The Unfortunate Comic Book Careers of Cyclops and Phoenix

The newest movie X-Men are the most long-serving, unlucky comic book X-Men of all.
Courtesy of John Byrne/Marvel Entertainment

X-Men: Apocalypse features the introduction of two characters who are new to the team, but thanks to the complicated chronology of the movie franchise, not new to the movie series. But if that makes events surrounding Cyclops and Jean Grey confusing to moviegoers, that's nothing compared with their comic book histories. Here's everything that anyone could need to know about the original incarnations of two of the most important X-Men in any medium.

Cyclops

Pity poor Scott Summers, a superhero burdened with even more than the usual amount of comic book angst. Not only was he burdened since his first appearance in 1963's X-Men No. 1 — the Uncanny part of the title would arrive years later — with a destructive superpower that he couldn't fully control, but in the 50-plus years since his creation, he's been faced with the kinds of hardship and emotional torture that would drive anyone into depression.

The comic book backstory of Cyclops is one where any characterization of "bad luck" would be putting it mildly; abandoned by his parents at a young age when they were kidnapped by aliens, Scott Summers was raised in a Nebraska orphanage run by a supervillain who performed experiments on him without his consent, before placing mental blocks in his mind to ensure that he wouldn't remember anything.

Even when he became a member of the X-Men, things didn't get any easier; socially anxious, he spent decades unable to tell Jean Grey that he loved her, with the two only really getting close just before she was seemingly possessed by a cosmic entity that ultimately led to her demise (It would later be revealed that it was actually the cosmic entity pretending to be Jean, but we'll get to that soon enough). Things seemed to improve when he met his future wife, except that she would later be revealed to be a clone of Jean Grey, created by the villain who'd experimented on him when he was in the orphanage, because … well, comics.

To add to his personal strife, Cyclops had a son with his cloned wife … except that the son got infected by an alien disease, was taken to the future in order to survive, and ended up returning to the present day older than his father and a cyborg. (Comic book fans know him as Cable, the sometimes leader of X-Force.)

While he proved to be a failure when it came to interpersonal relationships — a second marriage to the revived Jean Grey would end when he cheated on her with onetime X-Men arch nemesis Emma Frost — the one thing Cyclops was good at was being a superhero; for decades, he led either the X-Men or spinoff team X-Factor, no matter what else was going on in his life, even when he was possessed by the same cosmic entity that pretended to be Jean Grey, leading him to kill Professor Xavier in 2012's Avengers vs. X-Men No. 11.

As you might expect, killing his former mentor was a turning point in Cyclops' life — it transformed him into what might be described as a radicalized mutant, with his subsequent X-Men team being more concerned with mutant rights than saving the day from the latest supervillain threat, as seen in the subsequent third volume of the Uncanny X-Men series from 2013 through 2014. In current comic book continuity, Cyclops is actually dead as the result of an as-yet-unexplained event that saw him apparently execute some extreme plan to save mutantkind while putting others at risk.

Well, he's kind of dead; there is actually a second Cyclops running around Marvel's comic book universe right now, who is still very much alive. As introduced in 2012's All-New X-Men No. 2, this one arrived from a point in the past when he was a teenager. Appearing in the ongoing All-New X-Men series, teen Scott currently has to deal with existing in a world where he really has seen his own future, and knows for a fact that it pretty much sucks. Talk about teenage angst.

Jean Grey

Like Cyclops, Jean Grey debuted in X-Men No. 1 back in 1963, only to suffer an impressively complicated and grim life ever since — and also not one, but two separate deaths.

Jean's special abilities — telepathy and telekinesis — arrived when she witnessed her best friend being hit by a car as a child; she "heard" her friend's dying thoughts, an event that ultimately resulted in her being introduced to Charles Xavier and inducted into his first group of X-Men. She served with that team on and off until 1976's Uncanny X-Men No. 101, when she appeared to die and be reborn as the cosmically powered Phoenix, a combination of Grey and the "Phoenix Force" that would go on to ultimately sacrifice herself for the good of the universe in the fan-favorite Uncanny X-Men No. 137 (1980). Except, it turns out, that's not how it went down at all.

Fantastic Four No. 286 (1986) revealed that Grey had never actually been Phoenix at all; instead, that had been the Phoenix Force pretending to be Grey, while she recovered from the near-death experience as seen in Uncanny X-Men No. 101 a decade earlier. Recovered, Grey — who, of course, lacked the memories of being Phoenix, who was now explicitly not Jean Grey — joined the other original X-Men in the group X-Factor and ultimately regained the Phoenix memories after a confrontation with an evil clone, who had both married her Grey's on-again/off-again boyfriend Cyclops and been gifted with the Phoenix Force's memories when Phoenix had died. Yes, this is needlessly complicated.

Now once again complete, Grey would go on to rejoin the X-Men with her X-Factor colleagues and advance within their ranks — becoming not only a leader of the team during its superhero missions, but also the headmistress of Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters — before she reclaimed the powers and identity of Phoenix one last time before, once again, dying (This time, at the hands of a villain who claimed to be Magneto but would later be revealed to be an imposter trying to besmirch that villain's not-so-good name).

And yet, Jean Grey's story wasn't over even after her second death; subsequent storylines would reveal that Grey's second death allowed her to evolve into a more powerful avatar for the Phoenix Force, while a younger Jean Grey would accompany her teenage teammates from the past into our present as part of the All-New X-Men series. That younger Grey, whose connection to the Phoenix entity is unclear but seemingly existent, currently serves with the main X-team in the ongoing Extraordinary X-Men comic book series.

X-Men: Apocalypse is released May 27.

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