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X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga Story Arc Explained

VO: Adrian Sousa WRITTEN BY: Michael Wynands
Many decades have passed since we were first introduced to the Phoenix force, but it’s arrival on earth remains one of the biggest events in X-Men history. Welcome to “Story Arc Explained”, the series that gets you up to speed on the comics you didn’t read. Today we’re recapping the “Phoenix Saga” as told in the pages of 1976’s Uncanny X-Men #101-108, written by Chris Claremont, as well as 1980’s game-changing “Dark Phoenix Saga” from Uncanny X-Men #129-138, written by Chris Claremont and John Byrne.
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X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga Story Arc Explained

Many decades have passed since we were first introduced to the Phoenix force, but it’s arrival on earth remains one of the biggest events in X-Men history. Welcome to “Story Arc Explained”, the series that gets you up to speed on the comics you didn’t read. Today we’re recapping the “Phoenix Saga” as told in the pages of 1976’s Uncanny X-Men #101-108, written by Chris Claremont, as well as 1980’s game-changing “Dark Phoenix Saga” from Uncanny X-Men #129-138, written by Chris Claremont and John Byrne.

Forget everything you learned in “X-Men: The Last Stand”. The misguided and much maligned third film in the original X-Men trilogy hardly scratches the surface of its source material. The movie reduced the Phoenix to a split personality of Jean Grey’s, long telepathically-repressed by Charles Xavier for her safety and that of others. The comics, by contrast, tell a very different story of an immortal, extraterrestrial entity of pure energy, the Phoenix force. No wonder Fox decided to give this storyline a second shot on the big screen.

Our tale begins - as all the best ones do - on a damaged spaceship fighting to safely re-enter earth’s atmosphere. Having survived the dramatic off-world events of Uncanny X-Men #100, our heroes are a little worse for wear; Jean in particular. Having telepathically learned how to fly the ship, she’s simultaneously at the helm and trying to protect herself from the fatal radiation of a solar storm using a kinetic shield. She’s essentially sacrificing herself for her friends and allies.

They make it to earth, but Jean has been fundamentally altered. Rising from the water near the site of their crash landing, she’s rocking a new costume and declares herself to be the Phoenix (and “power incarnate”) before passing out. Her teammates are all naturally concerned, but after returning her to the mansion and being informed that she will recover, they breathe a collective sigh of relief and return to their crime-fighting responsibilities while she regains her strength. They tangle with Juggernaut and Black Tom, you know… the usual stuff.

Jean eventually recovers and becomes well enough to get up, move around, and even visit her parents. At first, there are no signs of her having changed, but the Phoenix makes its presence known when Empress Lilandra of the Shi’ar Empire teleports onto the scene, followed by none other than Firelord. This was our first real taste of Jean’s new powers, and they certainly made a big impression. She’s more than capable of holding her own against the one-time herald of Galactus, and later shows herself powerful enough to power an inter-stellar transporter, which she and her fellow X-Men obviously go through.

On the other end of the warp gate, Phoenix and the X-Men find themselves on an alien planet and drawn into a rather convoluted cosmic conflict. At the center of it all is the M'Kraan Crystal, a massive, ancient and powerful object tied to the cosmos, that, once every million years, opens a gateway to seemingly ultimate power. It’s classic ‘70s material, don’t worry about the technicalities of it. The crucial concern is that attempting to access or harness this power risks destroying the universe and all of existence. With reality itself blinking in and out, there’s only one hero strong enough to save the day. Jean travels into the crystal, where things only get weirder, but with her newfound abilities and a bit of life force borrowed from her allies, she manages to repair the structure.

With the team safely back home and the crisis averted, everything appears to be going back to normal. Recognizing just how powerful she has become, she intentionally limits her powers. However, Cyclops, who’s closest to Jean, can’t help but remark that there’s something different about Jean now that she’s adopted her new identity as Phoenix. Little did he know just how right he was.

For a number of years, Jean would continue to operate as the Phoenix, flexing her new abilities to the benefit of her teammates. Little did they realize, however, there was much more to Phoenix than a power upgrade. Kicking off in “Uncanny X-Men” #129, the Dark Phoenix Saga dove deeper into the mystery of Jean’s new powers, revealing them to have come at a far greater cost than anyone could have imagined.

The storyline starts off with a little bit of mental manipulation courtesy of Hellfire Club member and master illusion maker Jason Wyngarde, aka Mastermind. As part of his evil machinations, he’s projecting a fictional history of he and Jean’s respective ancestors having a shared romance centuries earlier in an attempt to make her fall in love with him. Creepy. For Jean’s part, she’s seemingly just trying to work on her relationship with Cyclops.

Slowly but surely, however, these fabricated realities begin to affect Jean. She’s reliving the life of fictional Lady Grey, her supposed ancestor and Queen Black of the Hellfire Queen, as designed by the Mastermind to seduce her towards not just him, but a life of decadence. Considering the sick and twisted Wyngarde manages to get Jean to kiss him, in front of Cyclops no less, it’s clear that his efforts are paying off.

All the while, a larger conflict has been brewing between the Hellfire Club and the X-Men. In issue #131, it finally comes to head, and Phoenix comes to blows with the White Queen, Emma Frost, and quickly overpowers her. But so colossal is her display of force that it actually frightens her fellow X-Men member, Storm. What Storm saw wasn’t Jean using her abilities… it was her being consumed by the Phoenix.

Between the mental manipulations of Mastermind, which are still unknown to Jean and her fellow X-Men, and her ever more unstable nature as the Phoenix, Jean begins to feel like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. When the X-Men take the fight to their foes by infiltrating the Hellfire Club, they find the tables turned on them when Mastermind showcases just how strong his influence over Jean has become - transforming her into the Black Queen, who attacks the X-Men.

The thing about trying to brainwash and manipulate a being of awesome power is… they don’t like to be tamed. When Jean sees Scott fall in psychic combat with Mastermind, his spell over her is broken, but so too is the final degree of separation between Jean Grey and the Phoenix. An unhinged Jean goes after a fleeing Mastermind, except… she’s not Jean anymore. Just as Storm feared, she’s given herself over to the Phoenix. The Phoenix corners Mastermind and, in a mocking and cruel fashion, overloads the villain’s brain by showing him the vastness of the cosmos. Cosmic Beings are not to be messed with.

Though this initially seemed like just another Phoenix episode, upon returning to the plane, it becomes clear that the Phoenix is now fully in control. Donning a new costume, she declares Jean to be gone, and then, in a show of her “power incarnate”, destroys their aircraft. Ladies and gentlemen… behold the Phoenix in all her terrifying glory. She quickly and savagely dispatches of the X-Men before soaring off into space. This is when things get really scary. She literally feeds on a star in Shi’Ar space, destroying all life on a neighboring planet in the process. She then returns her sights to earth.

Now recognized as a cosmic threat, the Phoenix unites countless species from across the galaxy in a shared purpose: destroying her. The X-Men hope to be able to dampen her powers, but they must also come to terms with the very real possibility that they may have to use lethal force against their one-time ally and friend. While some fancy teleportation work courtesy of Nightcrawler gets the synaptic scrambler on the Dark Phoenix, even her limited abilities prove too much for the X-Men to overcome. She’s in agony, but she continues to fight.

This is where things start to get sad. When Wolverine gets close to the Dark Phoenix, some part of Jean breaks through and begs with her friend to kill her. As you can imagine, the request weighs heavy on Logan, and before he can bring himself to do it, the moment has passed. Worse yet, the synaptic scrambler has failed. Returned to full strength, the Dark Phoenix proceeds to mentally assault the X-Men. Scott almost brings her back down, but in the end, it’s Professor X who ultimately overcomes the Dark Phoenix, forcing it back down in Jean’s mind.

The Phoenix no longer poses an immediate threat, but it’s only a matter of time before it reasserts its will over Jean. Transported by the Shi’ar onto Empress Lilandra’s cruiser, the X-men are informed that the Galactic Council has sentenced her to death. Our heroes naturally refuse to accept such a decision, and so a challenge is established between them and the Shi’ar Imperial Guard to decide Jean’s fate. It’s an emotional moment, with Jean donning her classic costume and sharing one last night with Scott. In the ensuing battle, however, the inevitable happens, and the Dark Phoenix is reawakened. The X-Men are forced to once again fight their ally, but when none of them can bring themselves to kill her, Jean, in a heartbreaking moment, finds the strength to do it herself using an ancient weapon that leaves her vaporized. Scott, having witnessed Jean’s death, realizes that this was her plan from the moment they arrived on the ship: Jean could no longer go on living with the deaths of 5 billion people on her conscience.

Thus concludes one of the most influential and pivotal X-Men stories ever told. Though Jean Grey would return to comics, it was not for another 6 years, making her death one of the most enduring and far-reaching in comics. Of course, this wasn’t the last we’d see of the Phoenix Force either.
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