There are a lot of beloved and classic X-Men stories throughout the years and I’d say that the three biggest (not best, but most prominent) are Days of Future Past, Age of Apocalypse, and Dark Phoenix Saga. And while Giant-Sized X-Men #1 is arguably the most important tale, it’s not the one that everyone keeps going back to the well for as much as these three giants.
The last three major X-Men movies have been trying to fit around that in a way. X-Men: Days of Future Past allowed them to retell the classic story while mixing the casts of both eras. Age of Apocalypse wasn’t going to be viable so soon after doing a time-travel/reality-altering movie, but they were at least able to finally introduce said villain. Then there’s Dark Phoenix, which is such an odd choice because they already did it just over a decade ago with the generally reviled X-Men: The Last Stand.
X-Men’s true epic gets a lot of play and for good reason. Here’s a look at the original story and the many attempts to adapt it, for better or worse.
THE ORIGINAL DARK PHOENIX SAGA
Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s groundbreaking and lengthy run on Uncanny X-Men hit a big high in 1980 with the original Dark Phoenix Saga. The meat of it takes place in X-Men #129-138, but it’s a follow-up to a story where Jean Grey sacrificed herself during a space mission in order to bring everyone home. Empowered with kickass flame powers, she returned from the dead as Phoenix.
Meanwhile, at the Hellfire Club – the kinky evil mutant clubhouse – OG X-Men villain Mastermind decided to help out his standing in the team by manipulating Phoenix into joining their ranks at his side. He gradually messed with her head and turned her into the Black Queen, where the proper girl-next-door member of the X-Men was transformed into a black lingerie-wearing villainess who was constantly standing in dramatic poses.
Seriously, 95% of her appearances as Black Queen have her standing with like a foot of distance between her knees. Cosmic entity or not, it can’t be comfortable.
The X-Men fought the Hellfire Club and got their asses handed to them. While this story was the first appearances of Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost, and Dazzler, it’s also remembered for the first appearance of Wolverine going from the team’s resident grouch to, “OH MY GOD HE JUST CARVED OUT THAT DUDE’S ENTRAILS!” Thanks to Cyclops being wounded, Jean freaked out and turned the tide.
Unfortunately, she then went full-on Dark Phoenix and wiped the floor with her team. She flew off into space for a sec and decided to feed on a couple stars, wiping out billions of lives. As one does. She returned to Earth and fought the X-Men again, only to be mentally shut down by Xavier.
Shi’ar Empress Lilandra teleported them to space to point out that, hey, she should probably pay for all the people she killed. Xavier challenged her to a rock-off—er, I mean an honor battle. The X-Men fought the Shi’ar’s best warriors, which didn’t end so well for the heroes because this was the ’80s and the X-Men in the ’80s were about as good in a fight as ONE Spider-Man (see Secret Wars).
A stressed Jean went full-on Dark Phoenix, which took out the enemies, but meant that now she was the X-Men’s problem. They calmed her down by literally throwing Colossus at her, but Jean scrambled off to commit suicide via alien disintegrator. Not only could she not live with her actions, but she knew she couldn’t hold back the Dark Phoenix powers forever.
Later on, it was retconned so that she wasn’t Jean at all. Jean was in a cocoon underwater for years with the Phoenix using her identity all this time. That was really the only way editor Jim Shooter would allow Jean to return and get off the hook for blowing up entire solar systems.
WHAT IF THE PHOENIX HAD NOT DIED?
Months after Dark Phoenix Saga, the team of Mary Jo Duffy and Jerry Bingham were the first of several to tackle the storyline for Marvel’s What If series. This alternate timeline started with the Shi’ar Imperial Guard being able to overpower Cyclops and Jean before she could tap into her awesome form. Rather than kill her, they instead used a psychic lobotomy to remove her powers.
That meant Jean had to lounge around the X-Mansion with nothing to do other than listen to everyone talk about their radical adventures and think about all those people she murdered. She tagged along to a space mission to help them stop Galactus from eating a planet. The moment Terrax kicked the snot out of Cyclops, Jean no-sold the psychic lobotomy and went back to being Phoenix. She went one-on-one with Galactus, fought him to a standstill, and watched as he left. His parting words were that she was totally going to fall back onto her old habits.
Guys. STOP SENDING JEAN ON SPACE MISSIONS! It always ends badly!
Phoenix turned the X-Men into an unbeatable team, but she also started to go through a bit of addiction. She flew off to feed on asteroids. Then she’d fly off to eat stars in systems that had no life. No harm, no foul. Well, unfortunately Kitty tried to do an intervention about this and got fried into ash on the spot.
Dark Phoenix annihilated the rest of the X-Men one-by-one. The only chance they had was a Cyclops/Havok team-up and Cyclops couldn’t bring himself to do it. Phoenix killed Cyclops, realized what she had done, then was filled with such sorrow that she ended up blowing up the entire universe in rage-grief.
Have a nice day!
THE HUMOR ISSUE
The first run of What If did a pretty great joke issue filled with a lot of one-page or one-panel alternate universe gags. One page featured What If concepts for famously dead-at-the-time characters Captain Marvel, Phoenix, and Elektra surviving. Each one treated it as the most mundane thing possible, which is actually sort of realistic.
Right now I’m writing this article in a story called What If Gavin Wasn’t Hit by a Bus?
CONAN THE BARBARIAN KILLS US ALL
During his initial Marvel run, Conan the Barbarian had several What If issues to his name. Two were about him being in the present day, one was about him fighting and befriending Thor, and one was about him fighting Wolverine. The latter one is based on the events of Dark Phoenix.
In the original story, there’s this part in the finale where Wolverine wanders into Uatu the Watcher’s domain on the moon and doesn’t get a friendly welcome. Uatu punishes Wolverine by throwing him around time and space for a bit until kicking him out. In this version, he tosses Wolverine back in time to the Hyborian Age.
During this time, Wolverine gets in a scrap with Red Sonja and the two end up romantically involved. Wolverine’s first fight against Conan ends in defeat, but goes into the rematch fueled with berserker rage, driving him to win. Towards the end, a sorcerer attempts to send Wolverine back to his correct era, but Conan accidentally gets sent instead.
Normally, this would be all fine and dandy, but this is during that big Dark Phoenix vs. X-Men final battle. Conan sees a redhead getting attacked by demons and thinks it’s Red Sonja. He throws a rock into Cyclops’ skull, Jean freaks the hell out, and once again Phoenix expands across the universe.
Thanks a lot, Watcher.
WHAT IF PHOENIX ROSE AGAIN?
That original What If story about Phoenix surviving was a bit…straightforward and nihilistic. In the second volume of What If, George Caragonne and Rod Ramos did a two-parter called What If Phoenix Had Not Died? and What If Phoenix Rose Again? Again, Dark Phoenix is defeated by the Shi’ar and Jean has her powers lobotomized. The big difference is that by the time of the issue’s writing, it had become apparent to readers that “Jean” was just the Phoenix itself, who thought it was Jean.
The first issue deals with Jean being suicidal over her situation. She has no powers and all she can do is live with the countless lives she’s ended. She gets by thanks to Scott’s love, their eventual daughter Rachel, and an incident where Magneto offers to return her power and she refuses so as not to become a lunatic like him. Unfortunately, she’s one day murdered by a vengeful Mastermind possessed by the Shadow King.
Once the “mortal” body is killed, she awakens to realize what she really is. She finds the cocooned real Jean, but a selfish stray thought causes Jean to vanish completely. Now Phoenix has even more guilt, not to mention having to hide who she truly is to her loved ones. In a way, this version of the Dark Phoenix story feels most relevant to the X-Men’s core concept because she’s more or less the mutant among mutants. Especially once the cat is out of the bag and she’s outed as Phoenix. Phoenix runs away, rather than deal with the repercussions and earned mistrust.
Oh, and this reality goes full-on Days of Future Past for the most part. Doesn’t help that Phoenix tries to mindwipe the President into being pro-mutant, which makes things much worse.
Phoenix makes her return to help wipe out all the Sentinels. A pyrrhic ending considering how many X-Men members and superheroes are dead by the end. It’s a very bittersweet ending, as Cyclops is shown to accept his wife for what she is, but Destiny tells her that every single possible future shows that if she remains on Earth, she will destroy it. Phoenix is forced to give up her heart’s desire in order to spare the world from her wrath and instead become a fixture of the universe once more.
THE WHAT IF WEDDING ISSUE
Kurt Busiek and Ron Randall teamed up for What If v.2 #60, which was a trilogy of stories based around the wedding of Scott Summers and Jean Grey. The tangent universes are all based on the possible turns their relationship could have taken over the years. Had they gotten married earlier on, they would have left the team and the other original members would have followed. Xavier and his replacements would have been killed by Krakoa.
Had Jean chosen Angel over Cyclops, Cyclops would have become an emotionless drill sergeant, who would have eventually left the X-Men to join the Brotherhood.
Then there’s a universe that wonders about Jean ditching Cyclops for Wolverine. Unfortunately, this one is a bit of a dud for various reasons. It takes place during Dark Phoenix Saga, so it’s not even Jean to begin with and it’s just a side-effect of Mastermind screwing with her emotions. All it means is that once the Shi’ar is fighting the X-Men, Phoenix can’t keep herself together because Wolverine lacks the calming influence.
And so, the universe explodes again.
WHAT IF STORM HAD THE POWER OF PHOENIX?
One of the bottom-tier What If issue was written by Sarah Byam with art by Franchesco. During the initial incident where Jean has to pilot the X-Men home from space and becomes one with the Phoenix, Jean is knocked out. Storm has to pilot the ship using her wind powers or whatever. The crash landing means the death of everyone but Wolverine while Phoenix-Storm rises from her watery grave.
The story is a lot like Avengers vs. X-Men where Phoenix-Storm goes mad with power trying to force right on the world. Opposing superheroes are tortured in suspended animation in the skies. Many worship Storm like a goddess, but Heaven help you if you question her actions.
An underground group led by Nick Fury, Dr. Doom, Black Panther, and Wolverine discovers the cocooned body of the real Storm and try to wake her up. They can’t, so Kitty Pryde uses her powers to puppeteer Storm’s body like Weekend at Bernies, but from within. Pryde-Storm confronts Phoenix-Storm, some explosives go off, and…I guess the Phoenix Force is just driven away into space?
It’s very badly explained and the art is just unfortunate.
PREVIOUSLY, ON X-MEN
About half of the third season of the X-Men cartoon was based on telling the story of the Phoenix Saga in full. Well, except for that one episode in-between Jean being dead and Jean being suddenly alive that they didn’t actually animate until the latter part of the fifth season when the animation was wonky.
Being a TV show, they’re able to dip their toe in and take their time. There’s an episode about Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike fighting what I can only describe as a fart frog from outer space and that leads directly into the five-part Phoenix Saga. It gave us that Juggernaut meme from the mid-00s. A few episodes after, there’s a four-part Dark Phoenix Saga.
The story beats are mostly the same, impressively enough. Sure, there are some changes. The Hellfire Club is now the Inner-Circle Club. There’s a thing where the dark part of Xavier’s mind manifests, transforms into Deadpool, and shoots Wolverine. There’s a scene dedicated to Wolverine using his claws to make a sandwich and Cyclops rightfully asks for one. Most importantly, Jean doesn’t so much die at the end of the final battle as the Phoenix Force pops out, says some nice things about the X-Men, revitalizes Jean, then flies off into space.
Jean barely does anything for the rest of the series. Okay, she gets in a war with Gambit over who gets to cook Christmas dinner, but other than that…
EXILES VS. THE DARK PHOENIX
Judd Winick and Mike McKone created Exiles back in the early 2000s, taking the concept of Sliders and attaching it to Marvel Comics’ rich history and tendency to play around with alternate realities. One of their earliest stories deals with this ragtag team of heroes from different worlds having to save a universe from a power-mad Jean Grey.
The events of Dark Phoenix Saga play out very similar to the classic version, but with one major difference: Jean Grey really is Jean Grey and she’s very much the one behind all that cosmic genocide. The X-Men are fated to defeat the Shi’ar, Dark Phoenix is going to kill the X-Men, then she’s going to wipe out galaxies one at a time.
Despite hoping for the best, the Exiles are horrified to see Dark Phoenix take delight in holding up Cyclops’ corpse. Mimic is able to hold Dark Phoenix off long enough for that world’s Angel and Wolverine to sneak up on a preoccupied Jean and impale her. The act causes Jean to explode in flame, killing what’s left of the X-Men.
Feeling no joy in their victory, the Exiles leave for the next mission.
EVOLUTION’S GLIMPSE INTO THE FUTURE
X-Men: Evolution’s fourth season finale is rather infamous for basically saying, “The show is cancelled and that sucks. Want to see what we would have done if we had one more season? There. Too bad, right?”
Xavier gets visions of the future and is vague about what he’s seen when talking to his X-Men. The viewers, on the other hand, get to see Magneto join the X-men, various Brotherhood members join SHIELD, advanced Sentinels, and, of course, Jean lose control and go full-on Dark Phoenix.
I’d probably warn people more explicitly about that one, but that’s just me.
WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN AND THE DARK PHOENIX
Wolverine and the X-Men trumps X-Men: Evolution in regards to, “This is why we can’t have nice things!” as it only lasted a season. The initial story has to do with Jean being missing or presumed dead or whatever and Cyclops being a big, gruff, loner dick about it all while Wolverine has to lead the team. Makes sense to mix things up when you’re on your fourth X-Men cartoon iteration.
God, imagine how Pryde of the X-Men would have handled Dark Phoenix.
Jean is later discovered as an amnesiac and she gets captured and manipulated by the Hellfire Club. Emma Frost is sort of the protagonist in all of this, being a wildcard who acts as the Hellfire Club’s mole in the X-Men for the right reasons. Then she discovers that their plan to send the Phoenix Force back into space is bupkis and Sebastian Shaw really just wants the power for himself.
In the end, Emma finds redemption by saving Cyclops and Jean via absorbing the Phoenix Force into herself, turning into her diamond form, then exploding. Then Cyclops and Jean make out while Emma’s diamond remains rain around them. Considering the comic has Cyclops and Emma making out on top of Jean’s grave, this is probably the right amount of payback.
MARVEL VS. CAPCOM 3
I don’t know if this really counts, but let’s go with it. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 introduced Phoenix into the series and made her a real gamble of a gimmick. She’s the ultimate glass cannon. Normally, she takes massive damage from each hit and her regular offense isn’t quite good enough to make up for it. On the other hand, if the player’s team has five full super meters by the time Phoenix gets knocked out, she screams, “I CAN’T CONTROL IT!” and becomes Dark Phoenix.
She’s suddenly way more powerful and faster at the cost of her health gradually declining and still having weak durability. Activate the X-Factor Mode (which allows your characters to become momentarily faster and stronger) and Dark Phoenix can cut down even the likes of Galactus in seconds.
Phoenix doesn’t factor into what exists of the game’s story, but her winposes and victory quotes are based entirely on which personality she’s using when winning. In her ending, she takes down Galactus, but then loses control and now two universes have to deal with her.
X-MEN: THE THIRD STAND
X-Men: The Last Stand gets a lot of hate and much of it is deserved for being a messy rush-job of a third installment, but looking back…damn, that first trilogy was actually coherent. I’m serious. Remember when the biggest continuity issue was, “Why was Beast human-looking in X2?” Even then, they explained that one after the fact.
Famke Janssen’s run as Jean may not have dove into extraterrestrial affairs and both she and Cyclops never really got that much time to develop as characters, but at least her Dark Phoenix storyline felt like a story they were trying to tell over the course of several movies. The first movie had her use Cerebro out of desperation. The second movie built on that by showing that it was making her powers stronger, but less controllable. Then she sacrificed herself and died in a way that straight-up told us that she was going to be coming back in some Phoenix-y form due to her flame aura and the bird-shaped thing swimming through where she drowned.
Jean returns in Last Stand, where she proceeds to accidentally disintegrate Cyclops for the crime of his actor sneaking off to be in a Superman movie. It comes to light that “Phoenix” is a dark personality that Xavier walled off in Jean’s psyche years earlier and the movie doesn’t really do much to do anything but vindicate Xavier’s actions. Even Magneto goes, “No mutant should be able to hold back at all and they should all be as dangerous as possible! …oh, wait. Scratch that.”
Jean vaporizes Xavier (he gets better) and a ton of army dudes (they probably don’t). It takes a determined and constantly-healing Wolverine to weather her onslaught and stab her to death. An emotional death where the only remaining character she has a meaningful connection with has to do the unthinkable and take her out.
Probably would have hit harder if it wasn’t competing with other plots, but there are worse story arcs.
X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX
After the initial trilogy, the Fox X-Men movies went on this insane trek where they would do prequels and time travel reboots in order to explain or fix continuity, only to make things worse. Sophie Turner is introduced as a younger version of Jean Grey in X-Men: Apocalypse and does very little compared to the rest of the cast. She mainly unleashes her true power in the climax to destroy Apocalypse, where she lets loose with a big, fiery bird explosion. The story being told here is that, again, an act of desperation leads to Jean breaking her limits and creates a threat that the X-Men will have to face down the line.
Then X-Men: Dark Phoenix pretty much ignores all that. Nine years pass, Jean and the rest of the cast don’t age, and her path towards destruction is more brought on by a space rescue mission where a “solar flare” ends up absorbing into her body. Outside of Cyclops, everyone just takes this in stride. These guys witness this harrowing, monumental moment and treat Jean like she’s come down with a slight case of the hiccups. Then they let her get drunk minutes later. Come on, now.
The movie tries to have its cake and eat it too by bringing up Xavier’s mental blocking from years earlier, but also shoehorning aliens and saying that Jean is absolutely possessed by a cosmic force of pure destruction. Even though she kills some cops, kills Mystique, and makes everyone forget that Quicksilver is in the movie, Jean goes on to conquer the Phoenix Force thanks to the power of love and hope. Then she goes Iron Giant and blows up in space, taking out the alien boss with her.
But she survives because of course she does. It’ll never be mentioned again. Thank you, Disney.