one who controls his temper, who works hard to protect humankind as well as mutantsbecause he believes that’s his responsibility.

Apocalypse Scott wasn’t any of that. He was kind of generic, and a jerk to everyone, including Jean before he saw her and realized she was pretty. Comics Scott was always a good character, but he became great once he decided, hey, I’m done with this. I’m going to keep believing what I’ve always believed, but I’m going to actually take steps to prevent my species from going extinct. That felt like the payoff from the years of worse and worse things happening to him while he kept doing what he was doing. Apocalypse Scott seemed to me like an attempt to get to Scott’s later characterization without putting in the work to develop the character to the point where it felt earned and heartbreaking. But that doesn’t work. You can’t skip ahead to the end. You can’t get to Cyclops-the-mutant-revolutionary by trying to make the teenage version of him a “rebellious bad boy”. Or, rather, you can…but it won’t be nearly as compelling a story.

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What makes Scott’s story so devastating, is that it’s slow. Sure, there are plenty of bad writers and what not, and many of them try to make it seem like he’s the villain of the piece and everything that’s ever happened is his fault, but his general character arc is going from a kid that thinks, yeah, if we show that we don’t mean any harm, they’ll eventually accept us to a grown adult that’s learned that that’s not true at all.

We first meet Scott as a kid that wants to do what’s right. He wants to be good and do good, in a world that’s never been great to him. He’s lost his family, spent time on the streets, been abused and manipulated by Mr. Sinister, but still, as an adult, he’s an awkward dork that deeply, fundamentally believes in Xavier’s dream of carving a future where mutants are accepted, of building a better world. And what does the existing world do? It beats the hell out of him. It hurts and kills the people he loves again and again.

He swore to protect a world that hates and fears him, because he believed in a world where all of Earth’s children, both mutant and baseline human, might live together in peace. But you know what happened instead?

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No matter how many times he saved the world, people were still afraid of them. The government tried to pass registration laws. They were experimented on, tortured, killed. Genosha died, and where were the Avengers when mutant babies were burning? Scarlet Witch depowered nearly all the world’s mutants, and when a bunch of depowered kids were packed onto a bus to go home where it was safer, it got blown up by Purifiers. Where were the Avengers at all the funerals? X-Men without the Avengers is still scary and heartbreaking, but that’s infinitely better than when they exist together. In a world with the Avengers, they might be the nightmares and horror stories told by mutant children, because the Avengers aren’t heroes to the mutants. They’re the bogeymen in the closet.

Now, I don’t buy into the idea that you have to show all the past to tell a story. I don’t think you necessarily need a Batman origin to tell a Batman story, or a Nightwing story, or a Batgirl story. But if you want to get to a point where Scott is a mutant revolutionary, you have to, because he’s not Magneto or Wolverine, he’s Cyclops. He’s not any of the angry or cynical characters, he’s the character that loses faith. He’s the character that questions why he keeps asking his oppressors nicely to stop killing mutants. He’s the character that ends up sick and tired of being pushed around, of watching his people be discriminated against. So what does he do? He becomes willing to do morally grey things because nothing else works. He turns around to stand his ground and draws a line in the sand: stop hunting us or we’ll give you a reason to be afraid. And it’s important to depict how he got to that point.

What Apocalypse did was strip him of all his backstory. No plane crash. No manipulation by Sinister. Grew up with his parents and brother, who’s older than him now. Not the first X-Man by a long shot – First Class took place two decades beforehand. No context for why he can’t control his powers, they’re just like that. He wasn’t even the leader of the X-Men, because someone decided Mystique had to lead and train them. You know what that is? That’s a Batman story without his parents getting murdered and with him deciding he needs to become Batman for an entirely different reason, if someone else started fighting crime in Gotham first, with an additional let’s have him learn to fight from the Riddler just for spite. At that point, it’s not Bruce, it’s just a character with his name, just like Apocalypse Scott isn’t really recognizable.

I’m not saying that a movie has to show all of everyone’s backstory. X-Men (2000) has aged surprisingly well, and I think one of the reasons why is that it wasn’t an origin story. We got to know Scott not by seeing his past, but by watching him in the present. How he interacted with his students, with Xavier, with Jean. He didn’t get nearly as much screentime as I would have liked, but he was depicted as a responsible adult that cared about his students and doing the right thing, with a lot of bad things happening to mutants. A scene even included Jean trying to explain to Congress that mutants mean no harm to anyone. The movie was a good set up for a future one that revolved around Scott –  obviously, we never got that, but it could have worked. What Apocalypse did doesn’t.

Scott's Utopia Speech

If, in a future movie based in this timeline with this cast, Scott founds Utopia, becomes one of the hosts of the Phoenix Force, forms X-Force, kills Xavier…it won’t have the same emotional impact as it did in the comics, because it won’t be the story of a good, honest man that’s always tried to do the right thing and help people forced, over the years, to become a brutally pragmatic chessmaster that manipulates friends, allies, and enemies alike to keep his people alive. It’ll be a guy that was pretty obnoxious stepping up to the plate and becoming a more responsible person that does what he has to do to protect mutants. That’s not a bad premise for a story. But it’s not Scott Summers.

The Jubilee Problem in ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’

It’s been a year and a half, and I’m kind of still bitter of the way Apocalypse handled  Jubilee. Not even because she was basically a glorified extra, but because of the sheer exploitativeness of it all. No one would have had any objections to Jubilee not being in Apocalypse. She was in the original trilogy, however briefly. She’s always been a part of the younger generation. She should be a contemporary of Kitty, not of Scott. She’s one of the older X-Men’s students and future teammate, not their peer. There is plenty of canonical basis for her not being around yet. No one would have expected her or been upset that she wasn’t included. But she was.

She was brought into Apocalypse, which also could have been fine if handled properly. But it wasn’t. They brought in Lana Condor, who was very excited about the role, and advertised the hell out of her to get other people excited, too. To an extent, that’s how the film industry works. But it also felt tasteless to exploit a group’s thirst for representation so blatantly. She didn’t have a big role. She was in the movie for a few minutes before being left behind, without even using her powers once. That didn’t stop the studio from promoting her as if  she were a main character.

There’s a whole page on TV Tropes dedicated to the concept of advertising a character that doesn’t end up appearing much. Most of the time, though, that happens because said character is played by a popular actor, or, in the case of comics/their adaptations, are themselves a popular character. In Apocalypse, it wasn’t either of those. Jubilee was Lana Condor’s first role, and while she’s a well known and reasonably well liked character, she’s not really one of the A-List. In fact, opinions of her tend to be highly polarized. She was essentially the attempt at creating a Kitty Pryde of the 90s, and Kitty Pryde is one of the most popular X-Men. So the advertising in the film? That was pretty clearly an attempt at capitalizing on the lack of and desire for Asian representation.

I personally can’t say I really care about Jubilee one way or the other. For a variety of reasons, she’s never really resonated with me. But she’s an Asian female character in a film universe dominated by white people. She’s a character a lot of people have grown up with. She’s a character that a lot of people were excited to see. The X-Men film franchise has a diversity problem despite being about diversity. The Gifted has handled said issue much more competently, and the contrast is painfully clear. Diversity is more than just black and white. We can’t keep having X-Men movies with an all white cast except for one token black character. It’s time to move past that and actually embrace the spirit of what the X-Men have represented for decades: diversity and civil rights.