This year, Fox will return to a comic book story the studio has developed on the big screen once before. Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey is about to tap into the cosmic power of the Phoenix Force, a dangerous entity that — in the comics at least — has literally destroyed worlds. The new big-screen adventure is based on 1980’s “Dark Phoenix Saga,” a classic story adored by X-Men fans.What makes the “Dark Phoenix Saga” such an enduring story? And why is it so important to the X-Men mythos that Fox is revisiting the concept after failing to make it work in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand? We’ll tell you why!
The Setup: Jean Grey As The X-Men’s Thor
One of the original X-Men, Jean Grey was introduced way back in 1963. Unfortunately, she was often treated as something of a secondary character, and most often used as a love interest. In one ill-considered panel, Stan Lee even went so far as to suggest that Professor X himself was in love with Jean!
Into the ’70s, the X-Men were seeing a surge of popularity due to their “Second Genesis,” which had introduced characters like Nightcrawler, Colossus, and of course Wolverine. This was the age of legendary X-Men writer Chris Claremont, who partnered with top-quality artists like Dave Cockrum and John Byrne. Working with Cockrum, Claremont set out to reinvent Jean Grey. As he explained in one set of introductory notes to the arc:
Our intent was to create an X-Men analog, if you will, to Thor – someone who was essentially the first female cosmic hero. We thought at the time we could integrate her into the book as well as Thor had been integrated into the Avengers.
Jean Grey was reborn as the most powerful X-Man of them all, a cosmic being who literally saved the universe from an insane alien emperor. Fans were thrilled at the development, not least because Claremont continued to ground the character through her passionate relationship with Cyclops.
Enter Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter, who pointed out that Marvel had lots of villains-turned-heroes, but not many who’d gone the other way. Shooter proposed that Phoenix would become the X-Men’s greatest enemy, a “Doctor Doom” figure who would challenge the team in an intensely personal way. The X-Men creative team ran with it, but not quite in the way Shooter expected.
The Dark Phoenix Saga
Manipulated by the psychic villain known as Mastermind, Jean’s mind began to fracture. She was seduced by her own limitless power, and ultimately transformed into the monstrous being known as Dark Phoenix. Dark Phoenix defeated the X-Men with ease, and left Earth behind. In space, depicted in a horrific sequence of panels, this new entity consumed the energy of an entire star. The resulting supernova destroyed an inhabited world, killing billions.
This was where the plot took another twist. Claremont and Byrne had intended to tell a redemption story. They envisioned the alien Shi’ar heading to Earth in pursuit of Jean, and the mutant being stripped of her infinite power. Jean would be rendered powerless and live the life of a normal human. When Jim Shooter heard this, he insisted the X-Men team come up with a better idea. He felt this was both bad character-work and bad storytelling. After a lot of heated arguments, the Marvel team settled on a shocking solution: they would kill Jean Grey.
Nowadays, superhero deaths are a dime a dozen. Back in 1980, they were rare. What’s more, Claremont and Byrne presented a masterclass in storytelling. They first rescued Jean from the influence of the Dark Phoenix, after which she faced the reality that the evil could yet return. In a heartwrenching twist, Jean sacrificed herself so as to ensure the Dark Phoenix did not ravage other worlds. It was a triumph of human nature over limitless power, a beautiful and poignant end to Jean Grey’s story. The conclusion, in Uncanny X-Men #138, is one of the most important comics of all time; it established the X-Men as Marvel’s best-selling characters.
Turning it Upside-Down
Of course, these are comic books, and Jean would inevitably return. Shooter insisted that couldn’t happen unless a writer found some genius way of absolving Jean Grey of her responsibility for an act of genocide. Enter writer Kurt Busiek, who hit upon an innovative idea; he revealed that Jean had actually been replaced by a cosmic entity. The Phoenix Force became an established part of the X-Men mythos, a cosmic force of death and rebirth that had taken on human form as Jean Grey. Claremont wasn’t happy, not least because this subverted his original message of hope. Now, the Phoenix had fallen precisely because of its experience of humanity. That hopeful, optimistic vision of human nature had been cruelly subverted.
Ironically, most fans forget this was actually a retcon. The Phoenix Force has now become an established part of the X-Men lore, and is a major player in the X-Men books — including in a current miniseries, Phoenix Resurrection. 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand saw Fox make a first attempt at adapting the “Dark Phoenix Saga” for the big screen, but that didn’t sit well with fans and critics. The studio took an approach that was closer to Claremont and Byrne’s original concept, but without the cosmic element. Worse still, they relegated the storyline to the film’s B-plot, with the A-plot being an arc about a so-called “mutant cure.”
The “Dark Phoenix Saga” is one of the most powerful X-Men stories. It’s a tremendous blend of cosmic action and human emotion, and — before the retcon at least — carries a poignant, emotional, and optimistic message about human nature. The story was published at a time when comics rarely took risks like this with their characters; major superheroes didn’t turn into villains, and publishers certainly didn’t kill them off. As a result, readers were simply unprepared for the gamut of emotions they would be put through in the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” It left a lasting mark, not just on the X-Men franchise, but on the entire comic book industry.