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X-Men’s Dark Phoenix Saga Was Originally VERY Different

The Dark Phoenix Saga famously ended with Jean Grey’s death – but writer Chris Claremont originally had a very different idea in mind.

X-Men's Dark Phoenix Saga Was Originally VERY Different
X-Men’s Dark Phoenix Saga Was Originally VERY Different

The X-Men’s original Dark Phoenix Saga would have been very different. The Dark Phoenix Saga is generally seen as one of the best X-Men stories of all time, an epic tale of corruption and redemption. It’s so iconic that it has been adapted twice for the big screen, and legendary X-Men writer Chris Claremont has argued Disney should do their own version too. “My problem with both iterations of Dark Phoenix onscreen,” Claremont observed, “is, I don’t think you can do it effectively in 90 minutes.”

Surprisingly, though, the Dark Phoenix Saga as we know it – complete with the iconic death of Jean Grey at the end – was something of a happy accident. Writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne originally had a very different plan for how things would work out, but they wound up in conflict with editor-in-chief Jim Shooter. It’s easy to forget comics don’t just “happen,” and that – as with movies – the best results often come from writers, artists, and executives pulling in different directions, finding smart compromises. That was certainly the case with the Dark Phoenix Saga.

As Chris Claremont explained in an interview in Comics Creators on X-Men, he originally envisioned the Dark Phoenix Saga as the middle chapter of a story. The Phoenix Saga was the first part, with Jean Grey stepping out on to a cosmic stage and becoming a sort of “Thor analogue.” Unfortunately power corrupts, and absolute powers corrupts absolutely, as demonstrated in the second chapter – the Dark Phoenix Saga. Claremont intended this part to end with Jean Grey losing her power as punishment for her crimes as Dark Phoenix, and returning to Earth for the third chapter.

X-Men's Dark Phoenix Saga Was Originally VERY Different
X-Men’s Dark Phoenix Saga Was Originally VERY Different

Claremont imagined the story building over the next year, with Jean Grey wrestling with her guilt over what she had done. “I saw it as coming to terms with the fact that she killed 5 billion people,” he explained, “that she committed a crime for which she can never atone, and yet she’s still alive.” He seems to have intended to push Jean to the brink of suicide, but she would ultimately choose to reject that path, believing she had to find a way to put things right. And then, finally, the arc would come to a head in Uncanny X-Men #150.

"The ultimate end of it all leading up to issue #150, would be that Magneto, having found out about this, would come in, kidnapping her, and offering her the power again, on the false assumption that he could control her.  And the X-Men would come to her rescue.  They’d be battling Magneto on one section of the asteroid M and she’d be in a room all by herself with Phoenix, in effect, the power, coming back, forced to make the choice – could I become a god again with all the power of a god, aware that in the process I may destroy living beings and planets, planetary systems, whatever, in order to survive?  Or do I deny it, and remain this kind of, what is for her, shadow of a being?"

Claremont seems to have viewed Jean as almost an addict, someone who had been forced to go cold turkey and was finally offered another hit – and had to choose whether to accept it or reject it. It’s a bold plot, and something of an inversion of the traditional superhero arc, where the hero’s choice is the one that grants them power, and there’s a sense in which it’s a shame readers will never get to experience this.

Why The Dark Phoenix Saga Changed

X-Men's Dark Phoenix Saga Was Originally VERY Different
X-Men’s Dark Phoenix Saga Was Originally VERY Different

All this had been agreed with Marvel’s editors. And then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter picked up the make-ready for one issue of Uncanny X-Men, and realized just how far Jean was going to fall. He read with dawning horror as Dark Phoenix consumed an entire star-system. Shooter asked to see pages from the next issue, Uncanny X-Men #137, and after reading them he simply didn’t feel Jean was paying enough of a price for her actions. As he explained in Phoenix: The Untold Story:

"I was very unhappy with it. A lot of things went on right about then - it's not all crystal clear in my memory - but I do remember getting together with Chris [Claremont] and asking him to change the story. We talked about various possible changes that could be made - because I felt that there had to be some consequences for the actions. I felt that the way the story was originally designed to end, it did not have enough consequences for what happened - it wasn't an ending. I found that the story was kind of... in a way, it wimped out. It ended with her back with the X-Men, seemingly without much concern on their part about what she had done, which struck me as being out of character for them."

The arguments raged for some time, with various ideas tossed about; Claremont was particularly infuriated by the idea of Jean being arrested by the alien Shi’ar, because he felt the X-Men would just go and rescue her. In the end, the whole creative team settled on a shocking conclusion in which Jean Grey died. Sensing the Dark Phoenix persona rising in her consciousness once again, Jean would choose to commit suicide, an epic triumph of humanity over the seductive lure of infinite power. “Jean’s death actually gave us credibility,” Claremont recalled in Comics Creators on X-Men. “We had been backed into the gift that separated X-Men significantly from every other book. Sure, Gwen Stacy died in Spider-Man, but it wasn’t like killing Sue Storm or Ben Grimm. We killed off half of the second oldest romantic relationship in the Marvel Universe. We killed off a major franchise character and we said it was real.”

Nowadays, comic book deaths and resurrections are a dime and dozen, and so the true impact of the Dark Phoenix Saga has been lost. But back then, a death like this was rare, and editorial fiat from Jim Shooter insisted there would be no easy resurrection for Jean Grey. There’s a very real sense in which the Dark Phoenix Saga was the moment the X-Men were transformed from successful comic book series to the stuff of legend.

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