With Dark Phoenix now playing in theaters, you probably have a few questions either before going into the movie or after coming out of it. The next-to-last X-Men flick, and the final installment to feature this cast before Disney eventually reboots their newly owned property, delves into some oft-explored (and super obscure) Marvel Comics lore but doesn’t really do a great job of explaining it. So if you’re scratching your head about some of the more cosmic aspects of Dark Phoenix, we’ve got you covered. Be aware that spoilers lie ahead.
So fans of the X-Men have long wondered what, exactly, Jessica Chastain‘s part to play in Dark Phoenix would be. The creative team and cast were pretty tight-lipped about it, leaving out the character’s name and only divulging the fact that she was a villain and “otherworldly shapeshifter.” Early speculation was that she would be playing a version of Lilandra, Empress of the Shi’ar Empire, from the Phoenix/Dark Phoenix Saga(s). That couldn’t be further from the truth and Chastain confirmed as much years ago. However, her character’s “quest to imprison and execute Dark Phoenix, leading her into conflict with the X-Men” remained more or less correct. So what’s going on here? Here’s your final spoiler warning!
After the opening action sequence in Dark Phoenix, in which Cyclops uses a comically cosmic laser turret and Storm controls “space weather” (but I digress), we return to Earth where everything seems copacetic once more. But then three brightly lit alien ships arrive and land in the American Northeast. What emerges from these crafts in order to crash a very fancy dinner party, hosted by Chastain’s human character who appears very briefly, is a species of naked alien shape-shifters. One of them takes on Chastain’s form and infiltrates the party, brutally killing the husband and, presumably, sending her fellow aliens to kill the others and take on their appearances. (I really hope they sat down and enjoyed the rest of that dinner and didn’t let it go to waste, but that’s not canon at this point.)
As we later learn in a brief bit of dialogue, these aliens are the D’Bari, a race of beings from the pages of Marvel Comics. The D’Bari, living within the Shi’ar Empire, appeared way back in Avengers vol. 1 #4 (March 1964) from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. One of their race, by the name of Vuk (more on that later), crash-landed in Earth’s oceans and encountered Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner. Then on the villainous side of things, Namor tasked Vuk with turning the Avengers to stone using his alien tech in exchange for help getting back to his home planet; Captain America later turned the tide (so to speak), assisting Vuk in restoring the Avengers before sending him home as thanks for his help. Nearly 15 years later, the D’Bari race would suffer a much more memorable demise.
In Uncanny X-Men #135 (July 1980), an extinction-level cataclysm was caused by the Dark Phoenix entity restoring itself by destroying the D’Bari system’s sun, killing 5 billion D’Bari in the process. (As a side note, the “light-side” Phoenix, who had sacrificed herself, relived the experiences of a D’Bari woman just before the sun’s nova killed everyone, thanks to Death’s interference.) One D’Bari who managed to survive the deadly event was Vuk, who was still off-planet at this point. Vuk learned of his people’s and planet’s destruction while seeking sanctuary on an outpost populated by Xartans, who adopted Vuk’s appearance to avoid persecution by the Skrulls; sadly, they all ended up petrified (but that is a tale for another day.)
However, Vuk was able to shake off this effect later on, allowing him to encounter the Collector, Wolverine, and Galactus, making the character a rather interesting “last of his race” type who kept popping up over the years. Vuk once donned a suit of armor and the title of Starhammer in order to assault the X-Men and, specifically, Jean Grey, in an act of vengeance for his fallen people. In a bit of mental manipulation, Jean convinces Starhammer/Vuk that he has actually slain her, causing his remaining D’Bari people to hold him up as a hero … at least until the facade falls and he’s shunned as an outcast instead. This leads to one last attack on the Grey family but Vuk is non-violently turned aside by a very gifted three-year-old. He’s allowed to live out the remainder of his days in peace with the rest of his people who travel to an alternate dimension where the D’Bari yet live in order to rejoin society.
It’s no wonder that Dark Phoenix didn’t include all of that nonsense, but the core idea of an alien civilization who’s pissed at the Phoenix Force for wiping almost all of them out is still here. So is the name, Vuk, which is Chastain’s character’s name even if it’s never (or rarely) mentioned on-screen. What’s lost here is the nuance. Rather than the upbeat ending in which the D’Bari get to resettle with their remaining people (which is something a related Marvel animated series managed to do well), they all end up exterminated by the Phoenix Force anyway, this time under the sway of an “awoken” Jean Grey. (How does Jean deal with her tendency to kill innocent humans and mutants around her? Kill angry aliens instead!)
But what’s more interesting here is that the supposed reshoots, including a totally reworked ending, for Dark Phoenix apparently became necessary because another Marvel movie (ahem, probably Captain Marvel) had too similar of an ending. Let’s take that a step further and speculate: It had the exact same plot. The devil’s in the details but here are the broad strokes: A woman with incredible powers has difficulty controlling them and walks the line between heroism and villainy. When she encounters a shape-shifting alien with an ax to grind, she learns that the truth is more complicated than it first appeared. What she’d been told all along was a lie, and the key to everything might be rooted n her own power. In the end, the woman experiences an awakening, saves the day, and is able to resettle the alien race peacefully.
Obviously that last bit had to change for Dark Phoenix since Captain Marvel beat them to it by quite a bit. That’s some ruthless insider production battles, but it’s certainly not unheard of in the industry. Adding insult to injury, Captain Marvel‘s plot is the better one, even if the Skrulls’ endgame pulled from the D’Bari lore. And rubbing more salt in the wound, Disney’s plans to buy up Fox essentially meant that they didn’t particularly care what happened with Dark Phoenix since not only was it not part of their production plans, but if it happens to tank, they can write it off as a loss. This really is a savage business, isn’t it? But yay, comic books!