The X-Men Episode Guide 3×08: ‘The Phoenix Saga, Part IV: Child of Light’
The early ’90s were spoiled for choice when it came to comic book adaptations. Not only was Batman: The Animated Series on the air, but X-Men led Marvel’s push to get on the small screen, diving right into the often convoluted continuity of everyone’s favorite mutants, luring in a generation of fans, and paving the way for cartoons to follow. That’s why we’ve set out to review every single episode of the ’90s X-Men animated series. This week: The Phoenix Saga finally concludes, due to absolutely no involvement whatsoever from our protagonists.
Previously, on X-Men:
When we last left our merry mutants, things had gotten about as bad as they could get. Like, we're talking complete and utter destruction on a universal scale, which really makes you wonder why Cable and Bishop only showed up to deal with the killer robots instead of, y'know, the power-mad alien emperor who held the fate of a thousand star systems in his hands. Presumably it was because, like me, they had fond memories of the ToyBiz Sentinel playset, which implied that Sentinels carried their quarry to extermination camps in their tummies. Uh, which is to say, D'Ken has taken control of the M'Kraan Crystal and everyone is about to die, including Cyclops's dad who no one knows is Cyclops's dad yet.
Our discussion of comic book parents brought a whole lot of good suggestions out of the woodwork, which is pretty surprising when you consider that the superhero genre is basically defined entirely by orphans. My favorites among the ones readers put forward include Batman and Talia (who are presumably favorites due to other activities because, let's be real here, they are basically awful at parenting), Reed and Sue Richards, and, of course, Dan and Mitzi McNinja, but reader Keaton Howard really went to bat for Corsair: "a man who decided to throw Cyclops out of a plane and live the rest of his life as a space pirate who hangs out with lizard men, makes out with cat ladies, and looks like White Goodman. He is living the dream." Can't really argue the point; I'd chuck that kid out of an aircraft if I had the chance too.
As writer Michael Edens and producer/director Larry Houston drop us back into the adventure for this week, D'Ken has taken control of the M'Kraan Crystal. This, as we all know, is a bad thing, because now he... can... destroy the universe? Or... maybe just suck it all into the crystal? Or maybe he's trapped in the crystal?
Look, I'll be honest with you: I have to watch each episode of this show multiple times to write these recaps, and I honestly have no idea what exactly is supposed to be happening here. I mean, I definitely get that it's bad, because it's usually not fun times and free hot dogs when an evil space emperor gets an Artifact With A Capitalized Name, but this show doesn't really do a great job of letting us know what the stakes are here. To be fair, that's true of the actual comics, too -- I've read the stories this season is based on more than once, and I'm not even sure what the M'Kraan Crystal does there, either. It's just vaguely bad and potentially ruinous for everyone, even Spider-Man's left hand. But we'll get to that.
For now, all we really have is D'Ken himself, looking like a villain from the second season of Masters of the Universe, speaking the single greatest line of dialogue in the history of the show.
"You fools! Your foolishness amuses me!"\
Sorry, Scumbag Gambit. You lost this round, but you put up a good fight.
After the X-Men take a few swings at Crystor here and are batted down effortlessly, Phoenix finally speaks up with an attempt to explain things. According to her, "He's creating his own universe inside the crystal, where we all will soon be." So that clears things up.
The only chance for survival is that "the power of the Phoenix can contain the crystal," which means that LITERALLY EVERY OTHER CHARACTER ON THIS SHOW has nothing to do for the next 17 minutes but wait around and see if Jean can finally get something done. I'm not kidding. That is the plot, and that is exactly how it plays out, a solo story with a cast of 16 superheroes from three different teams. I swear to God, the actual next line is
CYCLOPS: What can we do?
So the Phoenix turns back into a giant bird made of fire and bops out to catch up to the Starjammer. In the interest of fairness, I want to point out that this is a really nice piece of animation. The design for the ships is really cool and blocky and weird, which does a nice job of setting them apart from other designs and reinforcing the idea that people in space aren't exactly worried about aerodynamics, even when they do have wings:
It looks really good, like the team decided one day to go down to Blockbuster and rent some high-budget space anime to find out what that stuff oughtta look like and then really managed to pull it off.
The best part, though, is when we cut to the bridge of the Starjammer, where no one seems to notice or be bothered by the fact that their entire spaceship is suddenly enveloped in fire in the cold vacuum of space.
Fun fact: Stanley from The Office was actually based on Hepzibah. Girl has no time for anything while she's doing her crossword.
After dropping off the X-Men and Corsair, Phoenix heads back to D'Ken's ship to mess around with the Crystal, and the show decides to up the noninvolvement game to some truly next level stuff. Cyclops asks Corsair to show them what's happening, and at maximum zoom, the viewscreen of the Starjammer shows... the outside of D'Ken's ship, where absolutely nothing can be seen. "That is all we can do," says Corsair. Seriously.
True to form, the Phoenix's plan doesn't work out. She gets pulled into the crystal, D'Ken's ship implodes around it, and before long, everything's getting caught up in this giant wave of sucking. Write your own joke here.
I say "wave" because these pulses of white light start radiating from the M'Kraan Crystal, going all the way to Earth and causing all sorts of trouble. The sun gets blacked out, storms start raging across the surface of the entire planet, cats and dogs, sleeping together, mass hysteria. You know the drill. Even the X-Men appear to be in danger of being torn apart, which means that it's time for Scumbag Gambit to ooze his slimy way into our hearts one more time. "Hang on, cher," he says to Rogue, "If dis be our last ride... we take it together."
Then they're pulled into the crystal and he manages to fall down into a straight up dry hump.
"If dis is death, it's not so bad, huh?" says Gambit, definitely grinding on what he thinks is an unconscious woman, showing us exactly how he would choose to die. Two questions: 1) How is he still on the team? and 2) How is this my favorite thing that has ever been done with this character.
Heading outside, the X-Men find themselves in a fuchsia hellscape where D'Ken is the omnipotent and omnipresent master of creation. The X-Men once again make a halfhearted attempt at punching his lights out as he looms over them at roughly the size of Mount Rushmore, but even Gladiator gets smacked aside. Quoth Cyclops, fearless leader of the X-Men, the team leader sworn to act even when facing an entire world that hates and fears him, "There's nothing we can do."
Back on Earth, the situation is becoming entirely untenable, to the point where the Cameo Corps has been called into action. We get quick shots of Sunfire dealing with an erupting Mount Fuji and Alpha Flight handling things in Greece, which seems a little out of their territory. Storm's godson from Season 2 even shows up, rescuing people at... Africa Beach.
You know, the beach that's in Africa. There can't be more than one, right?
Not to be outdone, New York City has two superheroes pitching in to help out, with War Machine -- yes, War Machine -- rescuing people alongside Spider-Man's left hand.
The rest of Spider-Man never shows up.
In the Crystal, D'Ken is using his godlike powers to give rise to rock monsters that attempt to destroy the X-Men, Starjammers and Imperial Guard, which basically means that everyone looks like they're fighting bad guys from Thundarr the Barbarian:
On its own, it's a pretty cool action scene. The way that the monsters keep being shattered and reforming is done really well, and there are a lot of characters with different types of powers getting into the act as the environment turns against them. Unfortunately, it's also ultimately pointless. There's nothing to do here. Even if the X-Men and their associated hangers-on beat up all the rock monsters, they just keep coming with nothing gained or lost, and no one seems to have a plan of how to deal with D'Ken directly. I appreciate that the show is trying to give the impression of the X-Men standing strong in the face of futility, but it doesn't really work as a heroic last stand. It all just feels like giving them something to do because they really only had enough plot for three and a half episodes, with ten minutes left over to pad out.
In fact, even the "heroic last stand" stuff isn't even all that compelling, because the X-Men aren't really doing any of it. Gambit's throwing a card and Wolverine is, uh, standing around menacingly, but the majority of the work is handled by the guest stars. It's fun, but really, the show's called X-Men, not That Guy In The Imperial Guard Who Is Definitely Colossal Boy, When Did Marvel Buy Colossal Boy, Is That Why Legion Got Canceled Again?, and I'd like to see the title characters do something every now and then.
After a few minutes of this, the Phoenix finally returns and announces that D'Ken hasn't harnessed the power of the M'Kraan Crystal, he has instead been destroyed by it, and apparently just saying this out loud makes it true! Someone should've tried that way back when this whole thing started!
Phoenix whisks everyone out of the Crystal, "beyond the reach of D'Ken's power," which I thought was what was causing all this trouble halfway across the galaxy, but, you know, whatever. A rescue is a rescue, I suppose.
Now, at this point, Phoenix has proven herself to be a creature of unfathomable cosmic power. She has defied even the grip of the M'Kraan Crystal, which contains an entire universe within itself controlled completely by D'Ken. She's clearly operating on a level beyond the X-Men, beyond even Gladiator at this point. So obviously this has to be the episode where she stops moaning and passing out every time she tries to do something, right? Right?
Better luck next time, Jean. Also, added bonus: You have now seen Cyclops's O-Face. You must show it to someone else within 7 days... or die.
The Phoenix explains that it chose Jean as its host because her "empathic powers" (that's a new one, Counselor Troi must've been busy that day) have allowed it to speak to "the orb" at the heart of the Crystal, and this has allowed her to magically reverse everything that has happened up to now. All of this is new information, but hey, we get a story about the power of friendship, represented here by Jean imagining her friends as some kind of cosmic Christmas tree.
I wasn't joking.
The one snag in this plan of Jean's is that it will require her to sacrifice her life (or rather, if you want to get technical about it, that the Phoenix will sacrifice Jean's life and then continue to exist as a planet-destroying being of space-fire), and in a rare moment of actual heroism, the X-Men all agree that this is something that has to be done. Phoenix defeats D'Ken in however long it takes D'Ken to scream "Noooooooo" and then flies off into the heart of the sun forever while Beast quotes Emily Dickinson.
Oh, relax. Even if you didn't know that she was coming back because the Dark Phoenix Saga starts next month, Professor X straight up says that the legend of the Phoenix is about dying and being born again. She's going to be fine.
Discussion Question: The one thing you can't say about the animated Phoenix Saga is that it didn't go all out. We got actual cosmic stuff, pocket dimensions, the Starjammers and the Imperial Guard, galactic stakes, cameo appearances -- it's the whole shebang. But in the end, it's also not very good. So where does this episode fall when you compare it to other animated superhero cosmic adventures? Those Superman: The Animated Series and the Darkseid episodes are great, but is the Phoenix Saga any worse than, say, Spider-Man's take on the Secret Wars? Round 'em all up and we'll figure this out.
Next Week: We are finally free of the Phoenix Saga, but don't get too happy about that. Next week we dive down to the Savage Land for a two-parter called "Savage Land, Savage Heart!"