'Dark Phoenix' and the Betrayal of Jean Grey

It's been a challenge to do the powerful X-Men character justice on the big screen.

It's important to remember that Jean Grey was created by two men — two of the most lauded, important and culturally impactful men in comics — Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, and maybe that's where the problem began. When Jean was first introduced by Lee and Kirby in their '60s X-Men series, she was, for all intents and purposes, the weakest member of the ragtag mutant team. Not only were her powers lesser than the men she was surrounded by, but she was also briefly involved in a questionable romantic entanglement with her mentor and teacher Charles Xavier, who fell in love with his student early on in the series.

Jean's characterization fell into the tropes of the Big Two comics of the era, yet, she was still beloved as one of the few female heroes of her time and would later go on to become the Marvel Universe's most powerful figure. In 1975, Dave Cockrum and Len Wein took on the monumental task of reimagining and rebooting Lee and Kirby's team in Giant Size X-Men No. 1, which would go on to a full series with Uncanny X-Men No. 94. It became what is arguably one of the most seminal and celebrated comics series in history and spanned an unbelievable 17 years under Claremont's keen eye. It would also introduce a new vision of Jean Grey — the host of an incredibly powerful intergalactic entity known as the Phoenix.

On June 7, 20th Century Fox will release its second attempt at telling this iconic story in Dark Phoenix. Its first try was X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), which didn't quite grasp what makes the parable of Jean so powerful. Will Dark Phoenix succumb to the same pitfalls? Audiences won't know until the film opens, but what the trailers hint at raise some potential concerns. It'd be a shame if the film is a villain transformation tale which leans heavily into the hysterical woman trope rather than exploring Jean or the entity which is possessing her. Part of the challenge comes from the fact that Dark Phoenix is the second part of an ongoing story, one which, in the comics, saw Jean come into contact with the Phoenix Force at the end of Uncanny X-Men No. 100, using the powers to save her team after a dangerous space battle. This sparked a new era of a more powerful Jean Grey, one that, at first, wasn't too far from what readers already knew of the character, though all of that would soon change. In the kind of complex story that can only be told in an ongoing comic book, Jean Grey grew from the fiery Phoenix into the molten Dark Phoenix, transforming over time in a way that surprised and captivated readers as Jean struggled to maintain her sense of self in the face of her ever-growing power.

It's often hard for a single movie to create a narrative which does justice to the characters involved. 20th Century Fox has had almost 20 years to foster a fandom and basis for Jean's story, and yet, as it moves closer to another adaptation of the Dark Phoenix storyline, it doesn't quite feel like it has done the groundwork to make viewers care about the massive transformation that's about to take place. This Jean (Sophie Turner) is still an enigma, a powerful young woman whose life appears to have been defined by the men around her, whether that's Charles (James McAvoy), Scott (Tye Sheridan), or Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac). Though this takes place a decade after 2016's X-Men: Apocalypse, viewers have seen very little of the younger members of this team. Yet, they're about to embark on an Earth-shattering journey which is meant to change them forever, though viewers know that they will likely never see this iteration of the X-Men again.

Both the Dark Phoenix and Last Stand films may suffer from the same problem. The Last Stand failed to give Jean Grey agency over her power, body and actions. The new Dark Phoenix trailer begins with Jean crying and asking "Why did you make me do that?" after seemingly killing someone — apparently Raven — following a loss of control over her abilities. It's an innate misunderstanding of Jean's struggle with the Phoenix Force, which, despite multiple retcons, could originally be read as a woman finally coming to terms with the massive power that she's capable of in the face of violent trauma, aggression and male control. However, Jean is once again shown here as an innocent child whose brutal whims and lack of command over her own self puts the people around her — predominantly men, of course — in grave danger.

Thus far, in the new era of Fox films that were kicked off with 2011's X-Men: First Class, we've seen Charles Xavier wipe a woman's mind, exploit teenagers by putting them in vast danger and we've seen Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) kill a lot of people. However, the trailer frames them as the true victims of Jean's transformation, both fearful and pained by her newfound power. The only person who seems vaguely interested in her well-being is good ol' Scott, but his reaction is barely profound, more like the bare minimum response to multiple "responsible" adults suggesting they kill his high school girlfriend.

It's unlikely that the X-Men movies will ever fully explore the complexity of Jean or her journey with the Phoenix. The stories that are told are still too reliant upon the fear of powerful women, and demonstrate a lack of nuance when it comes to characters who are anything other than solely good. There's a chance, of course, that this is all some giant cosmic fake out, that Fox has decided to send off the X-Men with a film that pays homage to Jean, her power and her journey. Perhaps Dark Phoenix is not cursed to repeat the mistakes of the past, as unlikely as it seems.

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