The Phoenix Force is all the rage right now; not only is it subject of the next X-Men movie (Dark Phoenix, due out in 2018), it’s currently appearing in three very different series from Marvel Comics. Thane has an aspect of it in Thanos, Quentin Quire has been called in to help Asgard against it in The Mighty Thor, and the newly-launched Jean Grey sees the time-displaced mutant facing up to her fear that one day she too will inherit The Phoenix Force.
There’s a lot to take in with what is a particularly confusing aspect of X-Men continuity, a confusing aspect of superhero comics in itself. Where does The Phoenix Force come from? Who has wielded it? What does it want? It’s not as confusing as you might think when you see it all laid out chronologically, so hopefully this explainer helps bring things to light.
At first, the Phoenix Force wasn’t a cosmic force at all; it was simply an evolution of Jean Grey’s powers that was activated when she saved the X-Men from re-entering Earth’s orbit following an outer-space mission. Following the crash, she emerged from Jamaica Bay with advanced new powers, taking the name Phoenix and referring to herself as "fire and life incarnate." Though this remains canon to this day, the original intention in those stories was that it was actually Jean Grey who leveled-up, so to speak, rather than what was later revealed to have actually happened.
However, the villain Mastermind manipulated Jean in an effort to gain access to The Hellfire Club, and in doing so he awoke The Dark Phoenix aspect of her powers. The Dark Phoenix fled to space and destroyed a sun, which resulted in an entire race of aliens dying out. She as put on trial for her actions by The Shi’Ar and although The X-Men fought for their teammate, Jean decided the only way to stop the Dark Phoenix was to kill herself.
Not too long after the death of Jean Grey, her alternate-future daughter with Cyclops, Rachel Summers, arrived in the present to discover that her mother had died before ever giving birth to her. In the Grey family home, Rachel found an aspect of Jean’s Phoenix powers housed in an ornament, and took them for herself, becoming the next Phoenix in the process.
Years later, Marvel hatched plans to reunite the original X-Men, but it was also decided that the Phoenix deserved some sort of punishment for her genocidal actions. This led to the creation of the Phoenix Force as a separate entity. The real Jean Grey’s body was discovered in a cocoon of sorts, at the bottom of Jamaica Bay, and it was revealed that the Jean who died was actually a physical manifestation of the cosmic Phoenix Force which took her place and aspects of her personality. This allowed Jean to return as Marvel Girl as part of the newly formed team X-Factor, and bolstered stories about Rachel Summers in the years to come.
During her tenure on the British team Excalibur, Rachel discovered that the power of The Phoenix Force dated back centuries, where a human monk named Feron once wielded its power. However, Feron was tricked by a villain named Necrom who was able to manipulate The Phoenix’s energies to create The Anti-Phoenix. Rachel eventually got trapped in the timestream after trading places with Captain Britain, and The Phoenix Force was thought lost. However, it appeared in the short-lived Ultraverse where it possessed the musclebound hero Prime for a short amount of time, but the heroes of that universe ultimately sent it back to its home dimension.
It eventually reappeared within Jean Grey, technically for the very first time. The Jean before was a physical manifestation of The Phoenix Force, remember, so this would be the first time Jean carried that power herself. She was able to use it to save herself and Wolverine from certain death on Asteroid M, but it couldn’t stop the villain Xorn (who was posing as Magneto) from giving her a “planetary-scale” stroke and killing her. However, Jean Grey is never one to stay dead for long, and she was brought back by the Phoenix Force, but attempted to struggle back against its control. Eventually, with Earth facing a barrage from Shi’Ar forces, Jean won out and ascended to the White Hot Room as White Phoenix, becoming a cosmic entity in her own right.
What remained of the Phoenix Force existed as fragments which, under the influence of the sentient RNA known as Sublime, attempted to exterminate mutantkind via The Stepford Cuckoos, clones of Emma Frost created by the Weapon Plus project which was also responsible for Captain America, Wolverine and Fantomex. The Phoenix Force awoke the Cuckoos thousand dormant clones to become an army, but the three remaining original Cuckoos fought back against The Phoenix Force and trapped fragments of it inside their diamond hearts.
It wasn’t too long after, that all traces of the Phoenix Force seemed to disappear. Rachel Summers, now going as Rachel Grey, lost her connection to the Phoenix Force while out in space, as did her Shi’Ar lover Korvus, who wielded a sword powered by the shadow of the Phoenix. The fragments trapped within the Stepford Cuckoos also abandoned them as the Phoenix Force sought to coalesce into a whole once again for unknown reasons.
It returned with a fury following the arrival of the teenage Hope Summers to the present day, where many saw her as the next inheritor of the Phoenix Force. While the X-Men were excited for the potential for the rebirth of their species, The Avengers feared the destructive nature of The Phoenix Force which led to a clash between the two teams. The Phoenix Force arrived nonetheless, but was split apart by Iron Man and instead took five hosts: Colossus, Emma Frost, Namor, Magik and Cyclops.
The team became known as The Phoenix Five and attempted to make the world a better place, but they all struggled with the power at their disposal. One by one, The Phoenix Five fell until it Cyclops was the final one left. Driven mad by the Phoenix's power, Scott Summers killed Charles Xavier and became Dark Phoenix. He was ultimately defeated by the combined powers of Hope Summers and The Scarlet Witch who cast a “No More Phoenix” spell, which had the side effect of kickstarting the long-dormant X-Gene which allowed new mutants to once again be born and manifest their abilities.
Since then, the Phoenix Force has mostly kept a low profile, mainly appearing in alternate or possible future stories, such as “Battle For The Atom” which featured an adult Quentin Quire from the future who wielded its power. The fact that it’s now in three books simultaneously can’t be a coincidence, especially with a movie on the way called X-Men: Dark Phoenix, so it wouldn’t be too surprising if there were big plans ahead for the Phoenix Force and its next host heading into 2018.