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The Dark Phoenix’s origin and powers stem from a legendary comic

What do we know about the newest X-Men movie?

Poster for Dark Phoenix 20th Century Fox
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

The next installment in 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise is Dark Phoenix, and it’s based on a story that rests comfortably among the greatest Marvel Comics ever made. It’s a book that mashes together everything the X-Men have become known for — high drama, psychic meddling, big fight scenes, weird aliens and major character deaths that were later reversed through convoluted means — into a single epic tale.

While the first big trailer for Dark Phoenix hints at the possibilities, here’s what you need to know about The Dark Phoenix Saga.

Jean Grey is the host of the Phoenix Force

In comics, the Phoenix Force first appeared when the X-Men returned from a space mission in a damaged craft. Jean sacrificed her life to pilot the ship to safety and save her teammates, even though doing so meant that she would be exposed to deadly levels of radiation.

But she didn’t die. Instead, the Phoenix Force manifested in her for the first time, endowing her with fantastic cosmic powers beyond her already best-in-class telepathic abilities. Also, it gave her a sweet new green and gold costume and a new codename, Phoenix.

But what is the Phoenix Force in the first place?

When Marvel Comics writers depict the beginnings of the Marvel Universe, the Phoenix is often there. When they depict the end of the Marvel Universe, the Phoenix is often there as well.

The Phoenix Force is a manifestation of the cosmic forces of life, creation and destruction that often appears as a massive (in the planetary sense) flaming bird of prey. It’s more powerful than many of the gods in the Marvel universe, and mercurial to boot, choosing mortal avatars in which to embody itself. The most famous of those avatars has been Jean Grey.

From Uncanny X-Men #135, Marvel Comics (1980).
From Uncanny X-Men #135.
Chris Claremont, John Byrne/Marvel Comics

The Dark Phoenix Saga

In 1980’s Dark Phoenix Saga, which ran in Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men #129-138, the Phoenix gradually took full control of Jean Grey’s body and mind.

(At least, this is what Claremont and Byrne were intending to depict, later, this was retconned into something different so that the X-Factor series could have all five original X-Men in it, but you don’t really need to know about that part for this part.)

Reveling in its newly regained power, the Phoenix Force went on a blazing joyride across the galaxy and made a snack of a star, sending it into a supernova explosion that destroyed the planets around it — one of which was inhabited by a sentient species. The Phoenix had just committed genocide on a whim, and that caught the attention of an alien empire known as the Shi’ar.

The Shi’ar kidnapped the X-Men with the intention of putting Jean and the Phoenix on trial. The X-Men, who had found a way to allow Jean to reassert her own personality over the Phoenix, were not inclined to sit back and let her be executed for something she’d done while under the influence of an all-powerful cosmic being.

So, in the grand tradition of adventure stories, they challenged the Shi’ar to traditional Shi’ar trial by combat. On the moon.

And it was there, on the moon, that The Dark Phoenix Saga reached its earth-shaking conclusion: Jean Grey sacrificed her own life in order to save the world and the X-Men by putting an end to the destructive cosmic force known as the Phoenix.

Jean Grey/Phoenix and Scott Summers/Cyclops in Uncanny X-Men #137, Marvel Comics (1980).
Jean and Scott Summers (Cyclops) in Uncanny X-Men #137.
Chris Claremont, John Byrne/Marvel Comics

We’re very accustomed to superhero deaths being rolled back these days — especially from a character known as ‘the Phoenix’ — but writer Claremont, who had brought the X-Men from an obscure team of also-rans to one of Marvel’s best-selling books, intended Jean’s death to be permanent.

I mean, it wasn’t, but intentions should count for something.

Haven’t I kind of seen this in an X-Men movie before?

X-Men: The Last Stand (the third X-Men movie, from 2006) incorporated many elements of the Dark Phoenix Saga, like Jean losing control of her powers, taking on a new costume and having to die in order for the world to be safe. What The Last Stand omitted was that Jean’s power had a cosmic origin at all, and, of course, all the stuff with space and aliens.

Dark Phoenix, on the other hand, is rumored to have kept some of that stuff in. Jessica Chastain is playing an unnamed character who might be some kind of alien, and according to Entertainment Weekly, the movie will kick off when Jean manifests cosmic powers during a risky space mission, just like in the comics.

We’ll all find out on Feb. 14, 2019, when Dark Phoenix hits theaters.

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