Dark Phoenix


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X-Men vol. 1 #135 © 1980 Marvel Comics. COVER ART BY JOHN BYRNE AND TERRY AUSTIN.

Dark Phoenix

(pop culture)
Lord Acton's dictum that absolute power corrupts absolutely is aptly illustrated by the rise and fall of the supremely powerful cosmic being called Dark Phoenix. The creation of the classic writer/artist team of Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Dark Phoenix represents the unrestrained id of Jean Grey, the telepathic/telekinetic superheroine known as Marvel Girl, who had been fairly unassuming since her inception in X-Men vol. 1 #1 (1963). While piloting a space shuttle to Earth after a space mission, Grey is lethally irradiated. Fortunately, she also encounters the Phoenix Force, a cosmic entity that apparently revivifies her after a crash-landing in New York's Jamaica Bay. Grey's friends, the outlaw mutant superheroes called the X-Men, fear the worst—until Grey rises from the water in a brilliant blaze of fire shaped like the burned-then-reborn bird of ancient Egyptian legend: the Phoenix. Along with her new superappellation, Grey acquires a dynamic new costume, an aerobics-instructor-like green catsuit (X-Men vol. 1 #99–#100, 1976). As Phoenix, Grey steadily ascended toward omnipotence while sliding inexorably into amoral, unbridled violence. The cause was the ancient, immortal Phoenix Force that now possessed her. Exploiting the Phoenix entity's inexperience with human emotions, the mutant villain Mastermind soon manipulated Grey into joining the worlddominating Hellfire Club, thereby blowing out Grey's self-imposed “psychic circuit-breakers,” which kept her rising power-levels, along with the Phoenix Force's worst impulses, in check. Grey abruptly became Dark Phoenix, her costume symbolically morphing from placid green to demonic red. Unfettered by conscience, Dark Phoenix psionically struck down Mastermind, then took a savage interstellar “joyride” that extinguished the D'Bari civilization. She then returned to Earth's solar system, where neither the X-Men nor the powerful Shi'ar Empire—whose military was determined to avenge the D'Bari—can stand against her. Fortunately Dark Phoenix retained a spark of Grey's humanity and opted for suicide, apparently ending Grey's life. This fatal denouement for such an integral character was highly unusual for the superhero comics of the day, and it truly caught readers by surprise when it was unleashed in X-Men vol. 1 #129–#137 (1980). The bewitchingly sexy cosmic villainess has proved durably popular, spurring numerous new appearances, including a lengthy run of early 1980s Uncanny X-Men comics featuring a replica of Jean Grey named Madeline Pryor, who not only married Grey's teen sweetheart Scott (Cyclops) Summers, but also served as a vessel for the Phoenix force. Grey herself returned when it came to light that the Dark Phoenix entity that committed suicide had actually been only a duplicate; the real Jean Grey was found in suspended animation and revived in Fantastic Four #286 (1986). Though many fans regarded Grey's return as a betrayal that undercut her dramatic, Sydney Cartonesque sacrifice, Grey remained a popular character, no doubt owing in part to the possibility that Dark Phoenix might one day run amok once again. Against that possibility, Rachel Summers—the alternate-future daughter of Jean Grey and Scott Summers— eventually became the custodian of the unkillable Phoenix Force in 1992. Dark Phoenix has so far served to supplement Rachel Summers' already-formidable psionic talents, but she has yet to wipe out entire planets. Dark Phoenix finally reached a mass television audience in the third season of FOX's popular XMen animated series (1992–1997). Voiced by Canadian actress Catherine Disher, the tragic Dark Phoenix of the original 1980 Claremont-Byrne saga survived more or less intact. Back in the comics, the “rebooted” version of the X-Men presented in 2001's ongoing Ultimate X-Men series (written by Mark Millar and Chuck Austen and illustrated by Adam Kubert, Chris Bachalo, Esad Ribic, Kaare Andrews, and others) brings the Dark Phoenix saga forward into the new millennium. Like the original Claremont-Byrne iteration, Millar's Dark Phoenix takes Jean Grey on a journey to godhood, though her impulses now appear loftier. “I want to use these gifts to benefit the world,” Grey declares to her mentor Charles Xavier, ready to use her new powers to literally raise the dead. But after receiving a stern browbeating from Xavier, she backs away from wreaking such well-intended havoc on the world, tamping her vast energies down, at least temporarily (Ultimate X-Men #23, 2002). Whether or not Dark Phoenix will motivate Grey into assuming godhood remains to be seen. Her return, however, seems certain.