In 1977’s “X-Men” #105 (Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum), the Marvel universe changed forever. In the previous issue, the X-Men had been trapped in a space shuttle crashing to Earth. To save them, mutant Jean Grey pushed her psychic powers to their limits. When the shuttle landed, Jean burst out of the ocean with a new costume and a new name: Phoenix.
What followed was a storyline that was later known as the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” Jean Grey’s new powers quickly grew until she became an evil entity calling herself Dark Phoenix, and after destroying a populated planet, she killed herself to save the universe. With news that the next “X-Men” movie will be subtitled “Dark Phoenix,” CBR wants to remind you of 15 reasons why it was the ultimate “X-Men” storyline.
For decades, Marvel has had a lot of what are known as “cosmic superheroes,” meaning heroes with a scope that goes beyond just the planet Earth, and with powers that have almost no limit. The Silver Surfer, first introduced in 1966’s “Fantastic Four” #48 (Stan Lee, Jack Kirby), is the most commonly cited example of a cosmic superhero, but you could also mention Captain Marvel (starting in 1967’s “Marvel Super-Heroes” #12 by Gene Colan and Stan Lee). One thing they all had in common, though, was that they were all men.
In the 1970s, Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum decided that they wanted to make the first female cosmic superhero in the Marvel universe. They decided to make Jean Grey, the telepathic member of the X-Men, into the all-powerful Phoenix. It was a great idea, made one of the first truly epic female superheroes, and led to other powerful female heroes.
14. MARVEL GIRL
For background, let’s look at the history of Jean Grey. In her introduction as Marvel Girl in “X-Men” #1 (1963) by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, she showed herself as a really powerful telepath by pulling off amazing feats like hurling away Magneto’s missile. At first, Jean Grey only had the power to move objects with her mind until 1968’s “X-Men” #43 (Roy Thomas, George Tuska, John Tartaglione) gave her the power of telepathy, but there was a problem. By definition, she couldn’t be as powerful as Professor X. In most stories, she would work alongside and complement Xavier, but never overshadow him.
“The Phoenix Saga” changed all that, and came to define Jean Grey as a character. With a single storyline, she became the most powerful mutant of the original team, and the most powerful mutant on Earth. Her time as Phoenix is what most people think of when they talk about Jean Grey. It’s hard to point to any other story in comics that had more impact on a character.
13. HERO TO VILLAIN
Jean Grey was always a really popular character for readers. Partly, it was because she was one of the most sensitive and intelligent members of the X-Men, the heart of the team. The fact that she was the team’s first woman also made her unique, and her beauty was a major source of crushes for the fans. She was also involved in a love triangle between herself, Cyclops and Wolverine, which drove a lot of emotional storylines.
When she became Phoenix, she became the most high-profile female superhero in comics, but the other X-Men creative team Jim Salicrup and John Byrne felt her powers overshadowed the other members and stories. That’s why Marvel decided to do something that hadn’t really been done before: take one of its greatest superheroes and turn her into one of its greatest supervillains. It was a journey unlike any we’d seen before “The Phoenix Saga” and is compelling to watch.
12. ABSOLUTE POWER
One of the reasons “The Phoenix Saga” resonates so much with readers is that it’s a story of power, which is a theme underlying in almost all comics. Marvel had changed the comic book game by showing superheroes who were flawed and struggled with their new powers. We can look at “The Phoenix Saga” as an extension of that. In the early stages, her transformation to Phoenix seemed to be a good thing, but as time went on, she began abusing the power. In 1980’s “Uncanny X-Men” #131 (Claremont, Byrne), Jean Grey entered a psychic battle with Emma Frost that shocked her teammates.
Later in the same issue, when Kitty Pryde’s parents got angry, Jean used her powers to change their memories. As the story went on, she craved more and more power until she fell into pure evil. Until the later retcons, the only real reason given for Jean Grey’s downfall was that she was just too powerful. It all felt like a natural extension of the story, and raised questions about how superheroes can cross the line.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of Jean Grey’s death, especially since it seems inevitable now, but wasn’t at the time. When “The Phoenix Saga” came to its end, almost no readers expected Jean Grey to die. In the issues and pages leading up to it, there was a hope that she would be able to control her powers, go back to normal and stay on the team. It was only at the final pages that she decided she could never stay in control, and killed herself in order to remove the threat she posed.
There had never been a death like Jean Grey’s in Marvel comics before. She wasn’t just one of the oldest Marvel characters, but one of the most loved. It was also a time when death still had some impact. This was before characters like Bucky returned as Winter Soldier and Jason Todd came back as the Red Hood. In those days, dead was dead, and everyone believed she would never come back.
The story behind the scenes of “The Phoenix Saga” has gotten almost as much attention as the actual story in the comics, and has been part of the debate about the role of editors in comics. Some people point to “The Phoenix Saga” as a cautionary tale of what happens when editors meddle in their creators’ books. Other people use “The Phoenix Saga” to show how editors can come up with good ideas that save their writers and artists from themselves.
The original plan had been to have Jean Grey commit horrible crimes as the Phoenix, but be permanently de-powered and forgiven. In “X-Men” #135 (John Byrne, Chris Claremont and Terry Austin), Dark Phoenix drained a star, causing the death of billions on a nearby planet. When editor Jim Shooter heard about it, he said she had to be held responsible for the murders. Jean Grey’s death was a great idea or a terrible idea, depending on how you look at it.
Another reason the story resonates is that it’s so well-written. The story was one of the closest things to a Shakespearean tragedy than had ever been attempted in superhero comics. As you read it from the beginning, it feels like a story that’s always pulling towards the final tragic ending. Even as the characters try to save her, she does more and more terrible things until there’s no going back.
The saga also has emotion with the love affair between Wolverine, Cyclops and Jean Grey. In the pages, we see Cyclops struggling to accept that the woman he loves has turned into a monster. He’s also forced to watch as Mastermind (in the disguise of Jason Wyngarde) seduces her. We also see flashes, even in her most evil moments, where Jean Grey breaks out in thought and actions to show her love for him. On the sidelines, Wolverine is frustrated by the fact that he’s losing Jean, and never got to be her true love. The three of them make “The Phoenix Saga” the “Romeo and Juliet” of comics.
Jean’s death shocked both the readers and the creators at Marvel, who wanted to bring her back. It took six years before 1986’s “Avengers” #263 (Roger Stern, John Buscema) brought a mysterious cocoon to the surface of Jamaica Bay. When it opened, Jean Grey was inside. In “Fantastic Four” #286 (John Byrne, Chris Claremont, Jackson Guice), it turned out that the Jean Grey, who had turned into Phoenix and killed herself, had been an evil duplicate all along. The real Jean Grey had been in stasis while the Phoenix took her body and memories.
Reviving Jean Grey caused a firestorm (pun intended) of debate with some loving the fact that she was back and that the Dark Phoenix hadn’t been their beloved character, while others (including Claremont) hated it and felt the retcon cheapened her death. That’s another reason why “The Phoenix Saga” resonates more than other great “X-Men” storylines like “Age of Apocalypse” and “Days of Future Past.” Those stories all took place in alternate realities and futures, where death and destruction was reversed. “The Dark Phoenix Saga” was canon and still has to be dealt with today.
The X-Men were never the same after “The Phoenix Saga.” The story changed the X-Men, who continued to grieve for the loss of Jean Grey, and became a more somber team. The threat of losing another member led them to become more cautious, always trying to keep each other from crossing the line from hero to villain.
“The Phoenix Saga” also made the X-Men more dangerous to the outside world, making their attempts to ease people’s fears about mutants that much harder. It’s tough to say mutants aren’t a threat when one of their core members just blew up a city park and a planet. Then there’s the fact that Jean’s death took some of the fun out of the adventures. They weren’t just fighting evil, they were fighting for their lives, and death became a common theme with Colossus and other X-Men dying in battle. There aren’t many other stories in comics that have continued to have aftereffects so long after publication.
6. THE PHOENIX FORCE
“The Phoenix Saga” didn’t really end on the final pages with the death of Jean Grey or her return. The effects are still being felt in comics today, thirty years later. For instance, the Phoenix Force became a long-running supervillain in comics with the Phoenix bonding with other characters. While Cyclops had thought Jean was dead, he had married and had a son with Madelyne Pryor. When she returned, he left Madelyne to go back to Jean, leaving her to embrace the Phoenix Force to become the Goblyn Queen.
The Phoenix Force returned in the form of Rachel Summers, Jean’s daughter from the future who was so powerful that she could take on Galactus. The Phoenix Force later even crossed over into the Ultraverse before bringing Jean Grey back from the dead after her second death, and became a major villain as recently as 2012’s “Avengers vs. X-Men” crossover. The Phoenix Force is the gift that keeps on giving.
Another aspect of the Phoenix Saga that’s only grown more relevant is the role of feminism and sexuality. In the Golden and Silver Age, most female superheroes were underpowered while men were the heavy hitters. By taking a female superhero and making her one of the most powerful beings in the Marvel universe, Claremont and Cockrum broke through a glass ceiling that had kept female heroes on the sidelines. Suddenly, a woman had joined the ranks of godhood, and women in comics were never the same.
Likewise, it’s hard to read the saga without seeing the sexual themes. When Phoenix joins the Hellfire Club, she’s dressed in skimpy leather clothes and a whip — we’re talking a full-on dominatrix motif. The Phoenix Force can easily be seen as a sexual awakening for her, and when Jean seemed to be freed of the Phoenix Force, she talked about how much she enjoyed the power. If that’s too subtle, at one point Storm describes Jean as being driven by “an all-consuming lust,” and Cyclops said “using her powers is turning her on—acting like the ultimate physical/emotional stimulant.” Pretty edgy stuff for the 1980s.
4. INTERGALACTIC SCOPE
Another reason “The Phoenix Saga” is such an incredible story is that the story was set across the entire galaxy. It started out in orbit around Earth, and quickly went on to move out into deep space. She literally jumped to a distant galaxy, and was detected by cosmic beings like the Silver Surfer and Doctor Strange. Once she destroyed the planet, a battleship from the Shi’ar Empire (long an ally of the X-Men) attacked her. Three of Marvel’s major intergalactic empires (the Kree, the Skrulls and the Shi’ar) came together to decide that Dark Phoenix was a threat to the entire universe.
“X-Men” stories often went into space, but not the way “The Phoenix Saga” did. In today’s era of “World War Hulk” and other interplanetary stories, it might seem routine, but it was revolutionary for the time. At the same time, the story is amazing because it stayed grounded in its characters, not its cosmic scale.
At its core, “The Phoenix Saga” wasn’t about fighting and explosions, but rather a story about people. The hardest part about the X-Men facing Dark Phoenix was that she wasn’t some cartoonish supervillain sworn to evil, but rather one of their oldest friends. Jean Grey became like the family member who was lost and they tried to bring back home. The X-Men didn’t attack her with all their powers blazing, instead trying to appeal to the soul of Jean Grey deep inside.
The Saga also questioned the nature of godhood. With all her power, was she still human? Could she go back to being human after everything she’d been through? It was about love and humanity. There are many other stories in “X-Men’s” canon, but not many of them have as much of an emotional impact. Some fans have said the ending made them cry, and it still moves us 30 years later.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the “Dark Phoenix Saga” is one flattering story, because it’s been referenced in both the Marvel Universe and beyond. Later storylines have dealt with others gaining the Phoenix Force’s powers and losing control, basically repeating the saga again and again. Also, DC essentially copied some of the ideas when they retconned Hal Jordan’s time as the supervillain Parallax by having him be possessed by an evil intergalactic force of nature.
The Dark Phoenix has been parodied a lot as well. For instance, 1988’s “Southern Knights” #30 (created by Henry and Audrey Vogel) opened with a brief parody where the sword-wielding character Connie Ronnin became “Dark Connie.” 1989’s “Power Pachyderms” (Roger Stern, Adam Blaustein) was a one-shot parody of the X-Men with elephants and featured an Electra parody named Electralux who was buried in radioactive makeup to become the destructive Rogue Elephant. Silly, but fun.
If we judged “The Dark Phoenix Saga” just by how other media referenced it, we’d still have one of the greatest “X-Men” stories of all time. The third season of the 1990s animated TV series “X-Men” adapted parts of the Saga, and so did the “X-Men: Evolution” series in the 2000s. As if that wasn’t enough, 2009’s “Wolverine and the X-Men” aired the three-part season finale “Foresight” that tackled the Dark Phoenix as well.
In movies, 2003’s “X2” ended with Jean Grey sacrificing herself to save the X-Men, and an image of a Phoenix under the water. That set up 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” where Jean Grey’s alternate personality was unleashed with destructive force, trying to echo “The Phoenix Saga” with mixed results. The fact that the rebooted “X-Men” movies are trying again to show Dark Phoenix on the big screen says a lot about how much fans want to see the classic story done right.
What do you think of “The Dark Phoenix Saga?” Is it overrated or underrated? Let us know in the comments!