Who is Jean Grey to you? The matronly support figure? The X-Men’s most iconic villain? A feisty redhead who doesn’t have boundaries? There have been a number of different Jean Greys since her 1963 introduction. Cartoon Jean Grey or original movie Jean Grey are likely the most well known, and while those Jeans were thoughtful and well-spoken they lacked depth. An absence of deeper investigation into her character is why neither medium was able to successfully tackle the Dark Phoenix Saga.
Originally “the girl” on a homogeneous team of blue-and-yellow weirdos, years of comic book continuity have added both layers and nuance to Jean Grey’s character. With her mutant powers first manifesting upon witnessing the death of a childhood friend, Jean had the unfortunate luck of being a particularly powerful telepath whose willingness to help nearly led to her own death. Not only did this event swing the attention of the cosmic raptor known as The Phoenix, but it provided a preview of what was to come.
Jean Grey is one self-sacrificial woman. This in itself isn’t unique among X-Men, however, the bond with The Phoenix Force led to a rebirth and corruption that she has since been defined by. The Dark Phoenix Saga is more than an event in X-Men continuity. It is a parable. A tale that could have been avoided had Jean not tried to fit a certain mold her entire life.
Psychologist Carl Jung insisted that we all have a dark side or “shadow self.” This tends to consist of the primitive, negative, socially, or religiously depreciated human emotions and impulses like sexual lust, power strivings, selfishness, greed, envy, anger or rage. Whatever we deem evil, inferior, or unacceptable and deny in ourselves becomes part of that shadow. In Jung’s own words, the shadow is the “sum of all personal and collective psychic elements which because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude are denied expression in life.”
In reading Uncanny X-Men #101-138 it’s notable that Jean’s personality takes a number of subtle shifts after assuming the Phoenix persona. At first she uses her powers as needed. There is a degree of restraint. Jean (or the Phoenix duplicate) would later form a psychic connection with Scott Summers and use her cosmic power to allow him to look at her for the first time with his visor off. Seeing Jean become more seductive in how she presents herself and excessive in the use of her power was concerning for Scott, but it underlies something else — a harmonizing with personality elements she had compartmentalized.
Jean had projected her shadow onto others as to avoid confronting it in herself. Of the many conflicts she had with moral degenerates Jean was always the righteous do-gooder and they were unequivocally evil. That’s not real. The unspoken desires and very human cruelty she hid from the world didn’t cease to exist so much as it became compounded underneath Jean’s conscious.
Becoming unbound as an individual while her powers hit new heights created a degree of psychological weakness within Jean. Never had the walls between her light and dark personas been so thin or she seen as such a valuable and vulnerable commodity. When Mastermind plotted to control her as a tool for the Hellfire Club, Jean had believed those closest to her had met their demise. Rather than confront this tragedy she turned away from her issues in favor of escapism.
She took an extended trip overseas where she could avoid processing trauma, unaware that many of the people she had been speaking with were Mastermind in disguise. Jason Wyngarde, as he was known to her at the time, would convince her through his powerful mental illusions of a love affair that wasn’t with Scott and a deliciously archaic position of power and elevated social status. The subtext is also that Mastermind used his powers of illusion to rape Jean Grey.
Between Mastermind’s machinations and the inhibition of the Phoenix Force taking life for all it was worth, Jean’s internal psychological defenses were at their flimsiest. She was at a breaking point. The apparent death of the love of her life, with whom she still shared a psychic link, was enough to shatter her conscious and free the Dark Phoenix — a manifestation of her shadow-self as well as an unbridled cosmic power.
According to Carl Jung, stressful circumstances can trigger a compensatory identity into temporarily taking command of the conscious will. Moreover, the abject negativity and destructiveness of the shadow is largely a function of the degree to which the individual neglects and refuses to take responsibility for it, only inflaming its ferocity. Jean worked hard over the years to lock the unsightly parts of her identity away and when The Dark Phoenix fully emerged a star was devoured and five billion innocents died instantly.
Jean may have been less likely to go Dark Phoenix had she not tried to snuff out the less socially or personally acceptable elements of her psyche. Coming to terms with our own shadows and assimilating them into our conscious personality is central to the process of Jungian theory and may also be central to the next Phoenix host. Tragically, Jean’s legacy will always be defined with the destruction of a planet and janky retcons.