There have been few endings to superhero movies that have left me as anxious and eager to see more than the final moments of X-2: X-Men United. Throughout the movie Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) had been hinting at feeling as if she were on the verge of losing control of her powers, like there was something terrible lurking just around the corner. The end of the film sees her then finally cutting loose with all the potential she has always had as she manages to hold back a massive wave of water while at the same time lifting the X-Men’s jet to safety. As she does so flames begin to roil around her. Finally, after everything else, the camera pans over the newly-formed lake and we see a bird-like creature of fire under the water.
It was the perfect setup for the Phoenix Saga, one of the most famous and well-received comics storylines of all time. Written by Chris Claremont, it has Jean Grey briefly becoming Phoenix, an incredibly powerful psychic that in actuality is the manifestation of a cosmic force. Drama and betrayal follow, culminating in Grey’s death, the first of many times she would die in the comics.
The story had already been loosely adapted in the 90s “X-Men” animated show, but seeing the incarnation of the Phoenix Force in a theatrical feature was next level, the capstone on one of the best superhero movies up to that point and a continued excellent feature, regardless of what’s come out about director Bryan Singer in subsequent years.
Most all of that potential was squandered in X-Men: The Last Stand, directed by the equally sleazy Brett Ratner and featuring versions of the characters that were all but unrecognizable from what we’d seen in the first two movies. Cyclops is killed off-screen, Wolverine suffers from Hugh Jackman turning in one of the all-time great “I don’t even care” performances, Xavier is killed by a psychic tornado and poor Jean Grey. Instead of being an all-powerful force she just kind of stands around in a red duster for much of the movie.
Instead of doing…well…anything of interest with the Phoenix concept and character, she’s turned into the world’s most powerful observer. The movie is instead a loose adaptation of the “Cured” storyline from Joss Whedon’s first arc writing Astonishing X-Men, though done without one-tenth of the nuance, character and art. Even in the final battle, Jean just stands on the sidelines, looking at everything that’s happening without doing much of anything until she asks Wolverine to kill her in a moment of lucidity.
There’s so much more that could have been done. Not that the movie needed to follow Claremont’s story exactly, but it might have at least used it as an outline. Jean could have had some sort of arc that didn’t make her seem like a woman who just lost her mind. Her resurrection could have been at least somewhat explored before it was dismissed and relegated to the status of a subplot.
Hopefully the upcoming X-Men: Dark Phoenix will at least somewhat address what was missed the first time around. With Sophie Turner playing a younger version of Jean Grey in the recent X-Men prequels, Fox is taking a second bite at the apple and hoping to do something – anything – more interesting this time around.
As it stands now, there’s still a ton of unrealized potential in the character, something that’s surprising given the status the Phoenix Saga still has in the comics world. Not only is it beloved by fans to this day but the events of the story have continued to reverberate through the X-Men books ever since.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.