Review by C.J. Bunce
Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, and John Byrne’s Dark Phoenix saga in the pages of The Uncanny X-Men has attained classic status in the eyes of comics readers, up there with The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and Days of Future Past. So adapting the story into another medium forty years later is one of those cultural mainstays, a modern analogue to creating a new Sherlock Holmes film, Frankenstein movie, or another generation’s interpretation of a Shakespeare play. Marvel Comics itself has given this a go a few times now, usually as subplots or tie-in concepts, and at the movies Marvel tried it with X-Men: United, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Dark Phoenix, this year’s wrap-up to the X-Men films. X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga, the new hardcover novel from author Stuart Moore (Captain Ginger, Civil War, Thanos: Death Sentence) comes the closest so far to a faithful adaptation for Dark Phoenix purists.
We probably should blame Marvel’s bankruptcy and resulting character/universe splits and business decisions for the disjointed handling of the Dark Phoenix characters and plot points at the movies. Dark Phoenix is an interesting story, but not the only X-Men story, so it would have been better revealed over five or six movies culminating in a Jean Grey-centered finale, since the character has been defined as Earth’s most powerful superhero as the Marvel universe is concerned. She’s worth it. Now with the successes of theatrical comic book adaptations, and the formula of long-term story development in the genre a proven commodity, maybe fans will see more loyal movie adaptations coming (hopefully only after we get to see some of the hundreds of other stories adapted). But fans of the comics will be pleased here: Moore doesn’t play games with his novel. Readers will find the classic game of chess and all the key pieces: Emma Frost, Sebastian Shaw, Jason Wyngarde, Donald Pierce, Harry Leland, Lilandra, Moira MacTaggert, and X-Men Xavier/Charles, Kitty Pryde, Scott Summers and Logan & Co. (except notably Beast, who for some reason was not included).
Despite marketing to the effect of adapting the tale to the 21st century, if that’s true it’s only subtly handled. The bones of the story are the same (including the awkward 1970s Harlequin romance subplot from the comics with Jean and a Regency era lover, every cringeworthy bit). New readers, those unfamiliar with the story at all, will likely find some of those classic Claremont and Cockrum elements a bit jolting and distracting to the overall narrative, and episodic tangent shifts more typical to a monthly comic than longform story. But Moore brings it all together with the key conflicts and outcomes of the source material falling into place.
As a bonus, Moore does what I have found to be the best part of Titan’s new lines of novels for both Marvel Comics and DC Comics–expanding the stories with as many additional universe characters possible. So look for appearances from characters movie audiences have not seen commingled with the X-Men: Peter Parker, Doctor Strange, Tony Stark, and more.
Ultimately it all comes down to the success of translating a powerful young woman from Marvel Girl to the Black Queen, to Phoenix and Dark Phoenix, to arrive at good rationale for her to be unable to control her powers, and to face the destiny of every legendary tale of the Phoenix. Readers will wrestle with the question of fault, of responsibility, intent, and punishment, all those elements of criminal law that courts must address in the real world. This means challenging your own take on whether the writers got it right back in the 1980s with the original story. Does Jean deserve to die? Is Jean Grey one and the same with the Dark Phoenix or can they be seen as two distinct beings? If there’s an answer in Moore’s adaptation, it’s only to the extent the questions were raised in the source material.
Fans of the original novel will find a loyal adaptation by Moore, and readers only familiar with the film versions will learn some new nuggets inside some favorite characters’ backgrounds. X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga is available now in hardcover here at Amazon, published as part of Titan Books’ ongoing comic book novel adaptations.