John Byrne and Chris Claremont’s 1980 Dark Phoenix saga is one of the most beloved in all of comics: Jean Grey, the X-Men’s Marvel Girl, becomes possessed by the Phoenix force, turning her into a superhero with near-godlike powers. Unfortunately, those powers soon become hard to control, and Dark Phoenix takes over—and that’s where the storylines between the comics and current movie version veer off. In the comics, Dark Phoenix consumes a star that causes the destruction of an entire solar system, including the death of five billion D’Bari innocents. With the aid of Professor X’s strong telekinetic powers, Jean is able to contain the powerful Phoenix entity within her, but the Shi’Ar race, who witnessed Dark Phoenix’s terrible act of destruction, still demand that she be punished. (In fact, when the movie Dark Phoenix was first announced, many fans speculated that Jessica Chastain would be portraying Shi’Ar leader Lilandra. Instead, her character’s alien race, the D’Bari, is a nod to that lost solar system, as they were also wiped out by the Phoenix force).
The X-Men fight the Shi’Ar for Jean, until Jean’s shock at seeing her beloved Cyclops cut down mid-battle jars Dark Phoenix alive again. Realizing that she will never again being able to control her power, Jean positions herself in front of an alien weapon, committing suicide to save the universe from the Phoenix force.
It was an iconic, highly emotional run, made even more so by the fact that Jean Grey actually stayed dead for several years, until she was resurrected for X-Factor in 1986. Even with all the resulting Phoenix force shenanigans, the canon of the story remained: Jean Grey had given up her own life to save everyone else. As an original X-Men hero, what else could she have done?
A certain Marvel title was only too eager to answer that question a year after the Dark Phoenix denouement in 1981: The classic and speculative What If? series. Kicking off with “What If Spider-Man Had Joined The Fantastic Four?” in 1977, What If? quickly moved on to other pressing questions like “What If Captain America Had Been Elected President?” and “What If Gwen Stacy Had Lived?” What If? #27 asked the similarly themed “What If Phoenix Had Not Died?” Every issue of the What If? original run (1977-84) was narrated by the alien Uatu The Watcher from his spot on the moon. Despite all the storyline calisthenics, as he watched these alternate realities play out, the Watcher ended every issue by refusing to state which resulting circumstance was better than the other, as “I am only the Watcher.”
The thought-provoking issue #27 is one of the best of the series. In it, Jean takes the blow for Cyclops herself in the Shi’Ar battle, so that Dark Phoenix remains hidden for a little while longer. When she eventually does re-emerge—once again after seeing Cyclops fumble in battle—Jean is unfortunately convinced that she can handle the power (there are a lot of interesting parallels to be drawn between Jean’s Phoenix problem and basic addiction issues). The X-Men are continuously victorious in battle with the unstoppable Phoenix at their side, as she’s even able to defeat the planet-chomping Galactus.
But Galactus predicts that Phoenix’s hunger will be her undoing, and he turns out to be right. Phoenix craves more and more sustenance to replenish her power, starting on a few uninhabited asteroids (it’s how it always starts), then consuming another star. She’s confronted by the X-Men, who had been monitoring her. The now completely unbridled Dark Phoenix then kills all the X-Men in the cruelest ways imaginable, burying the claustrophobic Storm alive, and having Wolverine sink his claws into Colossus.
Once all the X-Men are dead, the real Jean emerges for a moment to realize that’s she’s killed everyone she loves, even Cyclops. Her resulting grief and rage forms a firebolt Phoenix tidal wave so great that it engulfs not just the planet, but the entire universe. It’s a piercing ending that only underlines why Jean Grey had to make the sacrifice that she did.
And yet, even when faced with the destruction of the entire universe, Uatu cannot say whether that was a better or worse consequence than the original: “What happened in your universe, when Jean Grey willingly gave her life, was a tragedy…what happens in this alternate reality is perhaps worse! But I neither judge nor condemn. I only observe.” As he is only The Watcher. But can we say that the way the Dark Phoenix saga played out in the comics is superior to the uninspiring movie? Definitely.