After months of rumors, news broke in April that the next installment in the core X-Men franchise would once again tackle the story of Jean Grey and the Phoenix. Dubbed X-Men: Dark Phoenix, the new movie will be one of three set to premiere next year in Fox’s superhero universe. While the storyline’s adaptation in X-Men: The Last Stand was widely panned, the new take has been promised to be more faithful to the source material. After the rise of Jean Grey’s new powers teased in X-Men: Apocalypse, she will fully emerge as the cosmic entity next year, necessitating the return of Mystique, Magneto, and maybe even a new Rogue.
Of course, the intergalactic origin of the Phoenix and the comic book source material has also led to rumors that the X-Men franchise will finally be going cosmic next year. While the producers of the film have played coy for months, today finally brought confirmation of the movie’s massive scope.
Along with the news the longtime X-Men producer and writer Simon Kinberg will be making his directorial debut with Dark Phoenix, word broke that Jessica Chastain will finally be making the jump from prestige dramas to superhero movies. She’s said to be in talks for Lilandra, one of the leaders of the Shi’ar Empire and a character with deep connections to the X-Men and the Phoenix Force. But just who are Lilandra and the Shi’ar Empire?
While a number of alien species exist in Marvel comics, a few core ones always seem to rise to the top. There are the Kree, owned by Marvel Studios and factoring into Guardians of the Galaxy and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; there are the shape-shifting Skrulls, co-owned by Marvel and Fox; and then there are the Shi’ar, presumably fully controlled by Fox thanks to their longtime connection with the X-Men.
Created by famed X-Men writer Chris Claremont and artist Dave Cockrum, the Shi’ar race first appeared in 1976’s X-Men #97. A humanoid species with avian qualities, the Shi’ar are a powerful race from the planet Aerie who control a vast galactic empire from their throneworld of Chadilar. Similar to the Romulans from Star Trek or the real-world Spartans, they’re a warlike and imperialistic people, known for their love of battle and hatred of the arts.
Consuming the cultures they dominate, the Shi’ar have come to encompass a vast number of races and planets, best summed up by Warren Ellis’ Starjammers from 1995:
“Sharra and K’ythri are the gods in marriage. The gods who didn’t want to marry, but were forced into it. In marriage they found strength and in strength they found love. That’s what the Shi’ar Imperium does. It marries other cultures. Shotgun weddings.”
When we first meet the Shi’ar, they’re ruled by D’Ken, a megalomaniac with dreams of greater power. During his reign, he unwisely reassembles the powerful M’Kraan Crystal, capable of transporting users to any reality they wish. During his efforts, he’s opposed by his sister Lilandra, but she’s ultimately defeated and exiled from the Empire. In an attempt to stop her brother, she travels to Earth to enlist the help of the X-Men. Using her telepathic abilities, she communicates with Charles Xavier during her journey, igniting a romance that will last for ages.
She eventually wins the allegiance of the X-Men, with the team stopping D’Ken and helping to place Lilandra in power. Throughout her reign, however, she’s constantly opposed by her sister, Deathbird, a fierce warrior with taloned-wings and a powerful bloodlust. Over the years, the X-Men would battle Deathbird many times, with the rogue even becoming a recurring villain for Ms. Marvel.
A few years after the introduction of the Shi’ar, Claremont and John Byrne crafted one of Marvel’s most iconic stories in the pages of 1980’s X-Men #129–138: The Dark Phoenix Saga. Following a mission to space, Jean finds her telepathic and telekinetic powers supercharged but what seems to be cosmic radiation. In time, she’s consumed and reborn as the Phoenix, a powerful psionic being detached from humanity.
In reality, the Phoenix Force is actually an ancient energy construct, traveling the cosmos and destroying everything in its path. On multiple occasions, it even takes over an individual’s body in order to help it meet its needs. And though Jean seems to be in control of the Phoenix for a time, it eventually corrupts her and transforms her into one of Marvel’s most powerful villains.
Despite Jean Grey being instrumental in stopping D’Ken and imprisoning him, the Shi’ar and Lilandra spend most of the Saga calling for the trial and death of Jean Grey. Consumed by the power of the Phoenix, Jean at one point absorbs a star, resulting in a supernova that kills billions of sentient beings. The event sees much of the galaxy attempting to thwart Jean, with even the X-Men forced to fight their former friend. The whole ordeal ends with an epic battle before the Shi’ar decide to initiate a plan to wipe out the entire Milky Way. Before they can, Jean regains enough control and destroys herself, ending the threat of the Phoenix.
Along with Lilandra and the royal family, a number of other prominent members of the Shi’ar Empire have a long history in the comics. The most well-known group is the Imperial Guard, the Shi’ar Empire’s elite force of warriors. Made up of powerful beings from various planets, the Guard wield a variety of powers and are led by Gladiator, a mohawked analogue of Superman. In fact, the entire original Imperial Guard are based on DC characters, with each member mirroring someone from the Legion of Super-Heroes.
Over time, Gladiator and Imperial Guards such as Oracle, Smasher, and Pulsar have had a number of adventures across Marvel Comics. Appearing the year after the Shi’ar premiered in X-Men #107, the Imperial Guard and Gladiator are likely owned by Fox and could easily appear alongside Lilandra when she makes her debut. The aren’t the only characters we could see, though.
While Xavier and Jean have strong ties to the Shi’ar in the comics, Scott Summers is connected to the Starjammers. Created by Dave Cockrum, the Starjammers are a group of intergalactic pirates who first appeared in X-Men #104. Though meant to have their own series, Cockrum eventually worked with Claremont to include them in the X-Men series by making their leader Scott’s father.
In one of the zanier twists of early comics, the Summer brothers’ father was meant to be alive all of these years, living in space as the pirate Corsair. Eventually, Scott, Alex, and Vulcan would reunite with their father, though the latter was more interested in conquering the Shi’ar Empire. Given the complexity of including Corsair and Vulcan in the movies alongside Scott and Alex (who died in X-Men: Apocalypse), we don’t see this development happening. It’s also a bit too similar to the updated story used for Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy. Still, we could see some version of the Starjammers appear as a group of rogues who help the X-Men and Lilandra thwart D’Ken.
There’s no telling how much of the lore of the Shi’ar and the Dark Phoenix will make its way into the films. In all likelihood, many of the elements will be excised in favor of a simpler story involving Jean fighting her new powers while the X-Men try to hold off Lilandra and a small Shi’ar battalion. With the film set for next fall, however, we should learn a lot more about the cast and story for X-Men: Dark Phoenix very soon.