ByTom Bacon, writer at
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Tom Bacon

The climax of X-Men: Apocalypse made one thing very clear indeed: the X-Men movies are set to return to the concept of the Phoenix, which moved center-stage in 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand. So nobody's particularly surprised that the next X-Men film, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, looks to focus in on this. A casting call has explained:

“Gathered together by Professor Charles Xavier to protect a world that fears and hates them, the X-Men had fought many battles, been on adventures that spanned galaxies, grappled enemies of limitless might, but none of this could prepare them for the most shocking struggle they would ever face. One of their own members, Jean Grey, has gained power beyond all comprehension, and that power has corrupted her absolutely! Now they must decide if the life of the woman they cherish is worth the existence of the entire universe!”

Memories of the Dark Phoenix. [Credit: Marvel Comics]
Memories of the Dark Phoenix. [Credit: Marvel Comics]

Now, granted, you have to take this kind of casting description with a pinch of salt; they're usually written by agents rather than the production crew. But if we assume the broad thrust of the description is right, we're about to see the X-Men go cosmic, and my fellow Movie Pilot writer David has explored the implications of that in detail.

For this fan, though, the really interesting side of this is that we seem to be about to see the Phoenix Force cut loose. Fans were deeply dissatisfied at the Phoenix's portrayal in The Last Stand, and the dear hope is that, this time, Fox will get the Phoenix right.

All of which raises a tantalizing question: Just what is the Phoenix?

The Original Phoenix

The original designs. [Credit: Marvel Comics]
The original designs. [Credit: Marvel Comics]

When legendary X-Men writer Chris Claremont took charge of Uncanny X-Men in the 1970s, he quickly decided that he really wanted to change their dynamic. Always a fan of strong female characters, Claremont cast his eye to the character of Jean Grey, and decided it was time to give her something of a power-boost. He explained:

“Our intent was to create an X-Men analog, if you will, to Thor – someone who was essentially the first female cosmic hero. We thought at the time we could integrate her into the book as well as Thor had been integrated into the Avengers.”

Dave Cockrum designed the iconic costume, and in his design notes above, you can see how he and Claremont envisioned this new, ultra-powerful version of Jean Grey; she was a "schizoid personality", wilder than Jean, far more powerful, and with a hint that she was out of control. To demonstrate Phoenix's power, Claremont soon took her to the depths of space, and even had her literally save reality itself!

Unused concept art for 'X-Men: The Last Stand'. [Credit: 20th Century Fox]
Unused concept art for 'X-Men: The Last Stand'. [Credit: 20th Century Fox]

When Cockrum was replaced by John Byrne, though, the creative team's plans began to change. Claremont and Byrne fashioned an arc that became known as the "Dark Phoenix Saga," in which Jean's schizoid personality went out of control. In one horrific scene, she literally destroyed an inhabited star-system!

The team had planned to end the saga with Jean depowered, but editor Jim Shooter objected. He refused to allow for the redemption of a character who had literally committed genocide, and ultimately, Jean paid the price.

The death of Jean Grey. [Credit: Marvel Comics]
The death of Jean Grey. [Credit: Marvel Comics]

Surprisingly, then, X-Men: The Last Stand was actually pretty faithful to Chris Claremont's original design. The Last Stand showed us the Phoenix as Jean unchecked, her mind twisted and corrupted by her own power. The arc was blended with the 'Cure' concept, and was further distorted when James Marsden chose to move on to Superman Returns — resulting in an early death for Cyclops, a character who'd not really been developed anyway. Still, ironically The Last Stand's core treatment of the Phoenix — earthing her as a twisted Jean Grey — was faithful to the comics' original intention.

Of course, the irony is that the Phoenix's comic book story would change radically. And this would be for the most surprising of reasons...

The Phoenix Force

The Phoenix Force! [Credit: Marvel Comics]
The Phoenix Force! [Credit: Marvel Comics]

Jim Shooter insisted that there was only one way he'd allow Jean Grey to be resurrected: if she were somehow absolved of her crimes. Naturally, he thought this was impossible; but he was effectively setting a challenge for his writers, including future freelance writer Kurt Busiek. He hit upon the idea that Jean and Phoenix were actually completely different entities; Jean had been left in a coma, and was replaced by a cosmic entity known as the Phoenix Force.

As the decades have passed, the Phoenix Force has become the stuff of legend. It's become a cosmic force of death and resurrection, burning away the old in order to bring forth the new. Indeed, the Phoenix Force has gradually taken shape as a custodian of reality itself, taking the universe through endless cycles of death and rebirth. Millennia ago, though, the Phoenix Force was drawn to interact with a sorcerer named Feron, and from that point on it began to work through hosts.

One Phoenix Host. [Credit: Marvel Comics]
One Phoenix Host. [Credit: Marvel Comics]

Recognizing the threat of the insane Shi'ar Emperor D'Ken, who literally posed a threat to all of reality, the Phoenix Force had gone one step further with Jean. It had embraced humanity, creating a duplicate of Jean and inhabiting it, but ultimately the Phoenix Force was unable to handle human emotion. So Dark Phoenix had been born.

Notice the subtle inversion, though. In Chris Claremont's original concept, Jean's humanity led her to commit suicide rather than threaten the universe; her very humanity saved us. In this retconned version, the Phoenix's inability to deal with human emotion was the reason the universe was threatened.

The Apotheosis of Jean Grey

An iconic scene. [Credit: Marvel Comics]
An iconic scene. [Credit: Marvel Comics]

The Phoenix Force is now a central tenet of the X-Men universe, and writers have constantly revisited it. None more so than Grant Morrison, who seems to have imagined Jean Grey to undergo a sort of 'apotheosis' — a theological term for a person who transcends their humanity and becomes unity to the Divine. So, in Eastern Orthodox theology, a man may become "God by nature" as he unites with the Divine. The idea got picked up by the so-called 'New Age' movement in the 1960s, and influenced a lot of the mysticism that shaped Grant Morrison.

So Morrison imagined Jean Grey embodying this mystical concept, being united with the pre-existing 'Divine' of the Phoenix Force. Now, it's worth remembering that, from a theological standpoint, 'unity' does not mean 'equality'; there are still differences in state between the human and the Divine. What it does mean differs between theological strands, and Morrison was never clear in this specific case. Morrison's era ended with Jean Grey dead once again, her spirit united with the Phoenix Force. She's yet to be resurrected, leaving the mystery unanswered.

How Will This Play Out?

As I observed in an earlier post, the 'apocalypse' of X-Men: Apocalypse was actually focused on Jean Grey; an 'apocalypse' is an unveiling, or a revelation. So the final battle with En Sabah Nur led to Sophie Turner's Jean Grey cutting loose like never before, revealing the glorious power of the Phoenix. The film ended with Jean staying at that power-level, as she worked with Magneto to literally rebuild Xavier's School. This fits with Chris Claremont's original concept, meaning we're unlikely to learn that the Phoenix Force has replaced Jean Grey.

That said, the comic-book-accurate title of X-Men: Dark Phoenix, as well as the casting description itself, suggest that the film will go in a cosmic direction. If that's the case, then we should expect to see the Phoenix Force in all its glory. At this moment, all I can suggest for resolution is Grant Morrison's 'apotheosis' concept; that Jean has somehow come into contact with a pre-existent psychic power, one that she has bonded with. That would be a smart way of tying the threads together, avoiding the 'duplicate' but allowing the 'fall from grace' arc to be rendered fairly accurately. I have to admit that I'd prefer this approach; it would potentially restore the sense that Jean's humanity was the solution to Dark Phoenix, rather than the cause.

See also:

It's too soon to tell how this is going to play out, but the story of the Phoenix Force is a fascinating one, filled with contradictions and retcons. We know that the Phoenix Force is returning to the comics too; as part of the X-Men's upcoming "ResurrXion" arc, we'll be getting a Jean Grey title in which a time-lost version of Jean has her own dealings with the Phoenix. But it really does look set to return to the big screen. Hopefully this time, Fox will get it right!


Do you think Fox should explore the 'Dark Phoenix Saga' next?

(Sources: MahMuseComics - Behind the Scenes on Phoenix; Is Jean Grey the Phoenix?; The Phoenix Force 101. Poll Image Credit: Marvel Comics)


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