The Dark Phoenix Saga is often considered to be one of the best and most influential storylines in not just the X-Men franchise, but in the entire comic book medium. Since it was first released in the early 80s the storyline has influenced countless other X-Men stories and has had an effect on its characters and history to this day. It has been adapted into two different live action films, as well as, two story arcs for two different X-Men animated series. And with the latest live-action X-Men film taking another crack at the story, what better time could there be to ask questions about the source material. Mainly this: Does the original Dark Phoenix Saga still hold up?
For those of you who may not be aware, the Dark Phoenix Saga was an extended X-Men storyline that ran in the Uncanny X-Men #129-138 throughout 1980 by the X-Men powerhouse creative team that was Chris Claremont and John Byrne. The storyline itself was more or less a continuation of the original Phoenix Saga which was also told in the Uncanny X-Men series, running from Issues #101-108. In that story, iconic X-Men member Jean Grey merged with a cosmic being known as The Phoenix and together the two saved the universe with the process apparently killing the two. Later on, however, Jean resurrected, taking up the new name, Phoenix and rejoined the X-Men. And this is where the Dark Phoenix Saga really started.
The storyline itself focuses on Jean and the other X-Men as they search for new mutants after Professor X returns to the X-Men from an extended absence. At the same time, the higherups of a secret, Illuminate-like organization known as The Hellfire Club began to hatch a scheme to manipulate Jean to become one of their members while planning to rid the world of the X-Men once and for all. Unfortunately, their plans have unintended side effects which allow Jean to access the full range of her Phoenix abilities, endangering not only those around her but the entire universe as well. And to answer the question from earlier, yes. The story absolutely does hold up and it’s easy to see why the book is considered to be such a classic. And yet, at the same time, it doesn’t.
You see, the actual plot of The Dark Phoenix Saga is otherwise solid. It mainly concerns the version factions within the X-Men corner of the Marvel Universe battling for control of Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force. The X-Men themselves are just trying to protect their friend. The Hellfire Club wants her to expand their own power. Jean herself eventually decides what she wants is at odds with everyone else and an additional faction comes into play with motivations of their own. And pretty much all of this is about as good as you would expect from a comic by Chris Clairmont in the early 80s. The challenges that the X-Men face within the book itself never stop being fun. The antagonists’ powers and strategies have a nice variety to them. The actual issues keep the reader engaged with plenty of action and constantly escalates the stakes. But, above all else, it knows how to invest the reader into the characters and their fates. And that’s where the story comes in and where things get a bit…debatable.
The actual story revolves around what is essentially the corruption and fall of Jean Grey. And this, unfortunately, is where the book gets into the eye-raising territory in terms of its themes and execution. Essentially Jean’s arc in The Dark Phoenix Saga can be summed up by calling it a good girl goes bad story and that would be fairly accurate. Before the events of the Phoenix Saga, the character of Jean Grey was about as milk toast as you could possibly get. She was the standard issue good girl character that writers love to use in love triangles or as a means of developing an otherwise loose cannon male character but are seldom interesting on their own terms. But then Jean gets her Phoenix powers and suddenly she’s not quite the wonder bread good girl she was in previous stories. This manifests in two way throughout the book. Jean has more power and seems to get more agency as a character than she otherwise had before. The second is that she seems to be more sexually adventurous than she was in previous books. The problem is that the creative team seems to view this as an absolute negative and this is where it gets a bit cringeworthy.
As the story goes on, Jean essentially becomes the most powerful member of the X-Men. She’s ultimately the one who defeats Emma Frost in the first act of the story and the X-Men can’t even come close to defeating her when the Hellfire Club turns her against them. In addition, this expansion of her power is signified by not so subtle ques of her…well essentially allowing her freak flag to fly. Early on in the story she ends up at a night club with Cyclops and keeps reading everyone’s minds, discovers that they all have sex on their minds and she’s kind of into it. Right after this, she materializes her and Scott’s uniforms out of thin air much to Scott’s shock and concern and her storyline goes on like that. It directly connects Jeans increasing power to her increasing sexual desires before they drop all subtlety and just turn her into a straight up dominatrix midway through the story.
Later on, they drive the point completely home in the last two issues of the Saga. In it they completely manage to suppress the Phoenix side of her, essentially reverting her to the character she was before she obtained the Phoenix force. It’s at this point that the X-Men are once again fully ready to fight and die for her once again. Not the powerful sexually driven Phoenix, but the milk toast Jean Grey that everyone loves. They even give her her old Marvel Girl outfit from the older X-Men comics just to make sure nobody missed the metaphor and the whole thing is very weird and uncomfortable.
Now, to be clear, it’s highly unlikely that Chris Claremont and John Byrne are or were sexist. One only need look at all the female characters the two created and the way they two wrote them to form a solid argument against that. It’s also worth noting that they try to get ahead of this with Professor X saying that the absolute power of the Phoenix will corrupt absolutely and do briefly dig into this idea. But the Dark Phoenix Saga does contain a lot of tropes that, if used in a modern story, would absolutely be considered sexist. It’s basically a storyline about a woman who gets power, discovers that she likes sex and is into less vanilla stuff before going nuts. But the weird thing about it though is that it never quite crosses into a full-blown sexist territory and still, on the whole, works as a story.
The storyline itself, of course, mainly centers on Jean and her transformation and it’s very debatable as to how well all of that stuff holds up. However, a good chunk of the story also revolves around the supporting characters as well and this is where the book is just flat out great. Cyclops’ reactions to all of this helps to cement him as the team’s biggest prick, (he’s the only one who seems to object to Jean becoming more powerful and more aggressive), but for the other characters, it’s a bit more complicated. Essentially, they’re watching one of their oldest friends turn into an unstoppable force of nature and the story is also about them trying to figure out how to deal with it. Wolverine still has feelings for Jean and isn’t sure that he’ll be able to do what needs to be done for perhaps the first time in his life. Storm views her as a sister and even Professor X feels like he’s failed one of his children by not preventing this from happening. And even if the means to get there are a bit cringeworthy, the actual drama surrounding these characters and how they deal with having to fight a surrogate sister is possibly the most compelling part of this entire endeavor.
There are, however, some aspects of the book that just flat out don’t work and/or don’t hold up. There are a lot of character moments that are done in a single thought bubble and rarely seem to be the focus of the panel often feeling like background noise. It has a weird tendency to explain what is going on in the panels even though the artwork clearly conveys what is going on. It also contains constant massive dumps of exposition that turns it into a bit of a slog to read. It’s not a deal breaker, but the style will undoubtedly cause some whiplash if say you’re coming from reading the latest X-Men story from Jonathan Hickman, and really shows how much the medium has changed over the past forty years. But if you can get past this initial hurdle it is absolutely worth checking out.
This, of course, leads us back to that initial question. Does the Dark Phoenix Saga still hold up? And, once again, the answer is yes and no. It’s kind of hard to look at Jean’s arc in the story and not see a “women shouldn’t have power” message or “women who are sexually empowered are bad” ideology behind it. And in today’s political climate, the #metoo movement, and the general rise of more left-oriented ideologies in mass-marketed fiction, it’s kind of hard not to see the Dark Phoenix Saga as part of the problem. But the actual plot itself and the drama the characters go through is still solid stuff and it’s easy to see why the book has remained an influential storyline for so long. It’ll be interesting to see just how future generations look at and interpret the book but the question of whether or not The Dark Phoenix Saga still holds up is one that is going to result in a very long and complicated answer.
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