The subject of the upcoming Dark Phoenix film has the distinction of being the character at the heart of many major X-Men stories, yet one of the least-defined members of the X-Men. This is for many reasons, but one of the most prominent of them is that there has been a failure over the years to identify who exactly Jean Grey is outside of the Phoenix, or even whether or not they are indeed separate entities in most takes on the character.
Jean Grey: Origins
Jean Grey’s early appearances in X-Men comics are notoriously difficult to digest from a feminist perspective. In fact, the Silver Age version of the X-Men didn’t amount to much beyond a less interesting Doom Patrol in general. Jean was lusted after by her teammates and had a crush on Scott Summers, but was placed in the role of the weakest X-Man. This reads conflictingly because her power set of seemingly limitless telepathy and telekinesis would generally mark her as the most powerful member of the team.
It was retroactively explained that Jean was traumatized from feeling her friend die, went into a coma, and then could only be resuscitated after Xavier placed mental blocks on her to protect her from the trauma and to protect everyone else from her. This caused her power levels to fluctuate wildly throughout her first several years with the team.
Later, after the X-Men had been reimagined and a much larger cast had been introduced, Jean temporarily believed her teammates to be dead and found herself trying to rebuild her life on her own terms. As is the case with all X-Men that attempt such a thing, her efforts were doomed, but it’s actually one of the more interesting time periods for her as a character. Once she evidently died in space and her transformation to Phoenix occurred, she rejoined the X-Men, and she and Cyclops reignited their romance. Over time, however, her attraction to the dark side of herself and the world around her led to her becoming involved with a disguised Mastermind, a villain that worked with illusions and mind control to trick her into falling in love with him. In the original stories, Mastermind’s manipulation of Jean took dominance over her own personality, and some of her most intriguing character growth during this time was in response to outside influences.
Jean lost control over the Phoenix’s dark desires and later wound up destroying an entire planet full of peace-loving vegetarians in a galaxy far, far away. The alien race known as the Shi’ar attempted to hold Phoenix accountable by condemning her to death, although she had seemingly transformed back to Jean and was repentant. On the moon, there was a battle between the Shi’ar and the X-Men — but Jean, unable to live with what she had done and unwilling to sacrifice her friends, chose her own death via a strategically placed laser gun that shot and apparently killed her right in front of Cyclops.
X-Factor and Madelyne Pryor
However, it turned out that none of this was Jean Grey. Several years later, it was revealed that Jean had actually been in a cocoon at the bottom of a Jamaica Bay and that she had been since her supposed death in space. All of the character development that had occurred with her as Phoenix and then the Dark Phoenix was thereby wiped from the slate. Jean’s attraction to danger and her fall from grace had simply never happened, or at least it hadn’t happened to her, and those personality traits became dormant once more. She returned in the first incarnation of X-Factor, featuring the original team of X-Men grown from angsty teens to fragile and traumatized adults attempting to navigate a world increasingly hostile to mutants. Most of Jean’s development in this series was centered around her reestablishing her own identity and convincing herself and the other X-Men that she was truly herself as Warren Worthington lusted after her and Scott Summers had an emotional breakdown that had been a long time coming over the course of several issues. Although they reconciled, it was a rocky road.
The next drastic thing to happen in Jean’s life was the discovery that Scott’s ex-wife Madelyne, who he had abandoned upon hearing the news that Jean was alive, was actually a clone of Jean that had been created by Mister Sinister to mostly to antagonize Scott Summers. In this scenario, not only is Jean stripped of agency, so too was Madelyne when it was revealed that first, she was a clone; second, that she was designed specifically to love Scott Summers; and third, that even in her more powerful persona as the Goblin Queen she was still ruled by the machinations of others.
The story concludes with the two of them and what remained of the Phoenix merging into a single entity, although that was addressed less and less as time went on and Jean Grey appeared to become the dominant personality. For several years, although much happened in her life, Jean was most seen in the context of her relationship and later marriage to Scott. As early X-Men and X-Factor stories have centered her in a love triangle between Scott and Warren Worthington, this era played up an attraction between her and Wolverine — but all were developments that came across more as filler and character development for the male characters involved while failing to tell us anything about Jean herself.
"The Worst X-Man"
In the ‘90s, X-Men comics didn’t really do Jean any favors, but it is difficult to dispute that the animated series did give us the most submissive, least powerful version we’d seen of the character since the ‘60s. With the exception of its take on the Phoenix Saga, the character of Jean Grey really floundered and was defined almost entirely by the love triangle between her, Logan, and Scott. At every turn, she seemed to simply forget that she’s the most powerful character on the team, and the series came and went without giving her any truly defining moments beyond a few solid quips here and there.
In the first films, Jean was presented as initially the most compliant and human-passing of X-Men. A paradoxical age gap suddenly appeared, making her years older than Cyclops while possessing a fierce attraction to Wolverine. In X3, which has been since disregarded from canon, the Phoenix emerged as a side effect of dissociative identity disorder. Jean died but then appeared retroactively in X-Men: Apocalypse. The characterization of her and Scott as the two weird kids that couldn’t control their powers on the team made them more believable than previous screen versions, and Jean was allowed to finally flex her power in a healthy way, but her characterization was still leading into another Phoenix retread.
The pending Dark Phoenix appears to be categorizing Phoenix as a mental illness as in X3, and this is a bad move. The problematic nature of screenwriters and comic writers alike attempting to define powerful women through mental illness is not only hazardous, but it’s also tired, and it’s almost never done in an inoffensive way. Despite best intentions, attributing a mental illness like schizophrenia as the "reason" a woman slides into villainy is exactly where many potentially great character studies of female characters have gone awry.
Besides that, it returns to the theme of Jean Grey as a nonentity in her own story. She is manipulated mentally by Professor Xavier, then she becomes victim to her own mental illness. Although it can’t be said for certain where the film will take this story, this reduction of Jean’s agency was exactly the most glaring problem at the heart of X3. Further complicating this is the equation of mental illness with violently lashing out and losing control. Studies of characters living with their illness and disability in a healthy way are incredibly rare, and harmful media portrayals of mental illness are plentiful. It’s a rocky road to travel, with the double-edged drawback that it also minimizes the power and scope of Phoenix, previously a cosmic entity on par with other god-like Marvel characters such as Galactus. Regardless, neither option tells us much about the character at the center of the problem, and Jean Grey remains a mystery.
Because she has been killed and then replaced with other versions of herself several times, a great deal of Jean Grey’s character growth, therefore, has necessarily occurred when she was considered deceased by the standards of the Marvel Universe. There have been great stories in those times, but they have been told either as retcons occurring way after the fact, as in X-Men: Season One or they have been told using the time-displaced teen Jean, as in The Trial of Jean Grey. Both of those comics are great, but neither of them is Jean as we would be viewing her all these years later. For some time, the emphasis for writers was to replace our memories of a weak, compliant teen Jean with a retroactively more defiant version of the character, but that more fiery take on the character had only been seen within continuity by most fans on a rare occasion, if at all. Although any great Jean Grey story is a welcome inclusion in the long list of classic X-Men stories in which she appears essentially as a cipher, the fact is that none of the other time-displaced teen X-Men changed so drastically personality-wise in the retelling as she did.
Redefining teen Jean Grey in modern takes provided great stories, but it did give a further distance from any conclusive stance on what the real evolution of her character was and when exactly it occurred. In The Trial of Jean Grey, she was kidnapped to space by the Shi’ar and held accountable for the Phoenix’s crimes. In contrast to the Phoenix’s tragic demise on the moon years before, Jean chose to fight and refused to be blamed for what an entity that merely took on her form did. Besides that, her use of her powers became more refined and more creative during this story.
Dennis Hopeless’ Jean Grey series was exciting and interesting, likewise focusing on the time-displaced Jean. New takes on a teen Jean are really entertaining, and the series did serve as the conduit which introduced her adult self back into the Marvel Universe after a surprising number of years gone. On the other hand, the series leaned heavily on guest appearances to keep sales up throughout its short run. Although it was nice to see Jean interact with the greater Marvel universe at all, the extraneous guests appearing issue after issue were a bit exhausting, and it didn’t exactly help us gain a much greater insight to Jean’s character than we had before the series began.
Understanding or successfully writing Jean Grey has been one of the most seemingly impossible tasks in comics, due in no small part to her complicated, subtle, and occasionally even counterintuitive personality traits. She’s a character many readers have to revisit several times before she clicks for them, and for some, she never really does. This failure to grasp what it is about Jean herself that is intriguing has now led to several Phoenix rehashes, but Phoenix is not Jean. Rather, Phoenix is a cosmic entity that is as captivated by Jean as every other character in X-Men comics seems to be. By acknowledging that she is incredibly interesting to other characters but finding themselves unable to define what it is that makes her so interesting to readers, writers have consistently failed her. In this way, her ledger of infamous appearances in classic X-Men stories has in some ways worked against the possibility of audiences relating to her, as each appearance seems to only distance us further from the core of what makes her unique. Her current appearances in X-Men: Red feel like a step in the right direction, and there are high hopes for Dark Phoenix, but there is a long history of her being pushed to the background.
Although many great Jean Grey tales have been told after the fact, in alternate realities, or via time travel, it remains to be seen if writers can give us a definitive Jean Grey story where she retains control of herself and survives beyond the end.