Dark Phoenix: The Director's Cut
DVD technology has changed the way movies are viewed and made. The technology allows filmmakers the opportunity to include material on the disc that could not fit on a VHS. Such material includes extra audio tracks of the filmmakers' comments, additional scenes that were cut from the theatrical release, and special behind-the-scenes documentaries. This allows the viewer an opportunity to see the director's and writer's original intentions. For the first time, the viewer can learn how the movie's plot, characters, etc. changed from its initial conception. Some DVD's include alternate endings to the movie. Others have enough deleted material to make the film on the disc seem like a completely different movie!
Sadly, there is no equivalent technology for comic books. A book can only be read in a linear fashion, from its beginning to its end. One could not add "deleted scenes" to a book without publishing a new copy of the book. The closest comics do have to this technology is the trade paperback. But even here, the only additional material tends to be the artists' sketches. It is rare to find a book that includes additional story pages. Rarer still are the trades that show the original script for the comic, ("Sandman: Dream Country" is the only example of this I have ever seen.) In short, we never know how the final story differed from the creators' original intent. There is no comic book with a "director's cut".
Except for 'The Dark Phoenix Saga'.
'The Dark Phoenix Saga' is one of the most famous and significant X-Men stories ever published. It's still remembered as one of the best comic stories ever written, and possibly the best X-Men story ever told. The ending shocked the comic book community when it was first published nearly 20 years ago, (and if you don't know what happened, stop reading now.) Marvel is printing the book this summer for the 11th time. No other Marvel trade book has been through so many printings. I know only one other TPB to go through so many printings: Watchmen.
I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I didn't read 'Dark Phoenix' until two months ago. I never even thought to read it until I decided to buy every TPB labeled 'Marvel's Finest', (but only the 1998-2000 releases.) But before I read the book, I read a unique comic.
'Dark Phoenix: The Untold Story'.
This 48-page special, published in 1984, the same year as the first printing of the 'Dark Phoenix' trade, contains an alternate ending to the 'Dark Phoenix Saga'; the ending originally intended by its writers, Chris Claremont and John Byrne. The book reprints issue #137, the conclusion to the 'Saga', with new art and dialogue. It also includes the transcript of a round table discussion with the people responsible for the story: Claremont, Byrne, Jim Shooter, (Marvel's EIC at the time), Jim Salicrup, Louise Simonson, (X-Men editors when the story was first published), and Terry Austin, (the story's inker). These six people discuss the reasons why the ending was changed, and what Claremont and Byrne would have done had next.
In case you can't find this book at your shop or over the net, allow me to summarize: By issue #137, Jean Grey had become bonded with the Phoenix, a cosmic entity of almost limitless power. This power, combined with the manipulations of the mutant mentalist Mastermind, (Whoa! Gotta cut back on my Stan Lee intake.), corrupted Jean. She traveled into space and consumed a star, thereby destroying an orbitting planet and its 5 billion inhabitants. The Beast and Prof. X were able to drive the Phoenix back into Jean's subconscious, but the threat of that power remained.
This brings us to historic issue #137. Lilandra, Empress of the Shi'ar Empire, demands that Jean Grey must be turned over to her. The threat the Phoenix poses to the universe is too great to let Jean live free. Prof. X, Lilandra's former lover, invokes the right of combat for Jean's freedom. Lilandra agrees, knowing that the X-Men cannot be allowed to win. The X-Men retire to their rooms and prepare for tomorrow's battle.
At this point, the two books begin to differ. In the published version, Wolverine vows to "stand by Jeannie all the way!" But the alternate version has Wolverine thinking of Mariko, the woman he almost married. He also admits, "For the first time in my life, the thought of dyin'...bothers me." This little look into Wolverine's soul helps to humanize him. I found it to be more personal and emotional than the stock 'tough guy' dialogue Wolvie spouts in the published book.
The alternate version has less dialogue for Beast and Nightcrawler. Beast grumbles at how he's been denied the chance to call the Avengers for help, (he was a member at the time). The "public" version has Beast go on about due process and 'innocent until proven guilty'. The published book also has Nightcrawler wondering if Jean is worth fighting for, while in the alternate book he only worries about the coming battle and his skills. I find the dialogue in the alternate version more natural and less "clunky". It's probably because the published dialogue was added later. Remember, the
alternate version is the original form of the story, and hence it would fit in better with the story's flow.
Scott's thoughts in the published book are of Jean and the moral conflict he has. His thoughts in the alternate version are of how his entire life seems to have been determined by institutions. This is the main difference between the published and original books. In the published version, the X-Men's concern is with their teammate. Each of them tries to sort out their feelings about Jean, and whether they're doing the right thing. The alternate version has the X-Men review their life entire. They think and act like tomorrow, they'll die. This gives the alternate book a deeper, darker mood. The story becomes more than saving the life of a teammate; it's about the X-Men facing what could be their last day alive! And I've never seen it done better, with more feeling, more sadness, and more sensitivity than in these pages. Pity that so few people have seen them.
The rest of the book, the battle between the Imperial Guard and the X-Men among ancient alien ruins on the moon goes the same way as the published version. One by one, the X-Men are defeated, until only Jean and Scott remain. They make one final charge . . .
In the alternate version, Jean Grey is captured. The Shi'ar perform a "psychic lobotomy" that permanently removes Jean's telepathic powers. It reduces her to a normal human. Such a fate, to render a telepath powerless, to make her blind, deaf, and dumb on such a deep and intimate level, would be a fate worse than death. Had this ending been published, Jean would slowly come to grips with her lack of power. What's more, the memory of her crimes would return to haunt her. According to the round table transcripts, Claremont had intended for Magneto to offer Jean the chance to become powerful again around issue #150. Jean would wrestle with her conscience over this, but ultimately turn the offer down. Chris felt that this storyline would give Jean the chance to be a hero. To quote Chris, "She and Scott would have gone off and lived happily ever after and gotten married and that would be the end."
In the published version, the Phoenix power "flares up" again. Jean, swearing she'll be overcome by the power again, telekinetically operates an old laser cannon buried on the battlefield. Jean destroys herself, releasing the Phoenix force, "to the cosmos that is its home".
Now, that ending might have worked. I could have bought it if it weren't for a few "mistakes". For starters, when the Phoenix power returns, Prof. X telepathically awakens the other, unconscious, X-Men who then try to contain Jean. Can that be done? Within the laws of psudeo-science that govern super-powers, can a person who's been physically knocked out be revived through telepathic willpower? If a state of unconsciousness has been brought about physically, can it be reversed psychically? Maybe I'm over-thinking the point, but I'd feel better if there was more evidence one way or the other.
The next flaw is the "moment", the moment when the Phoenix returns. A Shi'ar observer ship is relaying its report of the battle to Lilandra. In the alternate version, the ship reports the X-Men's defeat. Sad, yet it feels natural. In the published version, the ship reports a sudden spike in energy. The pilots cry out in panic, "No! Sharra and K'ythri-NO!" and are destroyed by an energy bolt from the Phoenix. After seeing the X-Men defeated, one by one, after seeing Scott and Jean make their last stand, after the entire issue has been leading up to the defeat of the X-Men, the sudden return of the Phoenix feels. . . well, it feels the same as when that blond German in 'Die Hard' leaps off his gurney and charges after McCain. It feels like cheating. And it certainly feels like it was tacked on at the last minute.
But my biggest problem with the ending is "Scott's Reasoning". Now, I acknowledge the long tradition of comic book characters coming up with semi-plausible explanations based on flimsy evidence. But Scott's reasoning for how Jean arranged for her own death contradicts a couple of facts. Let me reprint his dialogue to show you what I mean:
"You took steps to ensure that, if Lilandra couldn't stop you, you'd do the job yourself. You must have picked the minds of the Kree and Skrull observers, learned what ancient weapons were hidden here. Then, you used your fight with the X-Men to drain you of enough energy to make you vulnerable. And finally, when you were ready, you...you..."
So, in brief, Jean read the minds of two aliens NEITHER SHE NOR SCOTT EVER SEE ON THE BATTLEFIELD to learn the secrets of the ancient ruins on the moon WHICH SHE NEVER SAW BEFORE, AND DID NOT KNOW OF ANY CONNECTION BETWEEN THEM AND THE KREE OR SKRULL, expected the X-Men to survive, or even win, a battle AGAINST STRONGER OPPONENTS who are FIGHTING FOR THE EXISTANCE OF THE UNIVERSE, then have the X-Men fight her when the Phoenix returned ONLY AT A SPECIFIC POINT DURING THE BATTLE AND NOT A MOMENT SOONER, weaken her enough to be killed, BUT NOT SO MUCH THAT SHE COULDN"T OPERATE A WEAPON OF ALIEN ORIGIN, turn the weapon on herself, and die.
Yeah, that's exactly what happened. Right. Sure.
Maybe that was Claremont's way of saying, "This wasn't my idea, folks."
Long-time Marvel fans know that the ruins, the "Blue Area" of the moon, were constructed by the Kree. But the X-Men didn't know that. So why scan the mind of the Kree? Hell, he's just an observer, not an archeologist. The odds of him knowing what weapons were hidden on the moon are the same as me knowing what's hidden in King Tut's tomb. One other thing: After the X-Men beam down to the moon, Lilandra says, "They will not win, Araki. You have my word on that." This leads me to believe that Lilandra rigged the fight! I'd find it easier to believe she programmed the laser cannon, being one of several throughout the area, to fire upon Jean if the Phoenix's power returned. Hey, when the stakes are the fate of all life in the universe, you can't afford to play fair.
So now the question becomes, "How did this happen? Why did Chris and John change the story?" For the same reason we have Secret Wars II and Broadway comics: Jim Shooter. Shooter felt that Jean had to be punished for killing 5 billion people. He also felt that, the way the story was written, Jean was in control of her actions. She was not possessed by the Phoenix, but corrupted by it. Jean had to pay, and removing her powers wasn't enough. On one point, I agree with Jim. Jean is clearly not possessed. But I don't think killing her solves the story problem of "What next?".
The idea of an ordinary person committing such a heinous crime, the fact that they once had the capacity to commit such evil and actually enjoy it, I think such an idea is great! I love the conflicts brought about when a mortal becomes a god, and vice versa. Claremont's original intention, to have Jean slowly come to grips with these memories, with the demons she just discovered within herself, that's the kind of deeply personal and philosophical drama that comics are sadly lacking. Nevertheless, I can see Shooter's point. Jean couldn't remain a "hero" having killed so many innocent people. Still, one death doesn't seem like much to atone for the death of a planet, its people, its history, and its unwritten future.
Well now that I've told you "what might have been", I hope you'll go out and find 'The Untold Story'. The alternate ending is reason enough to find it, but the round table discussion is also interesting. You can almost feel the friction between Claremont and Byrne. These feelings would lead to Byrne leaving the book, (before issue #150, by the way).
And for those of you who say the original ending was better, think on this: After the death of Jean Grey, we were introduced to her clone, Madelyne Prior, who ultimately lead to the "Inferno" crossover. Jean Grey later returned to life. It was explained that the Phoenix force had taken on her form and memories, while the real Jean was cocooned at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea. Her return lead to the launching of the "X-Factor" series, which was a mixed blessing at best.
Meanwhile, Scott had married Madelyne and had a son who would become Cable. Cable has come to symbolize all that was wrong with comics in the 1990's, from his convoluted history to his ultra-violent "heroics". Finally, if Shooter had not asked Claremont and Byrne to change their ending, perhaps their parternership would have lasted longer. True, they didn't always get along. Their break-up was probably inevitable. But without that extra stress, without having to compromise their original vision, perhaps their break up would've been more amicable.
Of course, all of this is acadmeic. As readers, we can only see what has been published. But this time, we can also see what might have been.
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