Female Readership and Corruption in The Dark Phoenix Saga (1980) and Dark Phoenix (2019)

by Kelly Williams

20th Century Fox’s Dark Phoenix (dir. Simon Kinberg, 2019) is set to be released on June 7 of this year. Following Fox’s 2016 film X-Men: Apocalypse (dir. Bryan Singer, 2016), Dark Phoenix shows [editor’s note: final trailer] the X-Men venturing to space for a rescue mission, during which a solar flare hits their ship and causes Jean Grey to lose control of her mutant powers. This film is an adaptation of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s The Dark Phoenix Saga, a storyline from Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men comics (issues #129-138, January-October 1980) in which Jean Grey, as the Phoenix, becomes corrupted by illusions meant to break down the barriers containing her power. The upcoming film’s director, Simon Kinberg, stated in an interview with CinePop that he hopes that the film would be a “new beginning” for the X-Men franchise, departing from the tone of Bryan Singer’s earlier X-Men films and taking risks to update the superhero genre – though at its core, Dark Phoenix is still a “dark drama” about a “young woman who is losing control and becomes dangerous to herself and others.”

Dark Phoenix (dir. Simon Kinberg, 2019), still from final trailer

From this, it seems that Dark Phoenix will repeat some of the same issues I had with Fox’s previous attempt at adapting the Dark Pheonix Saga, X-Men: The Last Stand (dir. Brett Ratner, 2006). When Entertainment Weekly released a first look at the film in December 2017, writer Tim Stack wrote, “Charles Xavier (James McAvoy)[’s …] growing ego puts the team at risk. ‘Pride is starting to get the better of him, and he is pushing the X-Men to more extreme missions,’ Kinberg says. After they’re dispatched to space for a rescue mission, a solar flare hits the X-Jet and the surge of energy ignites a malevolent, power-hungry new force within Jean (Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner)— the Phoenix.” The February 2019 trailer seems to play up Xavier’s responsibility while Jean states “When I lose control, bad things happen to people I love.” Even though Dark Phoenix may be “more faithful” to the comic and the film puts female characters at the forefront, it still seems like the central issue is that Jean’s power corrupts her.

Of course, the corruption of the Phoenix Force is evident in the source material. In the comic, Jean Grey is subject to psychic attacks by Mastermind (under the identity of Jason Wyngarde) in his attempt to bring the Phoenix Force’s cosmic power under the control of the villainous Hellfire Club. In these psychic attacks, Wyngarde creates illusions that “transport” Jean to the 18th century, making her believe that she is reliving the life of one of her ancestors – a slave-owning, aristocratic monarchist named Lady Jean. The illusions often portray romantic scenes between Jean and Wyngarde, first showing the couple together on a ship, with subsequent illusions becoming increasingly intimate; the more Jean experiences, the less she is able to differentiate between fiction and reality. Eventually, these illusions corrupt her to the point where she turns against her fellow X-Men and embraces the identity of the Dark Phoenix, impulsively pursuing power and pleasure through the uncontrolled exercise of her cosmic abilities.

X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga (Marvel, 2006), trade dress

Uncanny X-Men #135 (Marvel, August 1980), page 1

What’s interesting, for me, is how the Dark Phoenix film seems to be again removing Wyngarde and the illusions from Jean’s story, skipping the first part of the original Phoenix Saga (Uncanny X-Men #101-108, October 1976-December 1977), in which Jean uses her cosmic power to save the universe, instead jumping straight into a world where her power is dangerous. In some sense, this decision is appropriate for a modern adaptation – the original comic leaves a bad taste in contemporary readers’ mouths by suggesting that even a powerful woman like Jean cannot discern fiction from reality. But, by excising Wyngarde and the illusions, the film potentially creates new problems, suggesting that women cannot handle cosmic abilities and that once they gain power, corruption is inevitable.

Previous scholars such as Lenise Prater and Jordan Phillips have interpreted Jean’s powers in both the X-Men comics and movie franchise as sexualized, thereby equating out-of-control power as “problematic sexuality” which threatens male characters. This piece will expand on those studies – which mostly neglect Wyngarde’s illusions entirely – and examine Jean Grey’s visions in Claremont and Byrne’s The Dark Phoenix Saga, showing that they play upon patriarchal anxieties about female media consumption. Wyngarde’s illusions present Jean with historical visions that use physical and emotional sensation as the frame for encountering the past, and I argue that reading these visions as analogous to romance novels or female-centered historical fiction enhances our understanding of the visions as a corrupting force. Because the trend in contemporary pop culture is to center “girl power” in feature films and shows – such as Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins, 2017), Captain Marvel (dirs. Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, 2019), Star Wars, episodes VII (dir. JJ Abrams, 2015), VIII (dir. Rian Johnson, 2017), and XI (dir. JJ Abrams, 2019), and Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-18) – Dark Phoenix’s decision to excise these visions make sense for avoiding potential accusations of undercutting female agency. However, as I will show, shifting the source of corruption away from outside influence and towards internal failure to control one’s own behavior presents a wholly different set of problems.

When I first read The Dark Phoenix Saga, I found it odd that Wyngarde would choose to corrupt Jean by showing her visions which are relatively innocent compared to his desired outcome. In issue #129, he describes his process of corrupting Jean as letting the darker part of herself out of its “moral cage.”  The visions are meant to “giv[e] her a taste of some of her innermost – forbidden – needs and desires,” and yet, he does not show her images of violence and destruction, but rather, amorous scenes between Lady Jean and Wyngarde’s historical counterpart. We learn that Jean’s desire is largely to be loved, but love itself is not figured as inherently dangerous or corrupting. Jean and Scott enjoy several romantic moments throughout the comic that are construed as positive, and Scott Summers proclaims Jean’s goodness by saying that she, at her core, “is love,” in issue #136. So, the question remains: how are the romantic visions responsible for Jean’s change?

Uncanny X-Men #129 (Marvel, January 1980), page 3

The key, I argue, has to do with the fact that the visions are set in the past and focused on sensation. Elizabeth Freeman writes of the alignment between temporal and sexual dissonance in queer cinema, suggesting that affect contains the power to destabilize the distinction of past and present by privileging sensation over narrative or temporal logic. In analyzing queer cinema, Freeman argues that films in which a subject becomes unstuck in time not only give the viewer a respite from history, but creates an alternate one which does political work: queer cinema, by foregrounding temporal gaps and encountering the past through pleasure, puts the past into a transformative relation with the present. Thus, these alternate histories can create a sense of belonging. In this post, I want to be careful not to appropriate Freeman’s use of queer theory and queer cinema – instead, I want to use her work as a springboard for thinking about how artistic representations of the past – particularly, those centered on female pleasure – is constructed as threatening in the Dark Phoenix Saga because of its transformative potential and its challenge to patriarchal modes of writing female-centered narratives.

Uncanny X-Men #129 (Marvel, January 1980), page 5

In the first vision (at least, the first within The Dark Phoenix Saga arc), Jean is “transported” onto a ship, and the text tells us that she is bound for America with “the man she loves and soon will marry.” Her clothes are notably 18th century, if the clue that she has “slipped backwards two hundred years” doesn’t make it clear.

This vision foregrounds emotional and physical sensation. Jean’s dress and cape stand out against the blues, greens, and yellows in the other panels, and the front of her dress is textured to engage the reader’s tactile imagination. The table in the first panel is also laden with ham and wine, evoking the sense of pleasure derived from consuming fine foods. The second panel gives readers a close-up of Wyngarde’s face with the caption “[he is] the most magnificent man she has ever known,” underscoring his sexual appeal before showing Wyngarde tenderly stroking Jean’s face in the third panel, again eliciting the tactile imagination. As he leans in for a kiss, Jean expresses enthusiasm for their eventual union (“Yes, Jason. Oh, yes”) as her thought bubble reveals: “The emotions he stirs within me – so intense – must break away… while I can!” She then retreats onto the deck of the ship, deferring the union of two lovers. The vision centers on the “feminine” realm of romance and feeling; romance, as both a genre and narrative thread, stereotypically appeals to female audiences, and in essentialist models, women are associated with feeling and emotions, while men are associated with reason and action. This vision privileges the feminine: not only is the romance the central focus, but the scene uses sensuality to foreground Jean’s emotion. Even at the moment of rejection, the text tells readers, “Desperately, her telepathic powers scour the ship, but they only confirm what her senses have already told her. This is reality” (my emphasis). Jean’s senses are deployed before her telepathic abilities, privileging the use of bodily experience before her mentally-based powers in a clear privileging of feeling over reason.

Uncanny X-Men #130 (Marvel, February 1980), page 3

Subsequent visions work harder to bridge the gap between past and present through sensation so that Jean entirely fails to make a distinction. In issue #130, Jean and Scott are scouting a seedy disco for the mutant Dazzler, when Jean is “transported” into the past again. Jean’s second vision depicts her 18th century counterpart walking down the aisle for her marriage ceremony to Wyngarde. At this point, the text tells us that Jean “doesn’t try to fight her way out of the past. She accepts what’s happening.” Perhaps it is because the vision practically drips with over-the-top sensational appeal: the comic describes Wyngarde as a stunning example of “manly beauty” who “take[s] her breath away,” his “obsidian eyes… glowing with an eerie, darkling light,” as the church “explodes with cheers,” heightening physical sensations such as vision and sound.

Uncanny X-Men #130 (Marvel, February 1980), page 5

The focus on sensation accompanies the heightening of Wyngarde’s sexual appeal, as the comic features yet another close-up of his face and his hand on Jean’s jaw as they kiss. Jean’s response to Wyngarde’s “manly beauty” is the desire for bodily touch:  throughout the ceremony, she wishes she could just “be in Sir Jason Wyngarde’s arms” – a wish for physical contact that is also a euphemism for something more sexual. The comic underscores the privileging of sensation over reason by depicting the ceremony in “a burned-out church in a woodland glade,” reminiscent of the Romantic movement of the 18th century (the same time period in which the visions take place), in which ruins were being rediscovered and interpreted as aesthetic subjects. Romanticism is notable for its privileging of passion over reason, which Jean seems to embody as she becomes more and more inundated by sensations: “The ruined, desecrated churchyard explodes with cheers, but Jean hears none of them as every facet of her being is overwhelmed by a physical and emotional tidal wave” (my emphasis). The vision ends with Jean kissing the modern-day Wyngarde with a shocked Summers looking on.

Uncanny X-Men #130 (Marvel, February 1980), page 14

But despite the vision being obviously set in the past, sensation and affect appear to transcend temporal boundaries, creating an alternate method of encountering “history” that creates transformative potential. In the 20th century, Jean is in a seedy disco, with flashing lights and sound that “stuns the senses” so that Jean must necessarily withdraw into her “telepathic rapport” with Scott. But rather than dulling sensation, Jean is overwhelmed with it. The light and sound is described as a “blitzkrieg” – a word describing a military tactic in which overwhelming the enemy on multiple fronts prompts psychological shock and disorganization. The overload of light and sound require Jean to pull back into her mind and scan the club psychically, giving her access to the thoughts of the people around her. She calls these thoughts “vile” yet “attractive,” linking their sexual thoughts with the sensual bombardment around her. The comic transfers sensational overload and sexual thoughts to the past when Jean suddenly jumps to a scene of marriage: The colors and shape of the disco lights vaguely resemble the pattern of the stained glass window behind the priest, and sexual desire is expressible through Jean’s enthusiastic acceptance of heterosexual coupling. Whereas before, the disco is called “vile,” the vision recontextualizes the sexual attraction she feels within a traditionally “acceptable” outlet, giving free rein to Jean’s feelings. To underscore the fact that past and present are meant to be blurred, the panels which depict Jean’s time slip put Jean and Wyngarde in physical and emotional contact: not only does Wyngarde approach Jean through the pretense of re-encountering each other after a past meeting, but he also physically touches her. When she jumps back in time, the immediate description of the church notes that it will “one day become part of fifth avenue,” looking forward to the future. Jean’s Black Queen outfit is likewise the same in the past as it is in the present.

Uncanny X-Men #130 (Marvel, February 1980), page 15

As the visions progress, Jean is so unable to discern fantasy from reality that she replicates the events of her vision in real life. In this way, I argue that Jean becomes more and more like Western culture’s image of the bad female reader – one who cannot discern fact from fiction and who acts on their impressions of media to the detriment of society more broadly. Critics of romance novels, a genre which the visions themselves resemble, dismiss them as “silly fantasies” that corrupt women by giving them “unrealistic expectations” about relationships. Jane Ann Krentz writes, “Everyone understands that the readers know the difference between real life and fantasy and that they do not expect one to imitate the other. But, for some reason, when it comes to romance novels critics worry about whether the women who read them can tell the difference between what is real and what is not” (p. 2). The concern with “realism” is rooted in patriarchal power, and the fact that the visions are historical in addition to being romantic constitutes an additional threat. “Realistic fiction,” for many pop culture critics, is in the portrayal of female suffering – especially in fiction set in the historical past. Prominent examples can be found in discourse surrounding current trends in pop culture concerning sexual violence. For example, Ann Foster writes of Game of Thrones for The Mary Sue, “George R.R. Martin has explained his frequent use of rape in his books as hewing to the vague concept of ‘historical accuracy’ — women were assaulted throughout human history, so to exclude this reality from his books (and, by association, the TV show) would be to present an artificial reality, or so the logic goes.” Princess Weekes writes of rape in Outlander (Starz, 2014- ): “Of all the shows that feature rape, Outlander has managed to escape a lot of criticism because their depiction of rape has always been seen as being done ‘responsibly and sensitively.’ The problem for me is that they have always used this veil of ‘historical accuracy’ to excuse the excessive sexual violence and Jamie’s previous violent treatment towards Claire.”

Any deviation from supposed “realism” constitutes a threat to patriarchal modes of storytelling. For romance novels, the portrayal of a “utopian relationship” in which women are sexually proficient creates anxiety about women spurning “real men” and centering their sexual pleasure. Such fears can be seen in Jean’s visions: as they progress, Jean becomes deviant in her sexuality. In the brief appearance of Jean as the Black Queen, her outfit consists of a black corset, panties, and heeled leather boots, and the image is juxtaposed with the panel depicting the kiss. In issue #131, following Kitty’s return to her parents, the panels reveal Jean to be wearing a revealing outfit, including black leggings, a yellow scarf, and a green jacket that shows a large amount of cleavage. In this issue, Jean manipulates the Pryde’s minds to alter their moods towards the X-Men, leaving Scott unsettled.

Uncanny X-Men #131 (Marvel, March 1980), page 30

Uncanny X-Men #132 (Marvel, April 1980), page 16

In issue #132, the X-Men infiltrate a party at the Hellfire Club and just before she embraces her identity as the Black Queen, Jean is shown to be wearing a backless black dress with a front cutout that reveals her cleavage. Jacqueline Pearson writes of full-scale critical analyses of female reading practices in Britain beginning in the 1790s, and notes that “In particular, criticism of women’s reading became highly sexualized, sexual transgression being repeatedly figured by unwise reading… [women’s reading] is repeatedly figured as a sexual act or seen to reveal their sexual nature” (pages 8 and 87).

Pierre-Antoine Baudouin’s (1723-1769) Le midi, an etching which explicitly links women’s reading to eroticism (even before the 1790s)

In the comics, Wyngarde’s illusions influence Jean to “transgress” sexually through her dress. They also influence transgression by posing as a threat to Scott Summers’ place as the man in Jean’s life, since the second vision ends with Jean realizing that she has turned away from her proper love interest to kiss Wyngarde in the present day, and the vision featuring the Hellfire Club infiltration allows Wyngarde to interrupt a dance and eclipse Scott as the object of Jean’s attention and affection.

Wyngarde himself is likewise shown not to be a “real man” – he is, in fact, a disguise for the villain, Mastermind (first alluded to issue #129 when the comic tells the reader “he’s gone by the name Jason Wyngarde and worn the face of a gentleman rogue” – a common romantic archetype – and revealed to the characters as a fake in issue #132 when Cyclops sees his real face). 

Uncanny X-Men #129 (Marvel, January 1980), page 3

Uncanny X-Men #132 (Marvel, April 1980), page 16

Uncanny X-Men #131 (Marvel, March 1980), page 15

By centering positive emotions like love and sensuality associated with the feminine, Wyngarde’s visions challenge patriarchal modes of writing and telling narratives in which women in the historical past are always portrayed as miserable and suffering. But while these visions have the potential to be empowering, they ultimately reinscribe patriarchal control by being the instrument of an antagonist bent on bringing Jean into the clutches of the Hellfire Club. Jean’s agency is undercut as she exemplifies stereotypical beliefs that women are particularly vulnerable to strong emotions and more emotional than men, and her inability to discern fact from fiction likewise exemplifies stereotypes about female reader. Jacqueline Pearson writes that in the 18th and 19th centuries, bad reading was “metaphorically ‘seducing’ and [could] lead to actual seduction,” and critiques of novel reading were largely concerned with the ways in which men “seek power over women through books” (page 88). Though Jean’s illusion isn’t a book, it is a fictional narrative “written” by a man in order to seduce her and gain power over her – and in the second illusion, it begins to work. Moreover, the second vision associates Jean’s ruin with putting her sexualized body on display: her title, “queen,” suggests political superiority and absolute power, a threat to the more egalitarian team of X-Men, and throughout the rest of the comic, Jean’s sexualized body is filtered through the male gaze in the attempt to reinscribe patriarchal boundaries. As Jean grows more powerful, the panels offer more and more glimpses of Jean’s body for the presumed straight male viewer, with gratuitous shots of her breasts and buttocks. 

All things combined, these attempts undercut the original purpose of Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force to facilitate a sense of female belonging amongst the ranks of male characters with cosmic abilities. Phoenix: The Untold Story Vol. 1 (April 1984) contains a transcript of a roundtable discussion including John Byrne, Jim Shooter, Chris Claremont, Jim Salicrup, Louise Jones, and Terry Austin, entitled “The Dark Phoenix Tapes,” in which Claremont says “our intent then was to create an X-Men analog, if you will, to Thor – someone who was essentially the first female cosmic superhero.” But rather than positioning her as a hero, her abilities posed the problem of detracting from other (primarily male) characters. Louise Jones later responds by stating that “the main problem with [Jean] was that she was so powerful that I think she actually, as John [Byrne] said, made the rest of the group kind of redundant.” The solution, then, was not to position Jean as a villain, but rather as a tragic figure in which her own inability to control herself is the cause of her undoing, and her heroism is rooted in her sacrifice.

Uncanny X-Men #134 (Marvel, June 1980), page 22

Of course, Jean’s visions continue after her transformation into the Black Queen, becoming more problematic through her racist treatment of Storm. This vision marks a turning point for the reader, as the visions become less focused on romance and more focused on control over another human being. At this point, I would argue Jean is shown to be thoroughly corrupted through her racist actions, and the rest of the comic deals with the fallout of Jean internalizing the messages her visions have imprinted upon her, even after the removal of the architect. In what is perhaps an appropriate punishment for his actions, Jean exposes Wyngarde/Mastermind to the secrets of the universe, inundating him with knowledge which parallels how he inundated Jean with sensation. Wyngarde/Mastermind is thus neutralized through an overflow of (masculine) knowledge centered on the mind while Jean’s undoing is the overflow of (feminine) sensation centered on the body.

Uncanny X-Men #134 (Marvel, June 1980), page 23

Uncanny X-Men #134 (Marvel, June 1980), page 30

Uncanny X-Men #135 (Marvel, July 1980), page 7, power compared to the touch of a lover

It’s understandable why the Dark Phoenix film would cut these illusions, as the picture they present does not align with current trends in depicting women in major studio films. But despite Jean’s agency being undercut at every turn in the comic, the potential exists for a radical message: that fiction can spur action by imagining other ways of being, especially as it pertains to the depiction of female characters. This, in my opinion is where The Last Stand failed:the movie’s obsession with finding a mutant “cure” (especially for Rogue – a female mutant whose powers involve absorbing the life force of anyone she touches) coupled with the monstrous feminine undertones surrounding Jean Grey’s abilities meant that the film struggled to imagine a world in which powerful women were anything other than threatening. Perhaps Dark Phoenix seeks to rectify the sins of The Last Stand by taking risks, including involving more women in the story and featuring Jessica Chastain as a mysterious “shapeshifter,” an ability which confuses the line between appearances and reality. But by explicitly stating that one solution to a good adaptation was to “go cosmic,” Kinberg appears to be missing the point, thereby risking repeating some of his predecessor’s mistakes. True, Kinsberg has also discussed his interest in showing how relationships are affected by Jean’s turn to darkness, but Dark Phoenix still shows Jean to be a woman who struggles to control herself instead of imagining other ways she could be. If I may speak for most X-Men fans, we’re tired of seeing women’s powers as something to be controlled or feared, as something that exceeds what the fragile female body and mind can handle. We’re ready for women who break the mold and show us something we’re never seen before. We’ve seen evil Jean Grey – we’re ready for a heroic Phoenix.

Uncanny X-Men #135 (Marvel, July 1980), page 19

* Previous portions of this essay appeared on Kelly Williams’ personal blog, Shield Maidens (link).