The current X-Men movie franchise is coming to an end and ready to go out with a bang as it tackles the biggest X-Men story of them all: “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” It’s all but certain that Dark Phoenix will condense the history and story of its central antagonist quite a bit. We don’t mean Jean Grey, but the Phoenix Force, the separate being drawn to Jean Grey that both empowers and corrupts her. If none of this sounds terribly familiar, then you’ve come to the right place.
The Phoenix Force has its own unique history, both as a popular comics character and within the stories of the Marvel universe. We’ve collected a quick synopsis of both those histories, as well as some of the Phoenix Force’s most important comic book stories and most notable adaptations. This is your starter guide to knowing everything you need to know about the Phoenix Force.
The Phoenix Force first appeared in X-Men #101, where it was created by writer Chris Claremont and artist Dave Cockrum. Jean Grey appeared dead after crash landing a space shuttle in Jamaica Bay, but then burst forth from the waves in a new costume proclaiming herself Phoenix. The idea that this new power and identity were shared with a separate being was only slowly revealed in the pages of X-Men though. It was during “The Dark Phoenix Saga” that the total power and nature of the Phoenix Force was made clear, leading to its transformation into Dark Phoenix and the destruction of an alien planet and sentient species.
This crime was seen as being too great for redemption by Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Jim Shooter. He mandated that Jean Grey, as Phoenix, be killed before the end of the story. That didn’t kill Jean Grey’s fandom, though, or the creators like Claremont who wanted to continue her story. This led to an idea from, then fan and college student, Kurt Busiek who suggested that the Jean Grey who rose from the ocean in X-Men #101 was only the Phoenix Force in the form of Jean Grey, while Jean herself was cocooned safely in Jamaica Bay.
It was this creation that led to both Jean Grey’s resurrection and a far more complex mythology to the Phoenix Force as a separate, fully sentient entity, one that has infused itself into almost every single era of Marvel Comics.
Within Marvel Comics the Phoenix Force is an immortal being representing all life and passion in existence. It has served many roles over that almost-infinite period, connecting to all psychic energy and protecting the immensely powerful M’Kraan Crystal. The Phoenix Force is capable of both galactic-scale creation and destruction and has rewritten entire universes after wiping them out. While it did not begin in the form of the Phoenix, encounters with alien species helped shape this force into a clear form and consciousness.
The Phoenix Force bonded with members of both the human race and Shi’ar early in their development. On Earth it bonded with a member of the first Avengers and had a romance with Odin, while it eventually destroyed much of the Shi’ar Empire after bonding with one warrior named Rook’shir. This led to the Shi’ar’s obsession with controlling or destroying the Phoenix Force and their eventual encounter with the X-Men.
The Phoenix Force continues to cycle through periods of creation and destruction, as well as many hosts. Rachel Summers, Quentin Quire, and Cyclops are only some of the many beings the Phoenix Force has bonded with as it continues to change and impact the entire Marvel universe.
If you’re looking to read some important comics history involving the Phoenix Force, these are four excellent stories to start with. Each of them showcases some of Marvel Comics’ best creative talent from across the years and adds a new chapter to the ongoing history of the Phoenix.
“The Dark Phoenix Saga”, The X-Men #129-138: This is where it really begins, a sweeping epic in which Jean Grey’s mind is turned against her and the full destructive powers of the Phoenix are first unleashed. This is a stone cold classic of X-Men lore.
“Third Genesis”, Avengers #263, Fantastic Four #286, and X-Factor #1: This is where the concepts of Jean Grey and the Phoenix are first separated in a meaningful fashion. It is a three-part crossover that managed to both resurrect her and place blame for “The Dark Phoenix Saga” solely on the Phoenix itself.
“Phoenix in Darkness”, New X-Men #146-154: The ending of Morrison’s run on with the X-Men presented both a story of Phoenix sacrificing her and itself for good in the present and how the Phoenix Force would play with Earth’s history for many years to come. It’s also a great conclusion to an equally great run.
“Avengers vs. X-Men”, Avengers vs. X-Men #0-12: This is the most recent crossover event to prominently feature the Phoenix Force, as it is separated for the first time and tied to multiple new characters. It’s a wild adventure featuring plenty of detours, but also a nice update to the science and concept of the Phoenix Force.
The Phoenix Force has also been adapted multiple times to various media, beyond its newest appearance in Dark Phoenix. These are some of the highlights since the Phoenix Force first appeared in 1976.
X-Men ‘92: This classic animated series remains the standard by which all future X-Men cartoons are measured. The series pulled heavily from Claremont’s long run on the comic, and provides a version of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” that inspired a whole new generation of fans.2comments
X-Men: The Last Stand: This is the bar to which Dark Phoenix’s success will be compared. While the final installment of the first filmed X-Men trilogy was widely panned at the time, it holds a lot of laughs and a terrifying version of the Phoenix Force and its destructive powers.
Marvel vs Capcom 3: The Fate of Two Worlds: This is primarily an excuse to play one of the best fighting franchises of all time. In the third installment of this arcade game, Phoenix was included as a playable character and could resurrect as Dark Phoenix using one special attack.