Jessica Chastain played WHO in Dark Phoenix?
The X-Men film series has run an impressive 19 years without a hard reboot. To contrast, Spider-Man has rebooted twice in that time and so has Batman. It’s for this reason that X-Men remains something of a throwback to the old manner of adapting comic books to film. In the early 2000s it was conventional wisdom that “stupid shit” be avoided, like garish costumes, incongruous fantasy and sci-fi elements, anything that could break the audience’s already charitable suspension of disbelief. Yet that’s not the case anymore. Disney in particular proved the audience will go for outrageous concepts if delivered correctly. Dark Phoenix, the twelfth and final installment of FOX’s X-Men series, finally eschews the traditional caution and formal conservatism by introducing elements that would have been beyond the pale for the franchise a decade ago. The X-Men’s decades-long relationship with alien life forms is finally here, and we’re all the dumber for it. Not only is it too little too late from the perspective of someone wanting the X-Men to get real weird with it, writer/director/producer Simon Kinberg botches it to a degree not seen since 2015’s Fantastic Four, also written and produced by Kinberg.
The greatest evidence of this is who Jessica Chastain is playing. Or not playing. When FOX announced her casting, speculation abounded as to who she would be playing. Lilandra, the Empress of the Shi’Ar Empire? One of the members of the Hellfire Club, the shadowy organization that manipulated Jean Grey into becoming Dark Phoenix? Maybe a gender flipped version of Mastermind. Hell, the last round of commercials seemed to imply Jessica Chastain was all in Jean’s head, a manifestation of the Phoenix Force itself. In fact it turned out to be none of the above. She plays someone you’d never guess in a million years. I’d be shocked if you’d ever heard of the character before. She portrays Vuk of the D’Bari people. What the fuck is Vuk? Who are the D’Bari? Well, the D’Bari are the infamous “broccoli people” wiped out by Dark Phoenix and used as justification that the character had to die to be punished/redeemed for her crimes. As for Vuk, that is a deep cut that hails back to the 1960s. Vuk actually is the very first supervillain Captain America ever fought.
Next month: “Well, your fan mail said it all: no more Vuk for any reason!”
A disclaimer about early Avengers comics: it took them a while to hit their stride, so most…puzzling…elements of Avengers #4 can be chalked up to that. Avengers #4 is famously known not as the first appearance of Vuk but Captain America’s revival into the Silver Age. The issue starts where the previous one left off, with Namor the Submariner retreating from a fight with the Avengers. While searching for the Atlantean people, he finds a group of Eskimos bowing down to what is clearly a man encased in ice. For some reason these people isolated somewhere in the North Sea know who Namor is and flee upon him identifying himself. (Was identification REALLY necessary? He has feet wings and green scale undies.) In the commotion the block of ice winds up in the gulf stream and the figure inside defrosts just in proximity to the Avengers seacraft. They bring him in and discover it’s Captain America. “And his face mask–with the proud letter “A” on it! It must be him!” Iron Man exclaims. The only discrepancy is age–he hasn’t since World War II. It prompts a short, closed quarters fight in which Cap claims he’s fought bigger men than Giant-Man and he is stopped by the Wasp growing to regular size. “A girl! But–from where–??” The Avengers’ bar for believing Captain America is who he says he is is whether or not he can beat the shit out of them. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes my ass.
He’s like the Silver Age Bill Maher!
He explains to the team his last memories before being frozen in the drink. Cap and Bucky–that’s his teenage pal–see a drone plane full of explosives taking off and aim to stop it. The plane explodes in midair with Bucky on top of it, Captain America having fallen off it seconds before. “I didn’t care if I lived or died!” goes his modern day narration. From there it’s him speculating the ice slowed his aging and he spent the two decades being worshipped by Eskimos as a supernatural object. “We believe you, Captain America!” scientist Giant-Man says. Who needs tests and peer review when you can take a man you found floating in the water’s supposition for it? The Subvenger (that’s what I’m calling it) resurfaces at the dock, at which the team is received warmly by journalists. A flash hits them and the Avengers turn to stone, the journalists reasoning it’s “probably some kinda trick the Avengers used to duck out of an interview!” Captain America thinks the statues are monuments to the heroes, despite their strange poses. Without any chaperones, he wanders the streets of the Big Apple, amazed by new cars and for some reason the UN Building. An officer whose nostalgia for the hero reduces him to tears directs him to a hotel, where he contemplates–what else?–Bucky.
Bucky lookalike Rick Jones has been tailing Cap and throws him in for a loop. He’s prompted to stop his mourning, as Cap realizes the moody teenager with the inscrutable slang represents hope…or something. “In a way, Bucky can still live again!” Some people would call that ‘grooming’, Captain. To Rick’s credit, he is not on board with this shit. “After we find the Avengers, I’m sure they can recommend a nice head shrinker for you!” Rick Jones is great and it’s a shame he didn’t appear in the MCU, but he would only work if written as what a 45 year old man in the mid-1960s thought a teenager sounded like. It would be utterly bewildering to audiences so I can see why he did not make the cut. But really, he was the proto-Coulson, the character who tied the room together.
The two go to a darkroom, because apparently Rick Jones knows a guy with a darkroom. How many teens know other teens with darkrooms? I guess it was common in the 60s. Through the power of Jones’ teen network they also receive the photographs the reporters took of the Avengers, and Jack Kirby is blessed with the task of drawing photograph enlargement equipment. Although he’s been on ice for decades, even Cap knows cameras have not advanced to look like guns and singles out one suspicious figure in the photo array that’s holding a gun. The Teen Brigade finds him, Cap confronts him after defeating a squad of hired goons. Cap rips the assailant’s face off and rather than killing him reveals an alien, the very one Jessica Chastain is playing in Dark Phoenix! Now, does the guy look like Jessica Chastain? Well, uh, not quite.
Vuk couldn’t be that pale in the comics because he relies on photosynthesis.
If she faithfully portrayed a stalk of celery in a trenchcoat with a mop of shitty brown hair I would’ve been impressed. Vuk, who goes unnamed in this story because “Earth tongues cannot even pronounce it”, explains he’s been trapped on Earth ever since his ship crashed in the ocean, which was hundreds and hundreds of years ago. How far? So far that his appearance and propensity for turning people to stone created the myth of Medusa. “Your hair–in the dark you must have looked like a woman to them” reasons Cap, but no, I don’t think so. Somebody involved had to have poor vision or the tale was embellished because no one wanted to admit to getting beaten by a freakish vegetable monster. “Uh, no, it was a beautiful woman with snakes for hair, honest!” Anyway, for centuries he’s been wandering the Earth and only now has he met the Submariner, who offers the deal of turn the Avengers to stone in exchange for unstucking his spaceship. I would appreciate a miniseries about Vuk intersecting with important historical events like the French Revolution, the Inquisition and his contribution being turning people to stone for 100 hours. That’s right, his gun has a time limit, so everybody could’ve waited four days and the Avengers would be back to normal. Avengers #4’s plot could be solved by doing nothing.
Even myths make people more attractive.
But that wouldn’t made for a very exciting comic, now would it! Vuk reverses their transformation so the Avengers help him find his spaceship. This consists of building a huge platform for most of the afternoon and combining Mjolnir with a remote control box that views the camera feed of a buoy to pull the ship out of the bottom of the ocean. I know this is early in Thor’s career and his hammer’s capabilities consist of “whatever the fuck Jack Kirby feels like drawing”, but magnetism seems like a real stretch to me. (To his credit, Stan Lee clarifies Mjolnir produces/controls “cosmic” magnetism. A hard sci-fi is all we ask for with these 60s comics.) That’s what the Avengers have to work with, I guess; they can’t rely on the “twice normal” sized muscles of Giant-Man. Of all the things to impress Cap with, you go with double sized muscles? Pym deserves that inferiority complex.
It took me years to realize “powdering one’s nose” was not a euphemism for cocaine use.
The final six pages are dedicated to a fight scene between the Avengers and Namor, who is incensed that his plan failed. Along the way he has picked up an assemblage of Atlantean soldiers. The fight mostly consists of Namor trying to wrest Thor’s hammer away from him. Iron Man is beaten early on when his transistors stop working (in the 1960s, transistors were their equivalent of nanobots), Giant-Man is almost eaten by a fish, Wasp’s sole contribution is distracting Namor so he doesn’t beat Iron Man to death, and the rest is a pretty impressive tussle with Thor. Rick Jones is held hostage for like two panels but the whole fight is wrapped up with Vuk’s ship taking off and causing the island everyone was on to shake. “Not until later will the irony of the situation dawn upon the frustrated sea prince! For the very alien he had hoped would destroy the Avengers has unwittingly rescued them at the crucial moment!” Despite not doing shit until a boy who reminds him of his 40s sidekick was put in danger, the Avengers offer Captain America and he accepts. So ends the first appearance of Vuk and the Silver Age reintroduction of the Sentinel of Liberty. Bet you didn’t expect the involvement of Medusa OR darkrooms, did you!
Having seen Dark Phoenix, I will say not only does Jessica Chastain’s character not resemble the Vuk of Avengers #4 at all, she clearly was meant to be a Skrull of some sort before production delays and reshoots turned her character into something else. (After all, this is a film that apparently had to scrap the third act because of its similarities to Captain Marvel.) Her and her race can shapeshift and in their natural form they’re green individuals. FOX had some claim over the Skrulls due to the Fantastic Four bundle of rights at some point. Maybe they lost the rights or maybe they changed it to further differentiate from Captain Marvel. In any event, Vuk has only appeared in a handful of other comics. An arc in Sensational She-Hulk saw him impersonated by the Carbon Copy Men (another Skrulls knockoff), an Uncanny X-Men tie-in to the forgettable event Maximum Security gave him armor and a new nickname, Starhammer. He tried to take revenge on Jean Grey for the Phoenix killing his people; Jean uses her psychic powers to make him think he killed her. An X-Men Gold annual turns him into an enemy of Rachel Grey and…look, it’s even unclear where ‘Vuk’ came from. Reading these subsequent stories is a CHORE.
This, on the other hand, was a delight. The story makes little sense and jumps around place to place like all good absurd Silver Age tales. It would have made for a much more interesting movie had Jessica Chastain been a thousands of years old broccoli person whose self-defense created the legend of Medusa and only wanted the Phoenix’s help unlodging her ship from the bottom of the ocean. Critics might say “it’s weird for a superhero epic to end with the X-Men helping an alien with vehicle troubles” but it fucking beats what the movie actually was, right? Hopefully when all this shit is under one roof (Disney) someone has the courage to suggest “when we reboot Captain America, let’s give him a run-in with Vuk!”. That would prove once and for all Hollywood isn’t ashamed of the source material, even when they should be.