X-Men’s “Phoenix Saga” Was Adapted to Perfection 25 Years Ago

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As the much-maligned FOX-Men swan song, Dark Phoenix, begins floating around digital platforms this week, another, better-received version of the story celebrates its silver anniversary. Debuting on September 5, 1994, the 9-part X-Men: The Animated Series epic fully embraced the space fantasy elements of the comics, taking the superhero cartoon genre to new heights and becoming the definitive onscreen Phoenix adaptation, yet to be topped.
 
Parts 1-5: The Phoenix Saga
 
Subdivided into “The Phoenix Saga” and “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” the story begins with Professor Charles Xavier, fresh off an encounter with an ancient alien spacecraft buried beneath New York, experiencing telepathic visions of an intergalactic conflict (i.e. aliens). Convinced that an upcoming U.S. space mission is in grave peril, the Prof commissions the X-Men to break into mission control, incapacitate the crew, and hijack the shuttle. The team hesitantly complies and soon finds themselves embroiled in an extraterrestrial family drama, as malevolent Shi’ar Emperor D’Ken hunts his renegade sister, Princess Lilandra, on the run with the M’Kraan Crystal, a powerful object that D’Ken intends to use to engulf the universe. Then things get really wild.
 
First, Jean Grey is possessed by the titular Phoenix Force, the entity which guards the M’Kraan Crystal and, by extension, the universe. Then, a mentally and emotionally comprised Xavier loses control of his dark impulses and tries to exterminate the X-Men. But things start looking up for Professor X when Lilandra arrives and reveals that she and Xavier have been telepathically linked since birth and are, thus, soulmates. But then Juggernaut shows up, pitches Xavier over a cliff, and absconds with the princess. And that’s just the end of episode two!
 
The first five episodes composing “The Phoenix Saga” are chock-full of comic book character guest stars including, but not limited to, Banshee, Black Tom Cassidy, the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, and my personal favorite, The Starjammers, a team of space pirates lead by Cyclops’s long-believed dead father. (Trivia: When I was 15, I wrote a spec script for a Starjammers TV pilot and mailed it certified to Marvel creative head Avi Arad. Arad left Marvel a few months later. I’m assuming it was because my script was so good he couldn’t stand it.) There are even a few non-X-Men Marvel cameos, including Black Panther and (the hand of) Spider-Man. 
 
Following spectacular battles and plot twists, the first sub-series ends in epic fashion with Phoenix/Jean (Jeanix?) defeating D’Ken and plunging the Crystal into the heart of earth’s sun, seemingly sacrificing herself.
 
Parts 6-9: The Dark Phoenix Saga
 
Fast forward a couple of episodes, and Jean is revealed to be alive, back on earth, and still possessed by Phoenix, who has developed a taste for the dark side of the human psyche. She soon comes to the attention of the villainous Inner Circle (the comics’ Hellfire Club, name-sanitized for Saturday mornings), who attempt to manipulate Jean and the Phoenix for their own evil ends. But Phoenix proves to be no one’s pawn.  
 
Going full on dark mode, she consumes a star, destroying an uninhabited solar system in the process, and attempts to eradicate the X-Men. Together, Xavier and Jean are able to contain Phoenix in Jean’s mind, but it’s too late. Lilandra and the Shi’ar have pronounced judgement, and Jeanix must die.
 
In a battle for Jean’s life fought on the dark side of earth’s moon, the X-Men engage the Imperial Guard and handily lose. The Phoenix then reasserts herself and is about to unleash her fury at full blast, but Jean overcomes the entity and allows Lilandra to execute her. A few moments later, the Phoenix, unfettered from human evil and back to her benevolent protector self, appears with Jean’s lifeless body and apologizes for all the shenanigans. Phoenix then revives Jean by taking a small piece of life force from each of the X-Men—all willing donors—and sends the entire team home. But not all ends well, for Xavier, at least, as the ordeal has irreparably damaged his relationship with Lilandra.
 
I rewatched the entire set of episodes on DVD (when’s the Blu-Ray coming, guys?) in celebration of this momentous occasion, and I was engaged and entertained from start to finish like it was 1994.
 
Look, for modern audiences accustomed to live-action superhero blockbusters and animated fare voiced by Hollywood A-listers, or for folks who didn’t grow up with the comics or cartoon, it might come off as nothing more than Saturday morning children fodder. But for this 90s kid, it’s still the quintessential X-Men adaptation, 25 years later.