This contains spoilers for X-Men: Apocalypse.
Certain comic book stories capture the imagination of Hollywood more than others. I've noticed that these are stories that have defnitives endings, often with deaths at the conclusion. I thought for sure that's what we were getting with Captain America: Civil War, a movie that would end with Cap's death, which happened in the fallout of the comic book Civil War. It's what everybody was waiting for from the moment Gwen Stacy was introduced in Spider-Man 3, and again in the Amazing Spider-Man movies - that scene of her falling off the bridge and Spidey accidentally snapping her neck as he tried to save her. In a medium where the main stories never end these clean conclusions appeal. They maybe appeal too much - Gwen Stacy is a dead woman from her first frame in Amazing Spider-Man, and to be honest that's more than a little boring to me.
It's the same problem that Jean Grey has in the X-Men movies. To the Hollywood adapter, and to the casual fan, Jean Grey has one story: she becomes the Phoenix, becomes corrupted by power and has to die. It's like the Jean Grey story, and it has overshadowed the character ever since. Even in the comics, where she came back from the dead for a few years before dying again and is now a younger version of herself plucked from the past but living in the present (don't ask) The Dark Phoenix Saga hangs over her all the time. What's funny is that it used to be Tony Stark had exactly one story: Demon in a Bottle, wherein he succumbed to alcoholism. That was, forever, the defining Iron Man story. When Iron Man came out in 2008 people talked about how it was setting up that story. It was the guaranteed end point of Tony Stark's arc.
Except Marvel Studios didn't go there. They flirted with it in Iron Man 2, but they never went all the way. And now, at this point, it looks like they never will. The result? We kind of don't even think about Demon in a Bottle anymore. Iron Man is no longer defined by that one story.
All of this is to say that Jean Grey doesn't need to be defined by Phoenix either. If Tony Stark can escape his narrative limitations, surely Jean Grey can do the same. And yet, at the end of X-Men: Apocalypse, what do we see? The fucking Phoenix force. It's Jean's first appearance in the new continuity and this is already hanging over her head.
Bryan Singer seems to love the Phoenix story. He was building to it in his original trilogy, ending X2 with a hint at the Phoenix and planning X-Men: The Last Stand to wrap it up. Then he left the movie, shit happened and Phoenix still occurred, but maybe in a weird, half-assed way (I don't know if Singer ever intended Scott Summers to kill Jean, as he had in the comics. James Marsden left the X-Men movies to tag along with Singer to Superman Returns, thus necessitating Cyclops getting offed very early in The Last Stand). Back in the early 2000s the idea of The Dark Phoenix Saga hitting movie screens was exciting; the first X-Men was really small, but Dark Phoenix is huuuuge - in the comics Jean Grey destroys a whole fucking solar system. We were hungry for big action back then, for superhero movies that didn't end with battles in hallways, docks or bridges. And it's a serious story; at a time when superhero movies had been silly Batman & Robin junk the promise of a massive, morally grey epic was too tempting to ignore.
But like I said, Last Stand whiffed it. Days of Future Past reset the timeline to such a degree that Jean Grey is alive in the present day - either she never became Dark Phoenix or got better. Still, continuity is the last thing taken into consideration on an X-Men movie, and so the groundwork is already being laid for Phoenix. At the end of Apocalypse Professor X urges Jean to let loose all of her power, and she's encased in the fiery form of the Phoenix Force, and nobody bothers to mention it. It's just there for us, an Easter Egg.
What a rotten Easter Egg. I think I'd be okay with it if there were another director at the helm of the X movies, but I don't believe Singer has the skill or the vision to get to the cosmic next level necessary to do The Dark Phoenix Saga correctly. I don't think The Last Stand, in total, is that far off from what he would have given us had he directed the movie. I think we'd be in for another grounded, ugly, earthbound version of this story. One without the scope or soap opera pathos that made the original an enduring classic.
But even beyond that I find the idea of a character in a superhero movie being marked for death because that's their comic book story to be boring as hell. I loved that Civil War didn't go to Fallen Son; it was surprising to see Cap survive and assemble his new team of Secret Avengers. One of the things I've loved about the Marvel Studios movies is how they take the lead from the comics, but go in their own direction. Again, Civil War is a great example of a movie that is inspired - conceptually - by the comics but not beholden to them. Compare that with X-Men: Apocalypse, which includes Angel, gives him metal death wings and makes him a Horseman for the sole reason that this is what happened in the comics. It has no meaning in the movie, the character is not explored, but it's the most famous aspect of the original Apocalypse story, so there it is. Written in for no good reason.
Even if Jean Grey will eventually become Dark Phoenix - and there's no denying that in the right hands that would be good drama - why did it need to be established already? Ignoring the canonical considerations, why bother setting that up now? Why not let that play out over time, as opposed to putting a big road sign that tells us where it's all headed? Yes, Hitchcock tells us that knowing about the bomb under the table is better than having the bomb explode suddenly, but I don't think he meant establish the bomb two movies in advance. Maybe Bryan Singer feels the need to do Dark Phoenix over to get it right - but he doesn't. It's okay. Really.
What I would love to see in future X-Men movies (besides a new director at the helm) is a reimagining of Jean Grey's story, a new version of Jean that can supplant the popular, doomed vision that has tainted the character since the 1980s. If the movies were strong enough to save Iron Man from the bottle, clearly they're strong enough to save Jean Grey from the Phoenix.