The X-Men Episode Guide 3×14: ‘Dark Phoenix Part III: The Dark Phoenix’
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, we finally tackle one of the cornerstones of the X-Men as we continue with the Dark Phoenix saga -- and the stakes have never been lower!
Previously, on X-Men:
In our last episode, we finished up with the Hellfire Club's role in this story -- or as I like to call it, "the entertaining part" -- when Mastermind and the White Queen pushed the Phoenix one step too far and unleashed a cosmic being of destruction. There was a lot of cool stuff that was lifted from the comics, from Wolverine coming back up from the sewer and just straight wrecking the Inner Circle to the Phoenix actually driving Mastermind mad with Lovecraftian horror at the scope of her power, and it ended up being the highlight of the series. I wouldn't exactly hold my breath hoping that trend is going to continue, though.
The discussion question where I prompted readers to come up with titles for scholarly essays produced some of the funniest stuff that I've seen since this whole experiment started. It's actually well worth going back and looking through, but here are a few of my favorites:
They Didn't Even Invite Them For Christmas Dinner: The X-Men, The Morlocks, And The Need For Intersectionality In The Equal Rights Movement -- Charles T. Arthur
African Goddess And Stalin Steel: The inherent racism of Claremont accents. -- Brandon "Zak" Zachary
'Ah Can't Tuch Ya, Remy' - Rogue as a Metaphor for the Expansion of Lesbianism -- Joshua McLaughlin
Give yourselves a solid A+ as we head into our next episode, "The Dark Phoenix Part III: The Dark Phoenix!"
Before we go any further, yes: that is the actual title of this episode. We are literally ten seconds into this when that pops up on the screen, and I am already about to just give up. The only thing that could make it better is if the next episode is called, as Benito Cereno suggested when I told him this title, "The Dark Phoenix Part IV: The Dark Phoenix Part II."
We'll have to wait until next week to find out if this is an elaborate bit of animated trolling, though. For now, writer Larry Parr and prodcuer/director Larry Houston seem to be committed to treating things as being very, very serious. Having disposed of the Inner Circle, the Phoenix is hovering above the roof of their building, yammering on about how her power is beyond morality, for she is primal fire given form, et cetera, and to illustrate her point, she makes a tiny little unicorn out of fire:
It's... well, it's not exactly the imagery I would've chosen if I was giving a speech about the unbound rapture of destruction (that seems like more of a Rainbow Dash thing than Twilight Sparkle), but since she has yet to keel over and moan, Jean is still ahead of the game here.
For one brief moment, Cyclops and his incessant whining manage to cut through the Phoenix and revive Jean's consciousness, but it doesn't last, and she flings the X-Men off the buildng. Wolverine lands in a duck pond, but the others have to fend for themselves, and this is where we get one of the few improvements over the comic book version of the Dark Phoenix Saga: Since it took place before they were introduced in the franchise, the original never got to include that scumbag Gambit trying to work his game on Rogue in mid-air while all of their friends are in imminent danger of being space murdered by another one of their friends, who has been brainwashed and is now being operated like a puppet by forces beyond their mortal understanding.
"Gambit can't help but notice you save him, cher, and not Wolverine. Mus' be my way with women."
Rogue responds to this bit of charming flirting by dumping Gambit into the duck pond alongside Wolverine. They slog out to the shore to meet up with the rest of the gang, and Wolverine drops an amazing bit of tension-breaking misogyny with "Speaking of mood swings, what's up with the Phoenix?" It's pretty rough, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't love how casual he's being about this whole thing. The woman he loves -- or at least, the woman whose framed photo he keeps in his bed because no one in this show has emotions that aren't at least two levels deep into Creeptown -- is trying to murder them. You'd think Wolverine would be a little bothered by this, but no. Then again, this actually is the sort of thing that happens to him all the time, so it's hard to judge.
The Phoenix does some more monologuing, and after a nifty transition back from commercial where the screen burns to reveal the action, it's fight scene time.
It feels like it's been a while since Storm's gone ridiculously over-the-top with her pronouncements about what she's doing with her powers -- although, now that I think about it, it was only about a month ago when when she was rampaging all over the Savage Land, because if there's one thing this show tries to teach us, it's that women aren't so good at handling a lot of power -- but she is back in full-on "POWAH OF NAYTCHA!!" form here. Sadly, her powers are about as effective as her dialogue is subtle.
Despite Storm conjuring up a hurricane so that the other X-Men can get in on the clobbering, the Phoenix is no-selling left and right. Cyclops's blasts are absorbed, and when Rogue picks up a tree to take a swing at her former friend, the Phoenix turns it into gold by shooting lightning out of her eyes.
That seems straight up bonkers to me, but before I got too far into ragging on the show for having extremely vague ideas of what "cosmic destruction" means in terms of being a super-power, I went to go look it up in the issue this story's adapting, (Uncanny) X-Men #135. Sure enough, there it is, with the only real change being Rogue standing in for Colossus:
Maybe it's just the "lightning from the eyes" part that makes it seem weird. I mean, everyone knows turn-a-tree-to-gold-rays come out of the hand.
Having thoroughly cleaned the clocks of her former teammates and assorted love interests, Jean clears out to space. This scene is lifted from the comics, too -- when she blasts off, it's enough of an Event that all corners of the Marvel Universe take notice, which means we get another fun set of cameos from Dr. Strange, Thor and the Watcher (standing in for the comic's roster of Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer):
It's neat, but it's also weird, because this is where the story takes a huge and very significant divergence from the source material. See, in the comics, the exertion of fully transitioning into the Phoenix has left Jean's body drained of energy, so she heads out to space to do what the Phoenix does, which is destroy things in a rain of cosmic fire. Specifically, she ends up in "a galaxy far, far away" (groan) causing a sun to go supernova and destroying an entire planet, instantly murdering billions:
Claremont's as wordy as ever in this scene, but the captions he writes for this sequence are genuinely chilling, even today. "Then, they all die." is probably the shortest, most blunt sentence that guy ever wrote, but the way he states it so matter-of-factly, stripped of his usual florid prose really hammers what's going on here. It keeps up on the next page, too, when he continues with the description of this planet being burned alive by an exploding sun, capping it all off with "Half the world dies in its sleep. They are the lucky ones."
It's brutal and affecting, and it's also the catalyst for everything that comes after. When Jean (and the Phoenix) are brought to trial by the Shi'ar, it's because she has actually committed genocide, an act requiring a trial on a cosmic scale. But at the same time, we're watching a version of this story on a show that can't even say the word "kill." Genocide by one of our protagonists is right out.
So that's where the shift comes in. Rather than following the Phoenix out into space, we cut to these dopes:
Karate Pajamas and New Teen Titans Nightwing over here are officers on a scientific expedition tasked with charting a completely uninhabited solar system where nothing at all lives, no people, no animals, nothing, not a single thing, and they spend a solid minute of the episode making sure that you know that this place is completely abandoned and that nothing lives here, nothing at all, so if someone were to, say, I don't know, show up and blow it all up with cosmic fire, no one would be killed destroyed.
GUESS WHAT HAPPENS.
On the one hand, this scene does its job by getting the Shi'ar involved so they can show up for the next leg of the story, but on the other, it gums up everything else. When the Shi'ar show up to put Jean on trial in the original story, it's because she committed genocide, and if anything deserves the death penalty, it's that. That is, in comic book terms, a pretty reasonable response. Jim Shooter agrees, too; he's the one that insisted Jean had to die at the end of the story, against Claremont and Byrne's original plot that would see her survive (uh, spoiler warning, Jean dies in that comic).
Here, however, the Shi'ar show up to put down the Phoenix when she hasn't actually hurt anyone. They're just afraid of what she might do, which puts them decidedly in the category of simple villains rather than giving them a justified and understandable viewpoint. They've got plenty to worry about, yes, because the Phoenix is still out there with that kind of power, but it's still a disproportionate response when no one was actually hurt, especially since the Phoenix saved their collective ass two months ago. I mean, I live in South Carolina, and I can assure you that you don't get arrested for murder just because you were shooting tin cans in your back yard
Also, cops down here usually don't wear floor length hot pink bedsheets to work...
...but I'm hoping to get that legislation in front of the Governor next year.
Back on Earth, the X-Men are moping around trying to figure out what to do about Jean, if "Jean" even still exists and hasn't been completely obliterated by the Phoenix. Well, some of them are moping, anyway. While Cyclops is blathering about his psychic rapport and how Jean's on her way back having sated her fiery desires on a supernova, Wolverine's just chilling in the bakground gnawing on a chicken leg, possibly the same one he picked up at the Circle Club last week:
In one of the show's clearest "oh hey, time to move the plot forward" moments, everyone suddenly realizes they can just build a machine that'll zap her brain and send the Phoenix packing. Again, this is something lifted directly from the comics but the conversation they have is just so darn goofy. "Oh, I know! We should get an anti-Phoenix machine!" "Yeah, I can build one of those."
And they do. And hey! Beast has taped a picture of his girlfriend Carly to his computer! Remember Carly?
Make your own joke about how Beast tried to have sex with a computer a few weeks ago and then went home and taped a picture of his girlfriend to the monitor. I'm... I'm too tired.
It's a solid plan, but the Phoenix doesn't go back to the mansion. Instead, she heads over to the Grey household where she grew up. It's pretty illuminating since Jean has had absolutely no character to speak of before the Phoenix Saga started. I mean, who would've ever guessed she was into the Flatbills and Aeros?
Looking to reconnect with her family, Jean and her hair wander around the house looking for her parents. She only finds her cat, though. Its name is Prometheus, and that's terrible. Eventually, Jean goes to her childhood bedroom and flops on the bed, playing with stuffed animals until she senses that "daddy's home!" which she says in a high-pitched baby voice that's creepy in a way where I can't tell if it was intentional or not. I mean, this is the second time in the series that Jean has been rendered childlike and affected that voice, the first being that first-season episode with the Morlocks where Wolverine was COVERED WITH SCORPIONS COVERED WITH SCORPIONS COVERED WITH SCORPIONS, and it's extremely off-putting.
"Daddy" turns out to be a ruse, providing a distraction for Gambit (standing in for Nightcrawler) to drop a mind control device right on her head. I realize that they've sort of settled into the pattern of having Rogue and Gambit play the roles of Colossus and Nightcrawler for the duration of this story, but man, after all the daddy stuff, the last thing I needed to see was that pickup artist scumbag slip up and give her a techno-roofie.
It doesn't work right away, though, and we have a fight scene that involves Jean begging for Wolverine to kill her, again without ever actually saying the word "kill." Wolverine's just "gotta end it" and the Phoenix taunts him by tellling him he "should have destroyed me when he had the chance."
With the team and about to be roasted alive, Cyclops shows up and says that Jean can't be dead because he "can still feel you" (uh), and apparently that's just gross enough to distract the Phoenix and give Professor X the chance to act.
Special bonus Pathetic Points for Scott having to actually grab her wrist and pull her arms around him for a hug rather than having her do it herself.
Professor X jumps into Jean's mind to battle it out with the Phoenix, and to be honest, it's actually pretty cool. I've always loved the idea of this sort of scene, with Xavier going into this mental world where he can twist reality to shape it, and unlike the comics, where he basically just stares at her while the big fiery bird slowly loses its shape, the cartoon makes it a full-on action scene, with a decidedly Kirby-esque Charles Xavier growing giant-sized and bursting through a pile of boulders before transforming into a giant Roman gladiator.
Catherine Disher does some of her best voice acting of the arc in this scene, too, especially when she gets into the shocked, amused disbelief that Professor X would even try to contain her fury. In an episode where the fatal flaw has been that it's incredibly boring, it really picks up in these last 90 seconds.
Eventually, Professor X calls on Jean's consciousness to rise up and overthrow the Phoenix, and she does, leading him to say that "the strength of her mind is truly awesome." Yay! Unfortunately, this is just in time for the Shi'ar to show up and arrest Jean for... outer-space reckless endangerment, I guess? Who knew that was a capital crime?
Discussion Question: I still cannot believe they actually called this episode "The Dark Phoenix Part III: The Dark Phoenix." Like, that had to get past several people without anyone saying it was a bad idea. So once again, we have to step up where the show has failed and fix matters ourselves. What's a better title for this episode? Leave 'em below and I'll round 'em up in next week's installment.
Next Week: The Trial of the Phoenix! You will not believe how this one works out.