This is quite possibly the most popular and enduring comics story arc in recent memory that any self-respecting fan of the medium will immediately associate the X-Men with, and The Dark Phoenix Saga is deemed with such high esteem and praise for many good reasons. One thing that I think we all should remember about reading classic storylines from comics that defined and shaped the continuity or characterization of a particular title is to curb our expectations and adjust our preconceived notions about it to something more realistic. In my experience, some of these classics can exceed expectations while some are just relics that were overhyped. A few of which actually do require further contemplation after finishing them in order to garner a more nuanced appreciation. I can honestly say that The Dark Phoenix is one of them. It was a memorable story in itself because the ambiguity in which it was resolved was definitely worth the discussion.
Though it may have been groundbreaking during its time, I think it better serves as a commentary of what female superheroines represent in comics before, as well as the limited roles they used to play or may continue to play. I don't want this to be some kind of feminist review because I don't have enough credibility to start a dialogue like that here. In general, I usually stay away from gender discussions particularly in fiction but it's hard to ignore the implications and symbols present in this story concerning Jean Grey both as herself and the manifestation of the Phoenix. I just thought such a discussion is noteworthy. [SPOILERS AHEAD!]
The saga itself is composed of ten issues from The Uncanny X-Men starting from #129-138 which follows the corruption and fall of Jean Grey after she succumbed to the dark and twisted force of her Phoenix power. But before that, a short background: Some time during the run of said series, a mission in space exposes Jean to a deadly radiation of solar flare which seemed to amplify her mutant powers which therefore made her attain the highest potential of her telepathy/telekinesis. She returns to Earth with a new identity and costume. She becomes known as the "Phoenix" since. As she becomes noticeably stronger, Jean as the Phoenix was also more lenient in using her powers and various teammates of hers, especially Cyclops and Wolverine, notice that she's freely using her skills without the usual measured caution that the old Jean Grey had. They would only later find out that this observation is just a symptom of Jean's inevitable downward spiral.
The Dark Phoenix arc also served as the introduction of the infamous and exclusive inner circle of the Hellfire Club led by Sebastian Shaw, and two iconic characters: Kitty Pryde, future Shawdowcat and one of the most memorable X-Men members; and Emma Frost, a formidable villain of telepathy who is also dubbed as the White Queen. The X-Men's primary mission only begins when the Hellfire Club (through Emma Frost) wants to acquire Kitty Pryde who is just starting to become fully aware of her mutant potentials. Pryde was also a candidate for the X-Men so when Professor X, Storm, Wolverine and Colossus visit her at her home, Emma Frost took advantage of the situation and decided to abduct these X-Men on a public location much later on. Kitty manages to escape and warn the other X-Men of their comrades. But before all of this, Cyclops, Phoenix and Nightcrawler are on a mission to find another mutant whom they encounter in a disco club. I'm referring to Dazzler who is just so ridiculous that I can't take her seriously while I was reading. Anyway, the meat and bones of the action start by the time the remaining X-Men rescue their captured friends with the help of the newly recruited Kitty.
That was the main plot of the first five issues or so of the saga but the developing subplot in the sidelines is that of Jean Grey who has been experiencing "timeslips" where she is being manipulated telepathically by Mastermind to prove his worth in the Hellfire Club he wishes to become a part of. He tries to get Jean to turn against the X-Men and for a short time during the story, he did manage to turn her into his Red Queen during a climactic confrontation between our heroes and the Club. Thankfully, Jean has embedded Scott with a psychic link so while Jean was presently ensnared by Mastermind, Scott tries to win her over through a duel in the astral plane, but he fails. Still, it was enough to shake Jean back into reality and upon discovering the damage that Mastermind has done, she becomes visibly angry--almost vengeful--in a way we have not seen her before. This is one of my favorite chilling exchanges in the comic book:
I thought that this was an important moment because of the build-up established from the previous four issues. Throughout the earlier installments, we saw Mastermind charm his way inside Jean's mind and heart, providing her with a beautiful romantic illusion where she was a noble woman from the past, enaromored with a gentleman named James Wyngarde. He opened her up and then pushed her further into embracing the depths of her desires, captivating her with needs she never realized she's always had: to have all the love and power in the world as well as glory as she rules next to a man she considers her equal. Jean Grey allowed this fantasy to claim her but once it was shattered she was left with so much self-loathing and dread which she subsequently inflicts to the fiend who fed these desires. I don't think Claremont and co. knew back then how impactful this speech could resonate now for readers like me who live in an era where the influence of female empowerment continues to grow. I would like to believe that a lot of us women in this generation have more control over our agencies, choices and self-expressions than the women in the earlier generations who have limited options back then. Jean Grey's speech addressed to an oppressive, overbearing man who fancies himself as the one who holds power over her is just damn cathartic to read.
"You came to me when I was vulnerable. You filled the emotional void within me. You made me trust you. Perhaps even love you. And all the while you were using me!" is a statement I know a great number of women in the past and present can relate strongly to; any woman who has been marginalized, abused and enslaved at one point in their lives can definitely attest to the freeing strength of this kind of righteous rage which Jean exhibited at this point. What comes next is terrifying though because Jean is determined to show Mastermind the price to pay for taking advantage of a woman and using her as your personal puppet.
As impressive as Jean was for taking control of that situation, it was ultimately the last catalyst that unleashes the disruptive and wild force known as the Dark Phoenix in issue #135. This extreme manifestation of her powers is ironically the very creature that robs her off her free will and agency. She becomes entitled, arrogant, selfish, hedonistic and uncaring as the Dark Phoenix, even going so far as attacking her own friends, believing that they are the ones holding her back in the first place. She left them completely devastated as she roamed the outer space, looking for something to devour because of this insatiable hunger inside her. She picked a random planet where five billion lived. She did not even bat an eye with this atrocity that seemed to only come naturally for her. This casual genocide attracts the attention of the Shi'ar empire ruled by Lilandra, Professor X's long-time alien girlfriend. After DP had that satisfying meal, she went back to Earth to visit her old home where her parents and sister lived. They were happy to see her, of course, but the dormant Jean also felt their fear which was a primal instinct that DP picked up on and she lashed out on them, feeling as if they were threatening her newfound independence and freedom. The X-Men luckily came back for another brutal second encounter and it was Professor X who eventually managed to lock the Phoenix away from Jean's subconscious. The victory was not meant to be savored though because Lilandra and the Shi'ar are determined to bring Jean Grey to trial for the genocide she just committed previously. This was the falling action of the grand arc that is The Dark Phoenix Saga.
EMPOWERMENT AND ABSOLUTE POWER
There is a true brilliance to Claremont's narrative and progression of this story from the moment Jean Grey was transformed into the Dark Phoenix. I have only vague recollections of the cartoon adaptation of this arc in X-Men: The Animated Series and I haven't gotten far from my re-watch of said cartoons just yet, so everything about reading this was fresh for me. Two things I liked about this saga are the tonality and approach of its writing when it comes to the roles of the female characters.
As Kitty Pryde's first appearance, I found that she was a surprisingly adaptable and brave young girl in the cusp of realizing her potentials as a mutant and aspiring superhero. She wasn't portrayed easily as a damsel in distress. In fact, it was her resoluteness to help the captured X-Men that enabled the other members to rescue them in the first place. At thirteen, her world was turned upside down but she coped with it rather impressively. Instead of running away, she found the courage to stand up for strangers she did not even know that well but believed that they are good and therefore worthy to be saved. At the end of it all, she did break down into tears but that was only a natural reaction to the dangerous life she has yet to know will be her daily existence from that day forward. Still, for a first introduction, Kitty Pryde already holds promise as a capable heroine who tried to make good choices out of the worst scenarios she faced.
In contrast, Emma Frost is a self-made, strong and cunning villainess who may ultimately answer to a domineering male group (Hellfire Club) but she certainly possesses loftier ambitions of her own and seemed to commit heinous acts not because she was forced to do them, but rather because she is motivated by her own greed. Her allegiance to the Hellfire Club's men is attached to the fact that they are also enabling her to pursue whatever personal goals she may have on the side. It wasn't explicitly shown but I get the sense that she could very much decide to leave the men by themselves if she wasn't getting what she wants from them in return and the men may be aware of that arrangement as well. She was defeated by another woman (Jean Grey), and it was another bonus for me to see that when her role in the story abruptly finished, it wasn't because a man did not find her useful anymore. Now I'm very interested to read about Emma Frost from this point on. To have another competent and powerful female telepath offers possibilities and I definitely want her to come back.
But empowering female characters in this story was sadly not very consistent though. The appearance of Dazzler was baffling to me especially her role in helping the X-Men. I do not understand her motivation in doing so anyway, let alone her relevance which was why I was uncaring that she was there. The same can be said for Ororo Munroe (Storm) who spent almost all her time in the story being a lesser superheroine next to Jean Grey as the Dark Phoenix. It was understandable for Jean to overpower Storm during their confrontations especially in her DP form but it also places Storm in a very unflattering way where her capabilities are diminished. There was even that passing scene in Mastermind's illusion where Jean was a noble woman and Ororo was a servant in her household who tried to escape and so Jean had to whip her. It just made me shake my head because I really didn't think that should have been put there. It's jarring and slightly insensitive to see a supeheroine of color be portrayed like that. It just wasn't necessary to the story anyway, and it only adds to the diluted effect of Storm's rather passive role in the narrative. Well, at least they did get to manage Storm to kick ass again at the later pages as the story comes to an end so I'll just take comfort in that. Speaking of said later pages---
THE IMPOSSIBLE CHOICE
The second climax of this saga arrives when the X-Men (Wolverine, Nightwalker, Storm, Angel and Colossus with recent Avenger-ed Beast) face Shi'ar warriors in a "trial by combat" arrangement to save Jean from punishment. There are at least twelve pages of great action sequences that these combats provided. It was visually engrossing which made me imagine seeing them on screen (and that only made me dislike X-Men: The Last Stand further. We really should have gotten The Dark Phoenix instead.). But before all that, I would just like to share this favorite set of panels where Jean Grey puts on her old Marvel Girl costume. It was nostalgic and appropriate. It shows that there is still light and humanity present in Jeannie, and she embraces the heroine she was at the beginning at this moment to demonstrate that her friends, especially her boyfriend Scott, have not lost her. And she is not ready to be lost herself.
In the end, it was only Scott and Jean who were left standing and together they fought their way for Jean's pardon and freedom. Scott was injured during the battle and seeing her beloved in danger has once again awakened the Phoenix in Jean. Tragically, the possibility of her going dark and twisted because of the Phoenix is just something her relationship with Scott and the rest of the X-Men cannot withstand. And Jean knew this from the moment Professor X was able to put some temporary restraints on her powers which are ultimately infinite and uncontainable. So in a quiet last scene between the lovers, Jean informs Scott of her decision to extinguish herself in order to save all of them. That conversation was done rather beautifully for me. In the heat and determination of everyone especially Scott to save Jean from her doom, they did not anticipate that perhaps she herself is giving up control and choosing to lose the battle instead by righteously as well as selflessly letting go of her powers. That's how I interpreted that final scene because it makes sense for Jean's character to choose death in order for others to live. It's who she is as a person. It's why she's one of my all-time favorite superheroes. She recognized the devastation and havoc she had caused when she committed mindless genocide as the Dark Phoenix and she would rather die a mortal than live as a goddess with unbridled passions and a lack of awareness and concern for life. It's a choice we all should commend her for.
I understand why this story is considered an important classic because it does define a lot of future arcs concerning Jean Grey, and the effect of the Phoenix as an unstoppable sentient force in the Marvel Universe. But I have my personal reasons why I think this is simply a comic book story you should find time to read. Since I began writing this review with the intention on discussing the role of female characters as the heart of the conflict, climax and resolution for this story, I want to end it now by recommending this to other young women who will read this review. Often, I've made this subconscious decision to ignore the underlying sexist themes and small moments I may encounter every now and then in superhero comic books if they only get in way of enjoyment of a great story (in spite of such flaws). I understand that superhero comic books have been majorly written by men in the past (and present, with a few exceptions) so old classics like this one can be very dated in the most negative sense possible. This is why The Dark Phoenix for me was uplifting to read because I found the way they portrayed Jean Grey (and, to a lesser extent, Kitty Pryde) to be most admirable. Most sites will tell you to pick this up because of its posterity and value as a classical tale. But personally, I want you to read this because it's a meaningful story about one woman's emotional and psychological journey through the joys and burdens of power, and the ultimate sacrifice she chooses to make, all for love and humanity.