Whether you’re more a fan of the comics or the films, you can’t make it too far into X-Men mythology without hearing about the Phoenix Force. This is a powerful force that has wiped out entire planets before, yet even the most hardcore X-Men fans sometimes have trouble explaining how it works. If that sounds like you, then to me, X-Men, as we explain how this crazy cosmic force actually functions in the world of Marvel comics and films.
The Phoenix Force is all over X-Men media, from the comics to the movies, and even the different cartoon series, but it’s one of the most misunderstood parts of the franchise.
While the movies and even cartoon have given their own spin on the Phoenix Force, it made its debut in the pages of X-Men comics, and those comics have provided plenty of details over the years about how everything works. For example, we learn that this force is older than the universe and that it has served as a powerful nexus of all known psionic energy. This is an important factoid as it helps lay the groundwork for how the X-Man Jean Grey first encountered this cosmic force and how it forever transformed her life and her destiny.
For long periods of time, the Phoenix Force roamed the cosmos as pure energy, and it was worshiped by various alien beings as a god. And there’s a good reason for that: long before the X-Men encountered this strange force, it demonstrated the ability to destroy, re-create, and reshape the universe at will. And while the Phoenix Force is its own entity, it has a tendency to be drawn to other living beings, merging with their bodies and minds, often to disastrous consequences.
And that brings us back to the X-Men: when the powerful telepath Jean Grey attempted to keep her dying friend’s soul from entering the afterlife and ended up unexpectedly crossing over to the other side, and this was enough to pique the interest of the Phoenix Force.
The Phoenix Force first appeared in Uncanny X-Men #101 back in 1976.
Years later, when Jean Grey is attempting to pilot the X-Men safely home from space, the Phoenix Force merges with the young mutant to keep her from dying. This effectively gave Jean immense cosmic powers which she used to save the universe by repairing the M’Kraan Crystal, but it wouldn’t be long before Jean ended up becoming a threat to the entire universe.
When an evil mutant named Mastermind begins changing the perceptions of Jean and the Phoenix Force in an attempt to gain control of her powers, he convinces this most powerful member of the X-Men that she is now a god who can do whatever she wants. This leads to her becoming Dark Phoenix, an evil version of this cosmic force that has lost none of its power, and she ends up using that power to consume energy from an alien star system, killing its five billion inhabitants.
Fortunately for the X-Men and the rest of the universe, Jean Grey never stopped fighting to regain control of her mind, and she managed to do so long enough to kill herself and remove this cosmic threat. However, through a controversial retcon, later comics revealed that the Phoenix Force made a duplicate of Jean Grey’s body, effectively allowing the X-Men (X-Factor, technically) writers to bring her back without the stain of genocide on her soul.
However, the Phoenix Force itself also came back, finding other hosts before eventually resurrecting and merging with a willing Jean Grey, though they were later separated once more.
The X-Men have had up to three seperate Phoenix Force hosts (Jean, her future daughter Rachel, and Hope) among their ranks at the same time.
Later X-Men comics would show us how the Phoenix Force could merge with other characters (including other X-Men), dramatically changing their personalities and culminating with the cosmic force being destroyed. True to its name, though, this force keeps coming back, managing to resurrect Jean Grey again (death is never permanent in Marvel comics), and they eventually part ways, seemingly for good.
Thanks to power-hungry characters like Namor willingly attempting to merge with the Phoenix Force, it continues to return and continues to pose a major threat to Earth and to the universe as a whole.