Uncanny X-Men was not a popular comic book—until Chris Claremont made it one. In 1975, when Claremont took over writing Uncanny X-Men, the series had just been rebooted after a five-year hiatus due to poor sales. Claremont promptly assembled a new, multicultural team of Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Banshee, and Warpath, and began planting plot seeds he would reap for the next 17 years of his authorship.
One such seed was 1980’s “Dark Phoenix Saga,” which became one of the most salient stories comics have produced. Claremont took the original X-Men’s lone woman character, Jean Grey—formerly known as Marvel Girl—and introduced her to a cosmic bird of fire called the Phoenix. Together, Jean and the Phoenix saved the universe from a corrupt alien emperor—but afterwards, the Phoenix’s power overwhelmed Jean’s humanity and corrupted her.
With Dark Phoenix, Hollywood is making a second attempt at adapting Claremont’s story. Nearly 40 years after Claremont wrote the riveting tale, I got the chance to call him up and ask how the story has aged.
MERCURY: Do you remember how you came up with the idea for the “Dark Phoenix Saga”?
CHRIS CLAREMONT: We wanted to age-up the character. She’d been the girl-next-door, Marvel Girl, for too long. It wasn’t interesting anymore.
When I first read the saga, I was excited to see an all-powerful woman superhero. Later, I viewed the story as an allegory about feminism and women’s emotions. Why does Jean Grey’s power overwhelm her? Why can’t she handle it?
At the time, women weren’t regarded as credible, and oftentimes people found it scary how professional and competent they could be. There’s some of that. But it’s also about a human with the power of a god. Jean Grey, the human being, is the moral center of Phoenix. If you’d taken her a billion years down the evolutionary line, all would have been well.... Jean just wasn’t old enough to deal with that yet.
I suppose Storm was also sort of a goddess.
And Storm lost control, too! Rachel Grey, Jean Grey’s daughter from the future, was my answer to that question. Whatever foolishness we get up to, our kids will get it right.
Why do you think readers are so attached to Jean Grey?
She’s well written? [Laughs] It’s not doing anything special to write an interesting woman character, if you know interesting women. One of my best friends is a five-time Pulitzer nominee. When she was young, she’d hear about an Ebola outbreak and go off hunting it in her MOPP suit. If she can do those sorts of things, how can I not try to make the characters I’m writing follow in her footsteps?
The first “Dark Phoenix Saga” film, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, was a bust. I’ve been pretty skeptical about Dark Phoenix’s writer/director, Simon Kinberg, who also wrote The Last Stand, taking another go. Did you consult on either film?
I didn’t consult on this film. For The Last Stand I wrote the novelization in the Fox offices for six weeks. It was a total clusterfuck because the script was essentially a first draft. Fox didn’t have enough faith in the X-Men, even after the success of the first two films. There was a brief moment where Stan Lee and I were in a meeting with James Cameron and names were floating around [to direct X-Men]. He brought up a little-known director named Kathryn Bigelow. Looking back on that, can you imagine? The Hurt Locker? Zero Dark Thirty? Her making an X-Men movie? But then Stan Lee brought up Spider-Man, and James Cameron loves Spider-Man.
Have you heard that Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner, who plays Jean Grey in Dark Phoenix, and Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams, who plays Wolfsbane in the upcoming The New Mutants, wish their characters could have a buddy film?
Oh yeah, I could write that! Just set it five months before Dark Phoenix.