The Five (or More) Deaths of the X-Men’s Dark Phoenix

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

The X-Men’s Jean Grey (the one-time Marvel Girl) has been defined for decades by her many deaths and resurrections. She’s the Phoenix, after all—it’s right in the name.

One of Jean’s deaths in particular—the one that serves as the climax of the legendary Dark Phoenix Saga—has haunted the character, and superhero comics in general, for more than 40 years. As a bit of comic book storytelling, it’s stellar stuff, but its legacy is complicated by the fact that as a character, Jean’s been punished for her actions in that arc ever since (a chapter in Cathrynne M. Valente’s incendiary women-in-comics clapback The Refrigerator Monologues offers a darkly satirical take on this eternally punished woman).

The Dark Phoenix Saga has been adapted several times, including in the new film Dark Phoenix—which is actually the second go at adapting this particular story within the X-Men film franchise. Will Jean finally break the cycle of death and rebirth? The comics suggest that it won’t be easy: here are the most significant deaths of the Phoenix.

Art by Dave Cockrum

Solar Flare

The first death of Jean Grey is among the briefest: it lasts for about a page. In Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum’s X-Men #100, the team finds itself on a damaged space shuttle with pilot Peter Corbeau, with an incoming solar flare about to fry the lot of them. Dr. Corbeau is the only one who knows how to fly the thing, but, being a normal human, he’s also the most susceptible to the incoming solar radiation—outside of the shuttle’s shielded cell, he’ll die within seconds. Without hesitation, Jean uses her mental powers to absorb Corbeau’s knowledge and disables Scott (aka Cyclops, her sometimes boyfriend) so that there’ll be no one to stop her from sacrificing herself—the best she can hope for is to survive long enough to get the ship safely to Earth’s atmosphere. She does, just barely, before being consumed by the radiation.

Luckily, she’s reborn from the shuttle debris, dramatically rising from the water with a new superhero name, Phoenix, and, in an all-time great example of a beloved comics trope, a stunning new costume. (Being resurrected in a tired old outfit is so basic.)

Within a few issues, she’s called upon to put her newly expanded powers to the test: the M’Kraan crystal, an object of Infinity Gauntlet-level power, is fractured. With a little help from her friends, Jean/Phoenix is the only one able to make the crystal whole again and save the universe. Which she does—otherwise we wouldn’t be here to talk about it, obviously.

Best Adaptation: The ’90s-era kids’ cartoon X-Men: The Animated Series adapted the story in  a five(!)-episode run during its third season, doing a fairly thorough job of it. No other adaption has even tried, though the second X-Men movie (technically X2) sees Famke Janssen’s Jean giving her life to save the team from a flood before a Phoenix-ish shape is glimpsed cruising beneath the waters.

Art by John Byrne

Blown Up on the Moon

The death that came next was, at the time, one of the most dramatic moments ever in superhero comics. Chris Claremont had by then been joined by artist John Byrne and inker Terry Austin, and together, the team had built an impressive world around the X-characters, telling elaborately serialized stories through carefully choreographed character beats. Uncanny X-Men was a superhero soap opera of the first order, and what came to be known as The Dark Phoenix Saga benefitted from all that build-up—and especially from those well-established relationships.

As with the earlier Phoenix storyline, there’s a lot going on alongside the headline events. The power-hungry Hellfire Club is introduced, as are Kitty Pryde, Dazzler, and future team leader/telepath/sex therapist Emma Frost. It all swirls around Jean, who is attacked by mind-manipulator Jason Wyngarde of the Hellfire Club, who seeks to control her and the vast power at her command. He’s briefly successful, but waaaaay underestimates her resiliency. She’s fairly quickly able to shake off his control and then drives him mad with his own delusions. Where he has succeeded, though, is in unleashing the full power of the Phoenix. Imbued with new and nigh-godlike abilities, Jean is no longer able view her old teammates objectively. Or, rather, she views them with perfect objectivity: like all living creatures, they’re specks—tiny, temporary things unworthy of her consideration. The same goes for the distant civilization that she destroys when she sucks the juice out of their sun on a galactic sight-seeing trip.

The alien empire of the Shi’ar (lead by Queen Lilandra, Professor X’s sometime space girlfriend) very quickly decides that Jean has to be put down. Which… good luck. Fortunately for everyone but Jean, she ultimately has the presence of mind to blow herself up before the Shi’ar can destroy the entire solar system to get to her.

Best Adaptation: We’ve yet to see the new Dark Phoenix film, so we’re giving the film adaptation nod to the the animated series by default—which isn’t to say the four-part storyline isn’t a good take on the material. There’s also a prose novelization from Stuart Moore that does an excellent job of faithfully retelling and expanding on the classic tale.

Art by Jim Starlin

Snapped by Thanos

According to Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, there were plenty of discussions between the creators and editorial at the time of The Dark Phoenix Saga’s publication about the extent to which Jean could ever be forgiven for what is, essentially, the genocide of at least one world. The exact status of Jean’s relationship with the Phoenix powers has always been a little fuzzy: early on, it certainly seems as though all of the darkness came from within her. Later on, the power became something of an external force, to varying degrees. After four decades of shifting continuity, it’s hard to know exactly where Jean ends and the Phoenix begins.

But here’s a wrinkle: when she’s resurrected for the first time, she’s 100 percent not guilty, as we learn that the Phoenix Force created a copy of Jean way back in X-Men #101, and it was the copy who cut loose on the galaxy—the real Jean was actually chilling out in a cocoon the whole time. Problem solved!

Jean 1.0 joined up with her original teammates to form the spin-off X-Factor team. And she lived happily ever after… at least until Thanos showed up. On the big screen, the X-Men were spared the effects of the Infinity Gauntlet by complex rights issues—but they weren’t so lucky in the original comics. Jean was one of the many characters wiped away by Thanos, though, as in the movies, it wasn’t permanent.

Best Adaptation: Of Infinity Gauntlet? You’re kidding, right?

Art by Phil Jimenez

Stabbed by Wolverine/Electrocuted by Magneto

Since these two deaths are related, and occur within just one issue of each other, it’s fitting to lump them together. Jean was a main character during Grant Morrison’s redefining run on New X-Men from 2001 to 2004, a time when Magneto rose once again to embrace true villainy. He manipulates events around the team to get them out of the way during the final phase of his plan, leaving Jean and Wolverine trapped aboard a space station moving ever closer to the sun. After sharing several tender moments toward the end, and with no hope of rescue, Logan tearfully stabs Jean in order to end her suffering. (Thanks?) It’s all for the good, though, as her death releases the Phoenix power within her, saving them both.

The two return to New York, where a wild-eyed, vengeful Magneto is wreaking havoc. She stops him, but not before he directs all of his accumulated power into Jean/Phoenix, causing her to suffer a lethal stroke.

Best Adaptation: It might not be the best X-Men movie, but X-Men: The Last Stand‘s take on the Dark Phoenix saga blends in several elements from the Grant Morrison run. In particular, Jean’s death in the movie is slightly more in line with how she goes out in Morrison’s version. (Please direct all of your angry comments resulting from this scant praise of Brett Ratner’s woeful X-film to my email spam filter.)

Art by Marc Silvestri

Erased Her Own Timeline

Grant Morrison gave Jean two deaths in quick succession, but there was one more on the horizon: immediately following the stroke that killed her in New York, we jump forward 150 years to a dark, dystopian future. In the previous storyline, and in the best X-tradition, there had been plenty of soap opera dramatics to go along with the superhero action. The prominence of Emma Frost on the team drove a wedge between Jean and her then-husband Scott “Cyclops” Summers. What at first seemed likely to devolve into a sadly typical fight between two women over a man is cut short by Jean’s growing maturity. She comes to realize that while she loves Scott, they’re probably not terribly well-suited as lovers. And it doesn’t matter much, as she soon dies (twice)—or it wouldn’t, except her death sends Scott spiraling into despair. Shortly after her death, he disbands the X-Men.

But in the dark future, the Phoenix is reborn, manipulated by dark forces. She eventually comes to realize that the whole timeline is pretty much a bust and needs to be eliminated, so uses her power to travel back in time to nudge a guilty and grieving Scott into the arms of Emma, giving her tacit blessing for him to move on with both the X-Men and his own life rather than letting it all dissolve.

Best Adaptation: There’s not really been one, though the Days of Future Past film does nod to some of the book’s imagery.

Art by Leinil Francis Yu & Joe Bennett

After this death, Phoenix was gone from the pages of the X-Men books for almost fifteen years, with a few exceptions: two miniseries—Phoenix: Endsong and Phoenix: Warsong—saw the Phoenix Force itself attempting to resurrect an entirely unwilling Jean Grey, and Avengers vs. X-Men saw something similar happening on a grander scale, as the Phoenix Force returned in search of a new host. Finally, All-New X-Men saw a time-displaced young Jean Grey brought to the present, where she was ultimately forced to reckon with the knowledge of her own twisted future.

Finally, Jean returns for good (?) in Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey, during which she literally and metaphorically casts off both the Phoenix and the fallout from that iconic storyline. She goes on to lead her own team in X-Men Red. The suggestion is that she’s broken the cycle for good, but time will tell—in Jean’s case, staying alive’s about the only thing she can’t do.

Will you see Dark Phoenix, or are you content with the comics?

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