Warning! This article contains spoilers for Avengers #42
In the pages of recent issues of the Avengers by Jason Aaron and Javier Garrón, a seemingly-random assortment of heroes and villains from across the Marvel Universe are competing in a cosmic tournament against their wills. And to the winner, the near-omnipotent power of the Phoenix Force, one of the most fearsome entities in the entire galaxy. Out of all the combatants in the Phoenix tournament, only one of them seems to understand the price of wielding the Phoenix Force, and the personal toll it always takes on its hosts. While some are tempted by the vast, overwhelming power of the Phoenix, Wolverine is keenly aware of the way the cosmic firebird has destroyed the lives of his loved ones.
In Avengers #42, Wolverine describes the Phoenix as maybe “the sweetest fruit that ever plopped down outta the stars. But the juice still ain’t worth the squeeze.” As a longtime X-Man and former Avenger himself, Wolverine has a unique history with the Phoenix—having been present during its multiple, fatal trips to earth. Only he has seen the corrupting power of the Phoenix Force firsthand in the form of his teammates losing control of themselves.
By mentioning the Phoenix causing “Jeannie [to] go dark,” Wolverine is referring to the X-Men’s most iconic storyline, Dark Phoenix Saga by Chris Claremont and John Byrne from 1980. This story introduced readers to the true power of the Phoenix Force by transforming X-Men stalwart Jean Grey from a powerful telepathic/telekinetic psychic to an unstoppable cosmic entity capable of consuming stars in an instant. In conjunction with the massive power upgrade, Jean’s personality was also subsumed into the Phoenix.
After being freed from her inner psyche by the villain Mastermind, the Dark Phoenix nearly overtook Jean’s entire being. Her cosmic hunger and ambivalence to the lives of lower life forms led her into conflict with the X-Men, which ultimately resulted in a battle on the moon with the extraterrestrial Shi’ar Empire. Jean was able to regain control of herself over the Phoenix long enough to take her own life to stop the threat. This traumatic moment for the X-Men has lingered within Logan to this day, even long after Jean’s inevitable resurrection.
While she was first believed dead, Jean’s daughter Rachel crossed over into the present from an alternate future in which mutants were hunted by Sentinels to near-extermination. After joining with the X-Men, Rachel would soon find herself bonded with the Phoenix, as had her mother just a few years prior. Unlike Jean, however, Rachel proved to be a much more capable host and for the most part, wielded the power responsibly for years as a member of the X-Men and later, Excalibur.
The Phoenix Force wasn’t done with Jean, however, and during Grant Morrison’s legendary run on New X-Men in the early 2000s, Jean once again found herself bonded with the Phoenix. Unlike her experience in the original Dark Phoenix Saga, this time the Phoenix sought to use Jean as a vehicle for life and rebirth, rather than death and destruction. Jean’s mortal body once again perished, this time at the hands of a Magneto imposter, and while the Phoenix Force would eventually resurrect her once more, Jean remained dead for 15 years.
During this period, the Phoenix once again bonded with Rachel, once again struggling with the loss of her mother. In an attempt to keep the legacy of Jean alive, Rachel attempted to connect with her mother’s extended family. However, the Shi’ar Empire, in response to the Phoenix Force’s repeated activations within Jean and Rachel, sent a squad of Death Commandos to eliminate the entire Grey bloodline. Even for someone like Rachel, who has proven time and again as a worthy host, wielders of the Phoenix Force are subjected to personal tragedy as a result of their power.
The Phoenix left Rachel not long after the Scarlet Witch decimated the mutant population. Brief glimpses of the Phoenix’s power were eventually seen within Hope Summers, the first mutant born since the events of House of M. Hope, who had been raised by Cable in a series of dystopian alternate futures, had been training her whole life to prove herself worthy of the title the mutant messiah. The X-Men at the time, headed up by Cyclops and Emma Frost, believed that if Hope bonded with the Phoenix Force she would be able to reignite the mutant X-gene extinguished by Wada Maximoff.
Similar in strategy to the Shi’ar’s preemptive strike against the Grey family, the Avengers confronted the X-Men in order to take Hope into custody, not trusting her ability to wield the Phoenix Force. The initial battle between the two super-teams, as seen in Avengers Vs. X-Men, resulted in the Phoenix being split into five separate entities—soon bonding with Cyclops, Emma Frost, Colossus, Magik, and Namor, the Sub-Mariner.
The Phoenix Five, as they came to be known, briefly transformed Earth into a utopia, before inevitably succumbing to in-fighting and corruption. While under the sway of the Phoenix, Namor unleashed a massive tsunami on Wakanda in a fit of rage, and Cyclops tragically took the life of his mentor, Professor X. Hope Summers and the Scarlet Witch ended the conflict by combining their powers to temporarily cast the Phoenix out of existence.
Since then, the Phoenix has been without a regular host, despite attempting to bond with a teenage time-displaced version of Jean Grey. Since her most recent resurrection, the original Jean Grey has fully rejected the power of the Phoenix. With the tournament for a new host well underway, combatants such as Captain America, Black Panther, Valkyrie have performed well, whether any of them truly wish to win or not.
Toward the end of Avengers #42, Logan has finally committed to playing to win, despite fearing the price of wielding such awesome power. His personal history with and understanding of the Phoenix may make him the combatant best suited to hosting the Phoenix, but all indications point to someone else taking home the prize. All the Avengers and X-Men can do is hope that whoever does win the tournament is able to approach their new role with the necessary responsibility. Though considering that players such as Namor and the mysterious Red Widow are still in it to win it, chances of that happening are rapidly dwindling.