As The Phoenix, Jean Grey is one of the most powerful mutants ever created in the pages of Marvel comics. Portrayed on screen by Famke Janssen in the first three X-Men movies, and soon Sophie Turner in X-Men: Apocalypse, it’s important to remember that there is far more to Jean than the well-known Dark Phoenix story line or her love triangle with Cyclops and Wolverine.
She's one of the most powerful beings in the universe and has been around since the beginning of X-Men. Fans of the telepath will be hard pressed to find an X-Men cartoon, movie or comic that hasn't featured the character at one time or another.
In case you'd like to be prepared for the next X-Men movie, here are 12 Things You Need To Know About Jean Grey.
Jean Grey didn’t start out as the telepathic powerhouse of the X-Men. In fact, telepathy wasn’t even in her skill set when she was first introduced in the 1960s by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. She was called Marvel Girl in the first X-Men comic, and only had telekinetic powers. She was a relatively weak character compared to the other founding members, basically the Sue Storm to the X-Men's Fantastic Four: a strong female character, but no physical match for her male counterparts.
She wouldn’t receive her telepathic abilities until later in the run. Initially, there was no plan for her to become a telepath or to become The Phoenix, an incredibly powerful being, so Marvel had to retcon it as a suppressed ability when that storyline was introduced. Once she encounters the Phoenix Force, however, she abandons the mantle of Marvel Girl and becomes just Jean Grey. Marvel Girl would make an appearance again, but by Jean’s daughter, Rachel Summer.
After Thor became one of the Avengers’ most popular characters, writer Chris Claremont and artist Dave Cockrum wanted something similar for the X-Men, except a mutant version, and so The Phoenix was born. After Grey piloted a damaged shuttle back to Earth and was exposed to fatal amounts of radiation, her love of Cyclops and the rest of her team allowed her to reach her full psychic potential and so she re-emerged as the Phoenix.
As the Phoenix, she had almost limitless power, but became corrupted by it. This led to her turn as The Dark Phoenix and the eventual sacrifice of her life. The comic gods on high deemed the character too powerful and removed her from the storyline. The Phoenix Saga and The Dark Phoenix Saga are two of the most well-known storylines of the X-Men comices. They have endured through the decades and The Phoenix is still one the most powerful beings in the Marvel Universe.
It’s hard to believe Jean Grey could become an unstoppable killing machine, but under the influence of The Dark Phoenix, she was just that. The powerful character consumed the energy of a star, which inadvertently killed billions of inhabitants on a nearby planet. The original plan for the removal of The Phoenix character was to let her lose her powers, but after the death of an entire planet, it lacked justice.
Marvel editor and chief Jim Shooter didn’t think it morally right to leave her alive after committing mass murder. The story arc was also created in the mid-1970s to early 1980s and, given the historical context of the Vietnam War, it was difficult for the publication to redeem her. The war and the conflict was still fresh in people’s minds. Saving Jean after killing so many innocent people may have enraged readers and tarnished the character for years.
No one ever remains dead in the comics for very long, so talk of Jean Grey’s return began circulating around 1985, but Marvel wouldn’t allow her return unless she’d be completely absolved of her actions as The Dark Phoenix. Initially, The Phoenix was an inseparable and internal aspect of Jean Grey, which meant there was no way she could be left unaccountable for her actions.
Through the magic of retconning, however, the writers decided to make The Phoenix an entirely separate entity who only posed as Jean Grey. As she was dying, Grey made contact with “The Phoenix Force.” It created a copy of Grey and retained her essence, so the copy thought it was the real Jean. Meanwhile, the real Jean Grey sank into the ocean in a healing cocoon and didn’t emerge until six years after The Dark Phoenix Saga. Since she wasn’t actually The Dark Phoenix, she wasn’t responsible for the billions of deaths and could rejoin the Marvel Universe.
Jean Grey isn't just a mutant superhero, but a mom too... kind of. On an alternate Earth, Cyclops and Jean had a daughter named Rachel. She lived in a dystopian future ruled by giant robots called Sentinels. Rachel sent X-Men team member Katy Pryde’s consciousness into the past, but it was the wrong past. She would send her own consciousness back and encounter The Phoenix Force. Later, right before she was going to die during a failed mission, The Dark Phoenix sent Rachel into a different timeline to have a fresh start. Jean was dead here, but after swapping realities again, Rachel finally found one where her mother was alive. Since Rachel had The Phoenix Force, Jean pulled away at first, but later reconciled with it.
Nathan Summers is the son of Cyclops and human Madelyne Pryor, but Madelyne is actually a clone of Jean Grey. While Jean was recuperating in the ocean cocoon, Madelyn married Cyclops and had a child. It’s a happily ever after scenario until the real Jean Grey comes back. Cyclops abandons his family, and readers later found out that Madelyne was actually villain Mr. Sinister’s attempt to clone Jean for ongoing experimentation. When the clone didn’t manifest any mutant powers, Sinister abandoned the project. As Jean “died,” a part of the Phoenix Force entered Madelyne and animated her. Sinister then used her to breed with Cyclops, producing Nathan Summers, a.k.a. Cable. After Madelyne’s death, Jean would raise Nathan like her own. Nathan Summer would become the mutant Cable.
It’s been 16 years since the original X-Men movie and our first glimpse of Famke Janssen as Jean Grey. Once an audience comes to know a certain person as a character, it’s hard to see anyone else in that role. However, producers considered several actresses for the part before choosing Janssen. Lucy Lawless, who was riding high as the title character in the insanely popular Xena: Warrior Princess, was one candidate. Maria Bello was a prime candidate whose star was rising thanks to roles in E.R. and the Mel Gibson movie Payback. Another contender, Peta Wilson, starred in the popular action series La Femme Nikita.
Jean Grey is a multifaceted role that required not only physical prowess, but acting chops as well. Janssen earned stardom as Xenia Onatopp in the James Bond thriller GoldenEye in 1995, but was also lauded for her non-action work in movies such as Rounders and House on Haunted Hill, convincing producers she was the right choice for the role.
The Phoenix is one of the most well-known X-Men comic plots and would inevitably make its way into the movies. While X-Men: The Last Stand is where The Phoenix would finally manifest, X2 also had several references to the eventual fate of Jean Grey, presented as Easters eggs for eagle-eyed fans. When Jean and Storm are at the church looking for Nightcrawler, she’s wearing a jacket that has an image of a Phoenix on the back, which foreshadows her eventual transformation. When she uses her powers, her eyes have an orange aura, which is a trait of The Phoenix.
The last hint is the most obvious, and occurred in the final moments of X2. Jean used her powers to save the group from crashing in the Blackbird. As Jean sinks into the water, there is a shadowy outline of The Phoenix. When she returns in the following film, she emerges as The Dark Phoenix, murdering both Cyclops and Professor X. While she didn’t take out an entire planet, she does kill many people and ends up sacrificing herself, just like the comics.
The character of The Phoenix is both part of and separate from Jean Grey in the movies. It can be a difficult trait to portray, so Janssen treated the split as a mental disorder. Instead of being a mystical force, she acted as if The Phoenix was a separate personality that took her over for a time. This explains why she was able to kill the people closest to her. It also absolved Jean of The Phoenix’s actions. She had no control over herself when she was taken over by the Phoenix persona. It was only in the end that her original personality took over long enough for Wolverine to kill her.
Her portrayal is similar to that of a person with disassociative identity disorder, where a second identity is introduced to the psyche as a coping mechanism. When an alternate personality takes over, it can be days before the original personality resurfaces. As a child, Professor Xavier created blocks around Jean’s abilities to keep them in check, but the process created an alternate personality.
X-Men: Days of Future Past combined the original and rebooted movie series and allowed filmmakers to retcon previous events. Fans of the X-Men series were disappointed in how the relationship between Jean and Cyclops ended in X-Men: The Last Stand. Cyclops traveled to the lake where Jean died and she emerges from the water. With her powers increased and The Phoenix persona in control, she kills him off screen, a quick death for a beloved character.
The only way the audience knows Cyclops died is the psychic impact Professor Xavier receives and the headstone at the end of the film. The couple had been through so much, and to kill him in such a way was insulting for many fans. In Days of Future Past, however, Wolverine returns from his time-traveling adventure to find both Jean Grey and Cyclops alive. Professor Xavier explains that time travel causes ripples and change the course of history. One of those ripples was the resurrection of Jean and Cyclops.
It’s difficult to keep information from people in the movie industry, because there is big money to be made in releasing spoilers to news outlets. Fans and paparazzi often camp outside filming locations hoping to catch a glimpse of a returning character or plot point. Fans are insatiable and love to find out film secrets. Director Bryan Singer wanted the ending cameo of Jean Grey and Cyclops in Days of Future Past to remain a surprise for the audience.
While directors and actors are often instructed to answer questions vaguely or not at all, it’s generally frowned upon to lie. That didn’t matter to Singer, who openly told media outlets the duo’s cameo wasn’t going to happen. He wanted to keep it a complete surprise to audiences who felt the couple were shafted in The Last Stand. The cameo gave the audience a happy ending for the couple, and appeased disgruntled fans.
Comics occasionally change things up with special runs, events and alternate universes to create countless versions of popular characters. Jean posed as John Grey of Witchbreed, led by Carlos Xavier in Marvel 1602. The telepath studied under Magneto and fell in love with Weapon X in Age of Apocalypse. Jean is a member of Zombie Galactus in Marvel Zombies until killed by Hulk.
There were also several other versions, including What If, the Ultimate continuity, Red Queen, New Exiles, Shadow-X, and on and on. Some of the alternate versions are good, others evil. One Jean can access The Phoenix Force and another can’t. Alternate Jeans interact and make appearances in other story lines. With so many versions moving and interacting in the universe, fans find it hard to keep track of everything. Marvel occasionally needs to clean the slate and reboot the universe. It simplifies things not only for the readers, but the writers as well.
Jean Grey has died and come back in the comics several times. Resurrection is not an unusual occurrence in the genre, but her connection to The Phoenix Force may make it impossible to die permanently. Its power is almost immeasurable, and some say nearly omnipotent. It not only can heal her incredibly fast, but also, if any danger does arise, rip her out of the current timeline and place her into another.
The force resurrected her after the villain Xorn killed Jean’s physical body, and placed her consciousness into a time-displaced version of herself. The Phoenix Force entity told Professor Xavier that “Jean is the only house where I live.” Of all the beings in the universes and throughout time, she is its only true Avatar and Jean is protected. When Jean and the entity merge completely, they become “The White Phoenix of the Crown” and she has full access its powers.
Is there anything else fans should know about Jean Grey, a.k.a. The Phoenix? Let us know in the comments!