While the popularity of the cartoon was still going strong by season 3, apparently the animators were having a hard time keeping up. There were large gaps in between episode air dates, and in fact some of the episodes that were meant for season 3 were not finished in time, and episodes that were meant for season 4 were aired instead.
The season premiere episode featured Lady Deathstrike and the Reavers attempting to open an alien spaceship. The spaceship is Shi’ar in origin, so anyone who knew the comics knew that this was all just a setup for the Phoenix Saga. This began with episode 3 of the season, and there was a full month in between before it aired where they were promoting it like crazy. Of course by that point I had been reading the comics faithfully and waiting anxiously to see their adaptation.
The main difference with the adaptation here is that they change it to fit the retcon that is now well established in the comic book series – the Phoenix is a separate entity that possesses Jean to help her in her time of need. This succeeds in making Jean look even more weak and whiny in the cartoon series, which is really a shame. The Phoenix personality is largely emotionless by comparison, but has tons of awesome power to make up for it.
Despite being incredibly familiar with it, I’ve never actually read the comics that correspond with this storyline. I remember liking this a lot when it first aired, but now it feels a little too heavy on the sci-fi space adventures and not really what I think of as a typical X-men storyline. From the summaries I’ve read, the comics were even more complex than what they use here, making this a more simplified version.
Once the original saga finished, we get an ultra boring two parter featuring the Savage Land and Storm. I swear, I love Storm as a character, but any time she’s the main focus, these episodes are a snooze fest. It was then two months later before The Dark Phoenix Saga premiered.
This story is a little more up my alley. There are two major changes here from the comics, and they both relate to death. In the comics Dark Phoenix destroys a solar system full of tree-like people, but here it is uninhabited. At the end of the saga Jean sacrifices herself as she does in the comics, but the phoenix force immediately brings her back to life using energy from all of the X-men to do so. While the story is well executed, there is a strange disconnect related to the costumes. They insist on using all the old costumes for Phoenix and the Hellfire Club, which is nice, but looks really uneven next to the 90s designs of the other X-men. Jean especially looks really strange as we're used to seeing her 90s style and her face and hair look different here.
Beyond these long multi-part sagas, the majority of season 3 was stand alone episodes. We get episodes for Archangel, Juggernaut, and Morph. There are two different Cyclops centric episodes, as if he didn't already get enough attention in the phoenix sagas. There would have been a third, but it was one of the delayed episodes. Strangely enough the delayed one would have explained how Jean returned after the first phoenix storyline, so it's really quite silly that they left this one off.
Another episode introduces Iceman and X-factor for the first time. It's one of my favorites of the season. Iceman too often gets the short end of the stick in X-men storylines, but I have a weakness for wise guy characters like him. He also gets extra points from me for being an accountant. I also like that they did say he was a former member, whereas so many of the other X-men they run into in this series are brand new to them. It's nice to get a peak at what happened before this series began.
The somewhat annoying thing is that this season is actually spread out between Volume 2 and Volume 3 of the DVDs. Most importantly, the two Phoenix sagas are split. Chances are you're going to want both, so they stuffed these full of other so-so episodes to make sure you get them. Of course if you're like me you're buying the entire collection anyway, so I guess it doesn't matter.