With Dark Phoenix limping into theatres as the final installment of the nearly 20-year old X-Men film series, it’s once again time to reckon with the fact that the X-Men are unique among superhero comics. While all long-running superheroes have lengthy histories and plentiful retcons, the X-Men are a particular Gordian Knot, one that has stumped all but the bravest and most dedicated.
For a micro-example of how this particular phenomenon works, there’s the Phoenix Force. It’s ostensibly a simple concept: What if an omnipotent cosmic being from space that looks like a giant bird showed up and gave you even more superpowers? Created by writer Chris Claremont and artist Dave Cockrum in 1976, the Phoenix is indelibly linked with Jean Grey.
Jean Grey, the first and most frequent Phoenix
It can be easy to forget that Phoenix didn’t become Dark Phoenix right away, but was just presented as just another Mighty Marvel Reinvention for the ages. Claremont — the most prolific and universally acknowledged best writer in X-history — began his run with Uncanny X-Men #94 in 1975, the first new story starring the team in half a decade, as the poor-selling book had shifted to reprint-only in 1970.
Dave Cockrum and writer-editor Len Wein had already kicked off the new era with an international “All-New, All-Different” team of Wolverine, Colossus, Storm, Nightcrawler and so on — to contrast with the lilly-white, All-American original five X-Men. Claremont and Cockrum’s first issue saw every member of that original team but Cyclops quit, realizing that they needed to make their own way in the world.
But thanks to her long-time romance with Scott Summers, Jean always hung around and was eventually sucked up into a tremendous battle in space that the X-Men barely survived. Jean’s powers made her the only member of the team who could piloting the damaged space shuttle back to Earth, but at the cost of her own life. Rocked by a solar flare and, wracked by a radiation overdose and reaching her full telepathic portrayal, Jean cried out for help, and the Phoenix Force answered.
Overwhelmed by Jean’s psychic cry until it believed itself to be her, the Phoenix assumed Jean’s form and placed the real Jean in a healing cocoon in the bottom of Jamaica Bay near JFK Airport where the shuttle crash-landed (it would be discovered by the Fantastic Four a decade later in real-world publishing time, when the time came to resurrect Jean) and assumed her place on the team and her life.
With her newly enhanced powers (and fashion-forward outfit), Phoenix became a much more proactive team asset than Jean had ever been as Marvel Girl, helping the X-Men and the interstellar Shi’ar Empire save the universe by repairing the fracturing M’Kraan Crystal (an Infinity Gem-esque ultimate symbol of universal power) among other things.
However, over the next few years, Phoenix/Jean fell under the sway of evil telepath and master illusionist Mastermind, who manipulated her into join the Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club. His mental meddling eroded the last barriers around “Jean”’s psychic power, and Phoenix quickly became the megalomaniacal Dark Phoenix. Fleeing into space but exhausted from the travel, Dark Phoenix devoured the sun orbiting the homeworld of the D’Bari, dooming them to extinction. That horrific act of genocide led several of the Marvel Universe’s alien races — even sworn enemies like the Skrull and the Kree — to conclude that the Dark Phoenix needed to be stopped.
This all culminated in a trial on the Moon and a threat to annihilate the solar system in hopes of killing Jean. Wracked with guilt and wanting to prevent any further destruction, Dark Phoenix committed suicide via disintegration ray, dying in Cyclops’ arms.
But Jean Grey is not the only host of the Phoenix Force. Not by a long shot.
But you can’t keep a good Phoenix Force down, and the legacy of Jean Grey got a shot in the arm courtesy of the other most famous story in X-history: “Days of Future Past.”
While that famous two-part story revolved around a future Kitty Pryde being psychically sent into the body of her younger self to prevent the assassination of Sen. Robert Kelly — and thus the rise of an fascist anti-mutant dystopia — it was Rachel Summers who sent future Kitty back in the first place. The daughter of Cyclops and Jean, Rachel was captured and brainwashed into a “Hound,” a mutant who hunted other mutants. Breaking free of her control and teaming up with Kitty and other mutant rebels, Rachel was sent back into the same alternate past she’d sent Kitty to by the Phoenix Force.
Lost and heartbroken after discovering that, in this timeline, her mom was dead, her father was remarried to Madelyne Pryor (a clone of her mom who also had a shard of the Phoenix within her), and she’d never been born, Rachel eventually found her place with Kitty, Nightcrawler and the others on the British-based superhero team Excalibur. Unlike her mother, Rachel managed to not be overwhelmed by the Phoenix Force, instead working so in sync with it that they were able to defeat Galactus.
When the eater of worlds accused the Phoenix of hypocrisy — pointing out that it sustained itself by robbing energy from future generations — the Phoenix left Rachel and departed to space, while gifting her a portion of its power. Rachel was then able to return to her own time and, while unable to change the past, was able to stop the extinction of mutants and help bring her dimensional half-brother Cable forward in time to become the gun-toting cyborg we know and love.
After some adventures in the Ultraverse (it’s complicated) and dying, the Phoenix Force returned to Earth and brought Jean back from the dead in 2005’s X-Men: Phoenix — Endsong miniseries by writer Greg Pak and artist Greg Land. Planning to use Scott’s love to strengthen its connection with Jean, the Phoenix was horrorstruck by the realization that Scott now loved Emma Frost. After briefly possessing her, the Phoenix was ultimately defeated by Jean, who died again, seemingly for good.
2005 also saw Marvel publish the Brian Michael Bendis/Olivier Coipel miniseries House of M, where the Scarlet Witch used her reality-warping powers to rewrite history so that mutants were the dominant species on Earth. After the status quo was restored, Wanda Maximoff simply spoke “No More Mutants,” reducing the number of mutants worldwide from millions to hundreds. In the immediate aftermath, a red ribbon of energy circled the Earth, signifying the Phoenix Force was returning once again.
While it didn’t really show up in the post-House of Mera, it was revealed that the Phoenix had a connection to Hope, an Omega-level mutant who, as the prophesied savior of the mutant race, was naturally taken to the far future by Cable, where she adopted his last name of Summers and was connected to the Phoenix Force time and again.
The Phoenix Five
The Phoenix’s most recent big storyline came in 2012’s Avengers Vs. X-Men event from, among others, current War of the Realms architect Jason Aaron. When the Phoenix Force was detected to be coming to Earth to claim Hope once and for all as its host, the X-Men wanted to protect Hope for her presumed messiahdom — while the Avengers wished to take her into custody.
Big superhero punch-ups ensued and, thanks to a disruptor weapon fired by Iron Man, the Phoenix split into five fragments, possessing Cyclops, Emma Frost, Colossus, his sorceress sister Magik and Namor the Sub-Mariner. Forcibly pacifying the world, the “Phoenix Five” were confronted eventually by other heroes and, mad with power, Cyclops stole Emma’s portion of the Phoenix Force, killed Professor X, and became Dark Phoenix.
Cyclops’ Phoenix Force was eventually wished away by Hope and Scarlet Witch, with Cyclops taken into custody, set himself down the road of “mutant-supremacist terrorist” that eventually led to his own death.
While the Phoenix Force has been the genesis of a variety of stories, most of them tend to hearken back, textually or subtextually, to its iconic origin and use in “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” And despite a variety of appearances in recent years — whether it was as the specter haunting “The Trial of Jean Grey,” in which a time-displaced teenage Jean was put on trial for her future self’s genocidal terror; or in the recent revelations that a Phoenix-possessed woman was a lover of Odin’s during the “Avengers 1,000,000 B.C.” era; or in Old Man Phoenix, a far future version of Wolverine — it’s probably gonna stay that way.
Regardless, the eternal cycle of the Phoenix Force is just one aspect of what makes the Children of the Atom the most complicated, and yet maybe the most heroic, superheroes of all.
Tom Speelman is a writer for Polygon, Comic Book Resources and other websites. He’s proofread, edited and adapted several books for Seven Seas Entertainment, J-Novel Club and other clients, including Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka by Makoto Fukami and Seigo Tokiya, which was made into an anime you can stream on FunimationNOW and Crunchyroll. He can be found on Twitter @tomtificate, usually yelling about comics or robots.