Whether or not it’s your personal favorite, it’s hard to argue that “The Dark Phoenix Saga” isn’t the single most influential X-Men story ever told. In the 40 years since it was first put to paper by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne, the saga has reliably remained in print, been adopted to film twice, included in some form in most X-Men cartoons, and received far too many sequels in comics to count. If you look at any “best of” list for X-Men comics, it will be there, as well as on most lists ranking essential superhero comics. Few stories from the Marvel Comics canon loom larger than the sprawling tale of Jean Grey losing control to a cosmic being and making the ultimate sacrifice. After so much time and consideration, this raises one important question: why has “The Dark Phoenix Saga” remained so incredibly popular?
There are a lot of elements that made this story a classic even in its own time; any comic featuring Byrne’s take on Nightcrawler or Claremont’s sprawling sub-plots is bound to be attractive. Yet there is something special about how these two creators combined forces for the 10 issues (The X-Men #129-138) that compose this specific story, something that has allowed it to remain a timeless tale capturing what makes the X-Men an evergreen superhero property. These are the three essential elements that we believe makes “The Dark Phoenix Saga” stand above the many other iconic X-Men stories of its time.
The Golden Age of X-Men
It cannot be stressed enough how much “The Dark Phoenix Saga” reflects a perfect storm of creative elements. The period in which it was published remains a golden age for the X-Men franchise. Claremont’s plotting and ideas drove the franchise forward for almost two decades, continually generating new characters and developing stories across years. His combination with Byrne (as well as Dave Cockrum) produced the new character designs, costumes, and settings that remain fan favorites through this day. Together, these three creators generated a more robust mythology for Marvel’s merry mutants than the one first crafted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s.
“The Dark Phoenix Saga” arrived several years into Claremont’s run and was able to utilize a wide variety of continuing elements that had quickly made the X-Men a best-selling property again. The original cast of characters had been revamped, including a now blue, furry Beast and much more complex relationship between Jean Grey and Cyclops. New additions to the team had been provided with ample time to leave their mark and reveal their complexity, including Nightcrawler, Storm, and Wolverine. Almost all of the figures most associated with the team were present for this saga.
In addition to all of that, there was an ample array of sub-plots that helped to flesh out the build of the story. This includes the introduction of both Kitty Pryde and the Hellfire Club, the return of Mastermind, and the X-Men’s relationship with the Shi’ar Empire. While Jean Grey’s turn to the dark side is the central plotline of this saga, there’s a lot more happening around it that makes the story delightfully complex. Reviewing the original version of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” offers a smorgasbord of characters, plots, and ideas from which to enjoy or focus upon. There’s no clearer argument that the late '70s and '80s were the golden age of X-Men than this story.
Readily Open to Interpretation
While groups like the Hellfire Club and Shi’ar Empire make the original “Dark Phoenix Saga” feel full of life and complexity, they aren’t necessary for an adaptation or sequel. In fact, there are very few elements that are absolutely critical to adapting this particular story because the broad strokes are open to lots of change. Both movie versions of the saga have opted to keep the story focused around the Earth, avoiding the memorable final showdown on the Blue Area of the Moon and diverse Imperial Guard. The teams surrounding Jean Grey in both versions have been altered pretty wildly as well to varying effects. When thinking about what a writer absolutely needs to tell this story well, the list is not long.
What remains essential is that Jean Grey is the focus of the story, reflecting a battle between her own good, heroic nature and the corruption provided by absolute power (and the Phoenix Force’s own desires). Her relationships are important as well, both her friendships with the X-Men in general, as well as the roles of her mentor Charles Xavier and lover Cyclops. Yet even those relationships remain flexible, as X-Men: The Last Stand opted to focus more on her romance with Wolverine than Cyclops with similar outcomes. As long as Jean Grey, the Phoenix Force, and a struggle for control of cosmically destructive powers are present, this is one story that can continually be updated for new generations and perspectives without losing what made it great initially.
A Perpetually Resonant Theme
The reason why the characters and subplots surrounding “The Dark Phoenix Saga” remain so flexible is that the core themes of the story are what continue to resonate after almost four decades. You can add Magneto, drop Cyclops, or invent an alien race, as long as you still focus on what Jean Grey’s story from Phoenix to Dark Phoenix to Jean Grey is really about.1comments
“The Dark Phoenix Saga” is a story about human fallibility, monstrosity, and redemption. Jean Grey was the most beloved member of the X-Men well before Claremont and Byrne ever approached the series. She was the new classmate who captured everyone’s heart by constantly striving to help both her teammates and the world that hated and feared them. Her explosive increase in power only made her a more valuable mentor, friend, and hero in this struggle, but that same power came with a cost. The introduction of Dark Phoenix is all about that cost, the distancing of humanity, increased scrutiny, and impossible decisions that come with so much control over others. It displays a potent visual duality between the good soul that is Jean Grey and the corruption that is the Phoenix Force.
We understand that corruption, power, and monstrosity are truly evergreen themes in literature, not just superhero comics. They serve as the basis for the critical darling Immortal Hulk today. Few superhero stories, if any, have addressed these ideas as well as “The Dark Phoenix Saga” though. As long as we remain interested in how power affects even the best of us and whether redemption is possible, there will always be a place in superhero stories for new readers and new versions of “The Dark Phoenix Saga.”