Sunday, April 15, 2012

Nerd Rage #10: What the @#$% is the Phoenix Force?

Yes, this is exactly the type of thing you want on your planet
So sometime in the next few days I’ll review the first issue of Avengers vs. X-Men which is Marvel Comics’ latest big crossover. Originally I was going to write today about the events leading up to this book like I did with X-Men: Schism but truth be told I’ve haven’t really been keeping up with Marvel lately and I don’t really know the details well enough to write a whole essay about it. Basically this comic is exactly what its title says: a conflict between Marvel’s two premier superhero teams. Avengers: X-Sanction (Wherein former X-Man Cable turned out to be more alive than we thought and tries to kill the shit out of the Avengers) was something of a lead-in to this series but aside from that I really don’t have the chops to rant about what lead to all this.

Instead I figured I talk about the main source of conflict into his comic. Marvel has stated the series will focus on the return of the Phoenix Force as it comes to Earth to claim Hope Summers as its new host. Now the Avengers think that this is a bad idea because the Phoenix has a history of being pretty goddamn genocidal while the X-Men welcome its arrival and are trying to train Hope for her new role. It’s occurred to me though that the entity of the Phoenix has a long and convoluted history and that anyone reading my review that don’t have any idea what the hell it is. And really, after doing a little research on the subject, f**k the Phoenix!

 A new rant after the jump.

I'm getting all nostalgic!
So in case you have no idea the Phoenix is a cosmic entity that is heavily associated with X-Man Jean Grey. Debuting in Uncanny X-Men #101 Jean became the host of the entity, gaining incredible powers, kicking off the classic “Phoenix Saga” and its better received sequel “The Dark Phoenix Saga”, two of the most famous storyline written by the book’s longest serving writer Chris Claremont. As I understand it Jean became the Phoenix in an effort for the creative team to add an incredibly powerful team member akin to Thor and the Avengers, and powering up Jean Grey is certainly better writing than simply shoehorning a new character in to fill the role (coughcoughthesentrycough).

The nature of the Phoenix is something that writers keep expanding on every few years making it more and more convoluted but the basically it’s a cosmic force of nature that fulfills crucial, if unhappy, roles in the universe (not unlike Galactus). Initially it was connected with the M’Kraan Crystal, an artifact of power from the Shi’ar Galaxy. In the original story Phoenix and the X-Men saved the Shi’ar empire (And the universe, really) in a science fiction adventure. In the follow-up story Phoenix became corrupt and took it out on the galaxy, ultimately killing off five billion alien suckers after eating a star. Apparently the writers felt that Phoenix had become more powerful than they were originally comfortable with and hoped to write her out of the comics, especially in a storyline that would end with Jean begin de-powered. However the decision to have her murder billions of innocent people made the then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter declare that Jean Grey’s actions had to be punished by more than just losing her abilities. So in the climax Jean killed herself rather than having the Dark Phoenix take over once again.

Man, the Phoenix Force will possess anyone with boobs, won't it?
So yeah. Good story. Well written. Totally dramatic. Then a few years we get our first in a series of weird-ass retcons. After the Fantastic Four found her in the ocean it was revealed that Jean Grey had never in fact been possessed by the Phoenix, rather the entity had actually taken her form and left her in a healing cocoon or something while it impersonated her. Meaning that Jean was not responsible for all those deaths. I guess technically in the original story it wasn’t that Jean was “possessed” but her powers had evolved and she begin referring to herself as “The Phoenix” but now with this new change they were two separate entities. Okay. Fine. Whatever. As far as retcons go could have worse.

Except that wasn’t the last time we heard of the Phoenix. Over the next twenty-plus years it kept coming back over and over again in increasingly weird ways that kept contradicting what was established. At some point Rachel Summers, Cyclops and Jean’s daughter from an alternative future (…f**king comic books), became bonded to the Phoenix. She was the first of several X-Men, including the Stepford Cuckoos and Emma Frost. More weirdly pretty soon after she came back to life Jean writers insisted on keeping that connection with the Phoenix strong. Basically every few years she starts getting the powers back and then suddenly she doesn’t have them, plus they keep going back and forth on whether Grey and the Phoenix are actually separate entities or not as apparently writers keep retconing the retcon every chance they get. Jean died again in 2004 after becoming the Phoenix yet again except shes’ resurrected in the very next storyline which was set in the future (My head!). Last time I checked Jean fully merged with the Phoenix and acceded to a higher plane or something; look, the X-Men comics started losing me the moment they decided to merge Cyclops with Apocalypse.

Yes, this happened
Despite the fact that Jean Grey was dead (more or less) the Phoenix continued showing up time after time. Here’s the problem; the original concept of the Phoenix was simple and interesting, and the first retcon was understandable but still kept things fairly easy to follow. However thirty-six years later it’s been overused, over-explained, and constantly being re-written by hot shot writers who think they can squeeze a snazzy new story out of it by making some convoluted twist (Including that it may be connected to Iron Fist’s powers, meaning that even non-X-Men comics are getting into this). It’s a plot device that should be use more sparingly than it actually is. It comes up every few years which seems like overkill.

In the new miniseries Avengers vs. X-Men the return of the Phoenix may also end up being the return of Jean or maybe even the end of the storyline started in House of M way back in 2005. We’ll know soon enough. I have a lot to say about the concept of this crossover and, as I’ve already actually read the first issue, I have even more to say about the issue itself. But I’ll save that for the review.

There's a 70% chance Hope is a reborn Jean Grey anyway
So really her being the Phoenix  isn't really shocking

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