Dark Phoenix is the second attempt in as many decades to adapt perhaps the most quintessential X-Men story to the big screen. Not that 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand was particularly faithful to The Dark Phoenix Saga itself.
The new movie skews a little closer to directly adapting the impossible-to-adapt story, but it’s not a one-for-one translation by any means. (It’s also not a great half-adaptation.)
But how close does it actually come? What is the Phoenix Force, in the comics? What’s up with the aliens? Are Mystique and Magneto really that involved? How does the whole story end? Here’s the big difference between movie and source material.
[Ed. note: This piece will contain spoilers for X-Men: Dark Phoenix.]
In the movie, the Phoenix Force is sought after by the D’Bari, an alien race whose home planet was destroyed by the cosmic entity. They seek to control Jean Grey — or simply to steal her power — so that they can use it to take the Earth for their own. Jean, meanwhile, is finding out that Professor Xavier altered her memories of a core trauma: being abandoned by her father, who grew too fearful of her telepathic powers after a car crashed killed Jean’s mother.
In the climax of the film, after a bunch of infighting, the X-Men resolve to save Jean from the Phoenix Force just as government forces and the D’Bari catch up with them, leading to an all out brawl on a train where nothing really happens, which leads to a fight with the D’Bari where nothing really happens, which leads to Jean nearly giving her powers to the evil D’Bari leader to kill her by overload. But then Jean changes her mind, because the transfer will kill her friends, and instead she sucks up all the Phoenix power, flies into space, and sacrifices her life to keep the Phoenix from ever taking over her body again and wrecking havoc.
That’s how things end in the movie: Everybody else lives happily ever after.
How does The Dark Phoenix Saga end in the comics?
The whole of The Dark Phoenix Saga — from the moment Jean Grey gained the power of the Phoenix Force in an imperiled space shuttle, to the moment she took her own life in order to save others from her power — was told over 37 issues, written by Chris Claremont John Byrne.
That’s a lot of story; four years of it, in fact, stretching from 1976 to 1980 in the pages of Uncanny X-Men. So, yes, the Phoenix’s powers first awoke in Jean while she was struggling to save the lives of the X-Men in a space shuttle. In the comics, they were plummeting through radiation; in the movie, the Phoenix Force itself threatened lives — but in both, Jean thought she was going to die for her friends, and accepted it.
But in the comics, after Jean miraculously survived thanks to the new cosmic powers she’s gained from merging with the Phoenix force, the X-Men just… went about their X-Men business for a while. In fact, the very first thing they did after narrowly surviving their space adventure was to go on vacation in Scotland, where they met a bunch of leprechauns living Banshee’s ancestral castle.
The X-Men fought the Juggernaut, and Magneto; they battled Proteus; they went to Canada. And sure, Jean had some phenomenal new powers and a new costume, but things were mostly status quo. Or as status quo as alien space adventures and earthly magnetism fights could get.
During one of those space adventures, Jean tasted the full power of the Phoenix force, and used the combined familial love of the X-Men to save the entire universe (no big). It was nearly overwhelming, and after that, she used her own psychic powers to lock off portions of the Phoenix’s might, protecting her mind from itself.
But the sinister forces of the X-Men’s perennial enemy, the scheming Hellfire Club, started unlocking those barriers with a bunch of mental meddling, when they sought to brainwash Jean into a being that they could control, their Black Queen — kind of like Jessica Chastain’s Vuk seeks to control Jean in Dark Phoenix. And as the X-Men walked away victorious from their encounter, the Dark Phoenix emerged — a version of the Phoenix that had divested itself from Jean’s human emotions and loving ties.
After scattering the X-Men, the Dark Phoenix soared to space, where, in its capricious hunger, it consumed a star, destroying an entire civilization of aliens known as the D’Bari (hence, the name of Vux’s species in Dark Phoenix). Jean wrested control of her actions and went back to earth to visit her family, only to lash out when she sensed they were afraid of her, reverting back to Phoenix.
The X-Men arrived, and a battle ensued, during which Jean was able to regain control of her body — which was the exact moment that the Shi’ar empire teleported them all up to space for a trial.
Specifically, trial by combat. On the moon
This is where the ending of The Dark Phoenix Saga really kicks off. The eruption of the D’Bari star attracted the attention of the ancient Shi’ar Empire, who are usually the X-Men’s allies. (Their empress, Lilandra, is an off-again-on-again flame of Professor X who was introduced just a few issues before Jean gained her Phoenix powers.)
The Shi’ar had encountered the Phoenix before, and they feared that if left uncontrolled, the cosmic entity would consume the universe — so they condemned Jean to death. But Professor X knew a thing or two about Shi’ar legal procedures (from all the time he and Lilandra spent necking, presumably) and invoked the ancient Shi’ar right of trial by combat.
And so, the X-Men pledged to an all-out fight for Jean’s life. Not on a train, as depicted in Dark Phoenix, but in the “Blue Area” of the moon, an ancient lunar alien ruin on the moon of the Marvel Comics Earth, against a team of Shi’ar, Kree, Skrulls, and more.
How Jean Grey dies
But in the end, neither side won. The tension of the fight woke the Phoenix again, and the X-Men turned to battle Jean instead of their foes, hoping to force Phoenix into submission so she could take control again. It is at this point that Jean decided to put an end to all the fighting herself — immobilizing Cyclops so that he won’t be able to stop her, even as she tearfully explained the conflict in her heart.
In fact, let’s just let Chris Claremont and John Byrne tell it:
On the final page of the issue, the Watcher concludes the tale, noting that the thing that makes humanity unique in the universe is its its capacity for triumph even in the face of death, saying “Jean Grey could have lived to become a god. But it was more important to her that she die… a human.”
The Dark Phoenix Saga ends with emotions — not explosions
The reason why The Dark Phoenix Saga is as one of the most impactful stories in X-Men canon isn’t because it has a twisty plot, a big reveal, or a fascinating villain. It’s because it’s about a group of deeply intertwined characters — a culmination of Claremont’s first five years on X-Men.
And the saga isn’t considered one of the great unfilmable genre stories because of its considerable length or its cosmic content. It’s because it’s a true saga of character emotion, the kind of tale that can only be told in a medium like comics, where you have years to establish relationships, factions, plot threads, and slow character evolutions.
Even in its final issues, the Saga takes generous moments to show how each X-Man reacts to their friend’s transformation, her final choices, and their choice to stand by her. Claremont turns the romance between Cyclops and Jean up to eleven, to enhance the stakes of her slide into madness and the tragedy of her sacrifice. And, sadly, it’s the lack of those very emotional ties, that very history of character interaction, that hamstrings Dark Phoenix so badly.