The X-Men Episode Guide 3×15: ‘Dark Phoenix Part IV: Fate Of The 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, it's the fourth and final part of the Dark Phoenix Saga as we find out "The Fate of the Phoenix!"
Previously, on X-Men:
In our last episode, "Dark Phoenix Part III: The Dark Phoenix," the story ramped up the stakes as we headed for the final part of the saga, but only in a purely academic sense. The Dark Phoenix finally took over Jean Grey's body and, after smacking around her friends, went out to space and destroyed a completely uninhabited star system. This, apparently, was enough of a crime to get the entire Shi'ar Empire on her ass, with Lilandra and the Imperial Guard arriving on Earth with plans for an execution, just as Professor X and Jean had seemingly locked the Phoenix away once and for all.
Meanwhile, we all decided to sit down and come up with a better title than "Dark Phoenix Part III: The Dark Phoenix," which somehow made it past the first person who had to proofread this script and ended up right there on television. Several readers stepped up in the comments, and I picked out a few favorites:
"The Dark Phoenix Part III: Daddy's Home" -- Eric Floyd
"The Dark Phoenix Saga Part III: The Phoenix Saga Part VIII: The Dark Phoenix part 1 of 2" -- Craig Little
"How Do You Solve A Problem Like the Phoenix?" -- Michael Hancock
"The Dark Phoenix Part III: First Blood, Part II" -- Mike Christensen
"The Dark Phoenix: 3 Dark, 3 Phurious" -- Casey Thomasson
Good job, gumshoes. Now let's finish this thing off with "Dark Phoenix Part IV: The Ragin' Climax!"
This installment comes from writer Brooks Wachtel, producer/director Larry Houston, and is, of course "Based on stories by Chris Claremont" and John Byrne. Specifically, they're lifting most of what we're about to see from "Fate of the Phoenix" from Uncanny X-Men #137, but with a few changes that send the story crashing directly off the rails. Or at least, you know, that's how I see it. Maybe you'll think that magic light that absolves you of genocide is a better plot device than what was in there the first time around! Who knows?
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The issue kicks off right where we left last week, with the Imperial Guard demanding that the X-Men hand Jean over so that they can drag her out to space and kill her, which, to be honest, does not actually seem like a great plan. I mean, if you kill Jean's body, does that actually kill the Phoenix? Isn't it an incorporeal being of cosmic power that just happens to be possessing her body? Wouldn't it just go find another host, probably from one of the eighteen super-powered people standing in the room when they put Jean in the space-guilloutine or whatever it is they're going to use? Maybe Gladiator should just call in sick that day.
It's a moot point either way. Rather than just throwing his hands up and going "fine, you deal with this," which is what I'd do in his situation, Professor X probes Lilandra's mind (hello) in order to find a loophole in Intergalactic Space Law: ARIN'NN HAELAR! A Duel of Honor that cannot be refused! Or, in other words, a traditional Survivor Series match to the death where the winners determine the fate of Jean Grey!
The rest of the team's reaction to this is not only the single best part of this episode, but one of the best parts of the entire series. After Professor X announces that he has "made the challenge in our names," everyone turns to him and Beast asks "...in all of our names?"
That dude is clearly not into this at all.
Despite his misgivings, the X-Men are Star Trek transporter-ed up to Lilandra's ship, where we get a recap of the last episode and Phoenix destroying a bunch of planets that "were fortunately uninhabited," which is why she has to die. I went through this last week, but that really does change the story in a way that strips out a lot of what people like about it -- instead of being a punishment for something the Phoenix did do, the Shi'ar are gearing up for an execution because of something she might do, and that drops them firmly into the camp of the villains. The show goes out of its way to have Lilandra make the argument that Phoenix won't be able to restrict itself to uninhabited planets in the future, but really, that's the same argument about mutant powers that you get from folks like Bolivar Trask when they're justifying the Sentinels, and coming right after the Phoenix has been bottled up in the back of Jean's brain, it doesn't really hold water. The Shi'ar are meant to be, if not "good guys," then at least people with an understandable point, but here, it doesn't really work. It's just good guys vs. bad guys again, which is really bland.
This is the exact argument that the characters are debating in the show, but to be honest, their point is undercut just a little when Professor X is making dramatic, hand-waving speeches while being carried around by Rogue:
Sidenote: I'm watching this episode on DVD, and it could not look more like a beat-up VHS. The quality in animation has really taken a nosedive here in Season 3, which is weird when you consider that the show was a huge hit that would run for another two years.
In order to justify things even further, Lilandra goes to run Professor X's request for a Duel of Honor by the other two interested parties, the Kree Supreme Intelligence and Empress of the Skrulls, a nice little moment that's lifted directly from the comics:
You know, those comics that were apparently created solely by Chris Claremont, who definitely came up with all these visuals that we're seeing?
It's worth noting that the voices for the Supreme Intelligence and Rk'lll are fantastically hilarious. The Empress sounds like Cobra Commander, while the Intelligence -- who, for those of you who don't know, is a giant green floating head in a jar -- just sounds like some dude who is really bored by paperwork in his office. I was kind of expecting them to Zordon him up a little, but I may like this even more.
Everyone agrees that to let the duel take place -- the Supreme Intelligence points out that the X-Men are going to fight no matter what they do, so they might as well proceed in an orderly manner, which proves that he's the smartest being on this show so far -- and the game is on.
From there, we head into an exercise sequence where Storm and Beast debate over whether they're on the right side, and Beast makes an impassioned speech about how a trial by combat is a farce that stands as the enemy of reason. He's so offended by the very notion of physical strength determining whether an innocent person should die, and voice actor George Buza puts so much passion into his voice that it works beautifully. It's a nice reminder of how good the show can be with these characters when they're not just giving them goofy Shakespeare quotes for dialogue -- especially since this is a conversation that doesn't happen in the original comic. In there, Beast has a brief interior monologue about the situation before he's distracted by a sexy green-haired bird-woman who shows up in a swimsuit to give him a massage (not kidding), but that's it.
That's not to say that the show's not weird all on its own merit, though, as evidenced by the fact that Beast's monologue in the cartoon ends when the camera pans down to reveal Wolverine and Gambit chatting about this whole rigamarole while fighting against robots that look like WarHammer 40,000 mashed up with Xena: Warrior Princess.
Fringed epaulets in mechanical design really need to make a comeback.
Professor X also has a conversation with Lilandra, and at this point it's pretty clear that the producers of this show realized that all this talking was going to be really boring for the kids who didn't care about the relative morality of killing Jean to prevent the Phoenix from committing genocide, which is why it's all taken place while people are jumping through hoops and fighting robots. The problem, of course, is that Professor X isn't really the robot-fighting type, and their solution is to have it be a psychic conversation that he's having rather than just, you know, scooting across the room in his hover-chair. They snipe at each other for a bit, and then the argument ends when Lilandra throws him into a chasm.
I think we've all been in that relationship, huh folks?
Cyclops, on the other hand, just gets a regular "standing around talking" scene where he debates out loud about whether he'd execute his girlfriend if he thought she was going to become Space Hitler. But then, he also refers to her mental blocks containing the phoenix as "psychic circuit-breakers," so we'll call that a wash.
Jean walks in at an appropriately dramatic moment, wearing an astonishingly unflattering of her Marvel Girl costume:
Also, please enjoy roughly three square miles of Cyclops's ass.
Again, this is something from the original comics, but it doesn't quite work here, and not just because Jean's face looks like a loaf of bread that came out of the oven too early. The show has established that the X-Men were together for a while before Jubilee showed up back in the pilot, but we haven't really seen that, so when she announces that she's wearing her old costume because "it is how you first knew me," it's the first time that we, the viewers, have actually seen it. I think it might have actually worked better if she was back in her godawful '90s costume that she wore for the first two seasons, since she's been wearing the Phoenix costume (in one form or another) for this entire saga. It's less accurate to the comics, sure, but I think it might work better for the show's target audience, and believe me, accuracy ceases to be a concern in about five minutes.
On the other hand, that '90s suit is 1,000% hot garbage, so maybe this was for the best.
After another conversation about whether she should just get on with it and die already, we finally move to the Blue Area of the Moon for the final battle against the Imperial Guard.
Now, this should be a pretty exciting scene. One of the things that the show has done really well is establish the Imperial Guard as a serious gang of heavy hitters -- I wouldn't go so far as to say that they did that whole thing where the X-Men just stood around helplessly and watched them handle everything in the M'Kraan crystal on purpose, but it does a good job of showing us that they're not pushovers. It's a high stakes battle against established tough opponents, so in theory, it should be exciting stuff.
In practice, however...
It goes on forever, which is to be expected since this is the big set piece battle that the entire seven-part series has been leading to so far, but there are parts that just drag. To be fair, it's actually pretty well staged and animated, even if it relies pretty heavily on people just shooting differently-colored beams at each other and vibrating. There's a bit where Beast is bouncing around a tunnel, propelling himself off the walls, and it looks as good as anything on this show. Storm and Gambit's fight against Earthquake is really fun, too, if only for how video gamey it is:
Please note that it is probably not coincidental that my favorite part of this episode involved that scumbag Gambit (who responded to Storm saving him from a deadfall by literally hitting on her as soon as they landed) repeatedly getting knocked on his ass, or Storm announcing that "CONTREWLING THE DIRT IS NOTHING TO ONE WHO COMMAHNDS WIND AND RAIN!" before immediately being knocked right out of the sky.
Eventually, it comes down to Scott and Jean, alone against the Imperial Guard, having an emotional moment that I believe is based around how gigantic her head looks in this scene:
Seriously, what is going on there. She looks like Irish Chewbacca. Cyclops and his withered claw holding a death-grip on her shoulder isn't helping much either.
Most of the imagery and dialogue in this section is lifted directly from Uncanny #137, but there's one hilarious addition when Cyclops mournfully tells Jean that he can't bear to watch her die because there's "so much I feel... so much we haven't done!" which just has to be a reference to spending their honeymoon strapped onto tables before finding out that they weren't really married. No wonder that dude is on the edge all the time.
They head out for one last Butch and Sundance, and Cyclops of course is immediately blown up by Starbolt and Gladiator, causing Jean to freak right the heck out and flip those psychic circuit breakers, unleashing the Phoenix right there on the Moon:
Lilandra does not take this news well, ordering her ship to fire on the Phoenix. Professor X, even more impatient, psychically revives the KOed X-Men and tells him that oops, haha, they should probably just go ahead with this whole "let's kill Jean" thing after all.
The fight scene that follows is kind of the entire show in miniature, a perfectly even split between hilarious and terrible. Wolverine lets out an anguished "I can't do it, Jeannie!" and is then immediately knocked out by the Phoenix casually flicking her hand at him and sending a bolt of fire that takes him out of the battle, leading right to Rogue just straight punching her in the face and Beast John Woo jumping at her with a laser gun.
Where did Beast get a laser gun? WHO KNOWS! Maybe they were shooting G.I. Joe over on the next set.
The combined assault by the forces of, uh, three people is enough to weaken the Phoenix enough for Jean to momentarily reassert control, and she psychically activates Lilandra's guns to commit suicide.
Wait, that made it onto the show?! Man, Broadcast Standards & Practices, you and I will never understand each other.
So Jean's dead, which brings us to the end of the Phoenix Saga. Join us next week, when -- wait, what's this? The show is still going?! Yes, it seems we're not quite done with things yet. With Jean's body dead, the Phoenix itself rises up and tells everybody that hey, it's totally cool now, even though Jean's dead and the Phoenix is still alive which is the exact opposite of what everyone wanted to happen. But hey, this giant space bird made of fire is promising that it won't eat any more solar systems, so that sounds reasonable, right? Right.
What's more, it tells the X-Men that it can bring Jean back to life if they give up an equivalent amount of their "flame" to do so. Cyclops and Wolverine argue about who should sacrifice their lives, but then the Phoenix tells them that they can just spread it all out among the whole group, which is exactly what they do -- at the price of having their own life force reduced by an equal amount.
You may be asking yourself what the hell this actually means, and I can assure you that there is no explanation whatsoever as to what the ramifications are of giving up 14% of one's "flame." Does that mean they're just going to die earlier, or is this something that they're going to recover with time and proper nutrition, or what? No idea. Not that it really matters. If this ever comes up again, I will eat my shoe.
Thus, the Phoenix Saga is finally over, and absolutely nothing has changed. There have been no actual consequences for anyone's actions, nothing was gained or lost, and Jean and the Phoenix are right back where they were before this whole thing started.
Welp. You tried, I guess.
Discussion Question: Every problem I have with this storyline comes as a result of changing the story so that nobody actually dies. Let's see if we can't "improve" a few other famous comic book stories by taking out the violence, shall we? Maybe Bruce Wayne dedicated his life to ending all crime after his parents were hugged in an alley?
Next Week: An entire episode about Iceman. No, I don't know why they did it either.