Last year's X-Men: Apocalypse marked a turning point for Fox's #XMen franchise. For the first time, the tentpole films completely embraced their comic book roots, pitting a band of wayward mutant teenagers against a world-threatening villain, and even closing with a glimpse of the X-Men abandoning black leather and donning their traditional costumes for the first time in movie history.
Continuing in this vein, next year's X-Men: Dark Phoenix is — as we'd long suspected — embracing the cosmic side of the franchise. According to Deadline, Jessica Chastain is in talks to play the lead villain, Shi'ar Empress Lilandra Neramani!
So who are the Shi'ar? And what role are we likely to see them play in X-Men: Dark Phoenix?
In The Days Of 'The Phoenix Saga'
It all began in the 1970s with legendary X-Men writer Chris Claremont attempting to up the ante for Marvel's Merry Mutants. He gave Jean Grey a powerup, aiming to transform her into the team's "Thor analogue," a heavy-hitting powerhouse who could take on cosmic threats. Meanwhile, he also launched an intriguing plot in which Charles Xavier was being driven mad by strange visions of monstrous beings. It turned out he was actually receiving a psychic cry for help from the Shi'ar freedom fighter Lilandra, who was on the run from her insane brother, the Emperor D'Ken.
Over in the comics, Lilandra wasn't introduced as an enemy of the X-Men; she was an ally, in desperate need of their help. Lilandra knew that her brother was attempting to tap into the power of the M'Kraan Crystal, a nexus of reality that would give him mastery of time and space. She'd sensed Xavier's power, and fled to Earth for his help. Fortunately for the universe, at this time Jean Grey possessed the power of the Phoenix, and she was able to play a key role in D'Ken's defeat. Lilandra took her brother's throne.
The X-Men have always had a sort of "soap opera" side to them, and in large part that's due to the genius of Claremont. During the battle against D'Ken, Xavier and Lilandra fell in love. Each had their own responsibilities, though; Xavier to the X-Men, and Lilandra to her people. So they became the ultimate star-crossed lovers, forever divided by the vital roles they played.
'The Dark Phoenix Saga'
Claremont soon steered the books in a far darker direction, with Jean Grey falling under the psychic manipulation of Mastermind. She was transformed into the Dark Phoenix, a being of insatiable power — to give you an idea of the scale of it, one of the Dark Phoenix's first acts was to consume the power of a star, committing genocide as she did so.
Needless to say, the Shi'ar were horrified; they had legends of the Dark Phoenix as "The End Of All That Is" and believed Jean needed to be stopped once and for all. Even though Jean had regained her self-control, the aliens argued that she posed too great a risk. She had to die.
So the famous "Dark Phoenix Saga" came to a thrilling conclusion, with the X-Men battling against the Shi'ar Imperial Guard — for the life of Jean Grey. When Cyclops was injured, Jean began to go full-on Dark Phoenix again ... and, realizing the danger, she chose to commit suicide.
It was a fascinating story, packing tremendous emotional power. One of the reasons was that Xavier and Lilandra were allies, and even lovers — and yet, they were also opposed to one another, as they disagreed so profoundly over the fate of Jean Grey.
The Shi'ar Since The Days Of Chris Claremont
The Shi'ar and the X-Men have been closely tied ever since. Until the early 2000s, they were frequent allies; the X-Men constantly called upon to save the Shi'ar from invaders, ranging from the Skrull to the Phalanx.
All that changed under Grant Morrison's pen, with a possessed Xavier devastating the Shi'ar Empire. Lilandra and Xavier parted ways then, and soon rogue Shi'ar agents were slaughtering anyone remotely connected to Jean Grey, terrified that the Phoenix would return.
Not long after, the third Summers brother — a near-all-powerful mutant named Vulcan — launched a successful coup of the Shi'ar. He led them into a state of war, opposed by a handful of X-Men and the intergalactic space-pirates known as the Starjammers. Nowadays, the Shi'ar (something of a weakened race, post-Vulcan) are ruled by the powerful being known as Gladiator.
How Will 'X-Men: Dark Phoenix' Adapt The Shi'ar?
According to Deadline, Dark Phoenix is positioning Lilandra as the main villain; that's a simpler story, clearly inspired by Claremont's "Dark Phoenix Saga." While the relationship between Xavier and Lilandra will lack the emotional punch it had in the original comics, the approach does make sense. Lilandra will presumably be shown as an alien empress who has become aware of the power of the Phoenix, and seeks to destroy it.
Fox is unlikely to want to overstuff the plot with the traditional corruption of Jean Grey (involving the Hellfire Club and Mastermind), so I wouldn't be surprised if they borrow a few concepts from more recent stories. Specifically, we could well start off with Shi'ar Death Commandos attempting to kill anyone remotely connected to Jean Grey; it would make a devastating introduction to the aliens, and set Jean down a path of grief and rage that could easily turn her into the Dark Phoenix.
So there you have it, Marvel fans — the Shi'ar Empire are finally making their big-screen debut! The X-Men franchise is about to head to the final frontier, pitting our band of adventurers against the power of an alien empire. Will they be able to save Jean Grey, both from the Shi'ar and from her own inner darkness? Or will the plot of Dark Phoenix dovetail with the original comics, ending with the death of a hero?
We'll find out next year.
Which of next year's three X-Men films are you most X-cited about?
(Source: Deadline; Poll Image Credit: Marvel Comics)