It’s usually a sign when a certain character becomes best known for dying, not staying dead, and having large chunks of their history retconned and rewritten. It’s rarely a good sign, but a select few can manage more balanced results. Jean Grey functions better than most with that kind of legacy. She dies, comes back to life, dies again, gets cloned, travels through time, and somehow finds a way to deal with a cosmic force. That may very well be another sign, but one that speaks to the strength of her character.
In a sense, Jean Grey is one of those characters who’s always torn between two opposing forces. Sometimes it involves her being on the wrong end of a love triangle. Other times, it involves wanting to forge her own path while still confronting the many conflicts in her history. She knows she ends up dead and in so doing becomes an icon to some and a walking resurrection joke to others. Since her arrival from the past in All-New X-men, Jean’s story seems to fluctuate from one conflicting force to another.
One day, she’s trying everything she can to avoid the same obstacles that doomed her adult self. The next, she’s determined to face them. Given that she’s a teenager and teenagers are known to have erratic methods in dealing with problems, this is understandable. It also makes Jean Grey’s story somewhat chaotic. There’s not a clear understanding of what she hopes to accomplish, so long as she’s stuck in the future with the rest of the time-displaced X-men. Unlike her teammates, though, she can’t reach out to her older self for guidance.
Now, thanks to space-time machinations for Marvel Generations, a teenage Jean Grey finally gets the chance to interact with her older self and learn from the icon herself. What plays out in Marvel Generations: Phoenix and Jean Grey #1 is not an illusion. It’s not some twisted memory either. This is the real Jean Grey of X-men lore who goes onto devour a star, cheat death, get clones, and inspire any number of fights between Cyclops and Wolverine. It’s as big a moment a teenage girl could ever face — much bigger than prom night.
However, Cullen Bunn and RB Silva don’t just rip a teenage Jean Grey out of the present and stick her into some contrived point in the ever-changing, constantly-reconnected timeline of the X-men. Bunn shows that he’s done his homework by putting the young Jean Grey in a specific moment within the original Phoenix Saga between that ran between Uncanny X-men #101 and Uncanny X-men #138. It’s the kind of attention to detail that Chris Claremont himself would be proud of.
In a sense, it’s the most optimal moment Jean and her older self could’ve chosen for their respective stories. Within the context of the original Phoenix Saga, it’s that brief period when Jean had control over the Phoenix Force. She isn’t corrupted, twisted, or devouring entire star systems just to see what it feels like. She’s still very human in her perspective, but vulnerable to the corruption that comes with the god-like power of the Phoenix Force.
It’s a narrow window for her teenage self to explore, but one that’s vital within the context of her own story. It provides a clear and effective link between the conflict unfolding in Jean’s solo series and the events unfolding in Marvel Generations. Once again, Jean faces the prospect of dealing with the Phoenix Force again.
She knows as well as anyone who tries to follow convoluted timelines and never-ending death/rebirth plots that it’s bound to cause cosmic headaches for everyone. In order to deal with it, she needs to learn about it. She’ll find no better source than this particular version of herself at this particular point in her history. Even a cosmic version of Wikipedia can’t provide information that comprehensive.
As a result, Marvel Generations: Phoenix and Jean Grey #1 takes on a very personal undertone. Bunn dedicates significant parts of the narrative to explore the inner conflict within the teenage Jean Grey. She recognizes from the beginning that this is an important opportunity, one that she can’t afford to pass up. She needs to learn everything she can about the Phoenix Force. On top of that, she has spoilers to the tragedy that lies just ahead for her adult counterpart.
Despite all the implications this meeting has for both characters, Bunn resists the urge to turn teenage Jean Grey into Marty McFly from Back to the Future in that she doesn’t mindlessly mess with the timeline. She actually establishes a personal connection with her older self. She doesn’t attempt to deceive her or impede her. She presents herself as a friend and ally. It may seem redundant since they’re the same person, but it serves an important purpose.
By becoming an ally, teen Jean gets a chance to learn about her older self outside the tragedy, heartache, and retcons that exist only in the memories of her fellow X-men. She sees that, like her, the older Jean Grey is also struggling to make sense of this cosmic power. However, her older self clearly has a different perspective of that power, which she eagerly demonstrates in ways that maximize the visual appeal of Silva’s art.
It leads to a cosmic clash between the Phoenix and Galactus. It’s the kind of clash that’s inherently epic on paper, but easy to mess up in a story. Bunn achieves a fitting balance of sorts, giving Jean and her adult counterpart a chance to shine and learn from each other. In doing so, it sets up a unique moment between two characters from different periods in a vast mythos. That moment carries with it a dramatic impact that maximizes the opportunity that Marvel Generations creates.
It’s a moment that Marty McFly botched in Back to the Future. For Jean Grey, it’s a moment of clarity that takes place at the best possible time. That’s not just an outside observation, either. The Watcher himself shows up to let her know just how important her decision is in the grand scheme of the never-ending chaos that is the Marvel universe. She has a chance to make the easy decision that will most definitely incur all sorts of complications and consequences. She ends up making a different choice. The fact she makes that choice as a teenager, whose natural inclinations gravitate towards easy solutions bereft of consequence, speaks to the strength of her character.
Marvel Generations: Phoenix and Jean Grey #1 is in a position to rewrite the history of one of the X-men’s most iconic stories. It’s also in a position to add even greater complications to a story that has had more than its share since the ’80s. Bunn doesn’t draw the ire of Chris Claremont, nor does he completely nullify the potential of the moment. The Jean Grey from the past and the Jean Grey from the present both get something out of their encounter. It’s not the same as a retcon or a time paradox, but it has a genuine impact and that impact feels relevant to both characters.
There’s still a sense that teenage Jean didn’t do as much as she could’ve. It could be argued that she didn’t do as much as she should’ve either. However, what she ends up doing is probably the most responsible decision she could’ve made in that situation. For a teenager constantly looking for ways to avoid the destiny that fate has laid out for her, it speaks volumes to the strength of her character. Even if the circumstances of Marvel Generations are unclear and the overall impact is uncertain, Jean Grey shows why, no matter which era she’s in, she’s still the heart of the X-men.