Published June 7, 2019

Why the Dark Phoenix Saga is the Ultimate Jean Grey Story

A look back at a seminal story for one of the founding members of the X-Men.

Jean Grey as the Phoenix
UNCANNY X-MEN (1963) #101

This week, X-Men: Dark Phoenix will bring one of the X-Men’s most famous storylines to the big screen for the second time. X-Men: The Last Stand also adapted elements of the DARK PHOENIX Saga, but the chance to revisit that story proved to be too irresistible. Why has Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s epic tale withstood the test of time for almost four decades? Because it’s the ultimate Jean Grey story. It took one of the very first X-Men and turned her into the universe’s deadliest villain. Her rise and fall was written in the stars.

There’s so much focus on Phoenix’s darker turn that it’s easy to forget that the story actually began in 1976’s X-MEN #101, when Claremont and artist Dave Cockrum resolved the cliffhanger ending to issue #100. To save the lives of her friends, Jean took it upon herself to pilot a space shuttle back to Earth. Jean knew their survival would be at the cost of her own life, but she did it anyway. However, Jean didn’t die. Instead she was reborn as the cosmically empowered Phoenix.

Shortly thereafter, the scale of the X-Men dramatically expanded. The team had experience with strange aliens, but the introduction of the Shi’ar opened up a whole universe of possibilities. As for Jean, she slowly adjusted to her newfound god-like powers, and she even saved all of existence. Jean’s abilities were so heightened that she fought Magneto to a standstill and she was able to hold back her lover’s optic blasts so that Cyclops could see her without his visor.

Jean Grey as the Phoenix
UNCANNY X-MEN (1963) #112

However, Jean’s second life was far from perfect. Mastermind mentally seduced Jean and gradually molded her into the Hellfire Club’s new Black Queen. For a time, Jean even embraced this new reality and helped the Hellfire Club capture her friends. Jean eventually broke free of Mastermind’s control, but she lost a precious part of her humanity. The part that could have prevented her from becoming Dark Phoenix.

The X-Men had never encountered a threat like Dark Phoenix before. Jean knew them intimately, even before her darker turn. She easily defeated the team and set out for the stars, where she casually ate a star and condemned an alien race to near extinction. Dark Phoenix was a monster who simply couldn’t be stopped, and she was a cosmic villain who could rival Galactus’ vast power.

But the Dark Phoenix still had Jean within her, and that’s where her soul fully revealed itself. In a rematch with the X-Men and Professor X, it was Jean who helped Xavier defeat her other self. Then in the tragic battle on the moon, the Dark Phoenix’s second rise was only prevented by taking her own life for the sake of the universe. Only Jean’s innate goodness spared the universe from a cataclysmic rampage.

Jean Grey sacrifices herself
UNCANNY X-MEN (1963) #137

That’s Jean Grey. Her strength was always in her heart. Thus, her new life began and ended with a sacrifice. In 1980, comic characters didn’t simply die on a regular basis. Jean’s death was different. At the time, her demise felt permanent, and it dramatically upped the personal stakes for the X-Men.

The DARK PHOENIX saga did such an amazing job of adding new elements to Jean that she became far too compelling to stay dead forever. Later stories revealed that the Phoenix wasn’t actually Jean Grey, just a duplicate who truly believed that she was. Regardless of the way it was retconned, the DARK PHOENIX saga has retained its emotional resonance. It also gave Jean Grey the added depth that made her unforgettable.

Now that you know the story, read the comics on Marvel Unlimited! You can find links to our three-part Dark Phoenix Reading Guide below:

Part One – The Beginning
Part Two – Enter the Dark Phoenix
Part Three – The Dark Phoenix Returns

X-Men: Dark Phoenix is in theaters now!


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