A lot can change in the span of a year, especially in a world full of cosmic cubes, infinity gems, and deals with Mephisto. One year, Wolverine is an Avenger, Spider-Man is married, and the Fantastic Four are still relevant. The next, Captain America is a Hydra agent, Thor is Jane Foster, and Spider-Man is sleeping on his Aunt May’s couch again. Indeed, things change very fast, very quickly in the Marvel universe, often within the span of a single year. Go back even farther, say 14 years ago, and it may as well be a different multiverse.
That’s because 14 years is how long Jean Grey, the non-time displaced version of her, has been dead. In December of 2003, during the tail end of Grant Morrison’s famous run on New X-men, she dies at the ends of Xorn, who is actually Magneto, but is also an imposter. At that time, land lines are still common, YouTube doesn’t exist, and people are excited about the release of a new Fantastic Four movie.
So much changes within the real world that it’s impossible to overstate how different things are in the comics. The fact that Bucky Barnes comes back to life before Jean Grey in that span says a lot about the impact of her death. However, her being Jean Grey, the same character who attracts cosmic forces with a propensity for resurrection, it was only a matter of when — not if — she returned.
After 14 years, multiple crossover events, multiple relaunches, and a takeover by Disney, the wait is over. Jean Grey is finally set to return in Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey #1. After so much time and so many complications along the way, Matthew Rosenberg has a responsibility in crafting this narrative. He gets to bring Jean Grey back, but he faces a challenge in doing it in a way that doesn’t feel predictable or contrived, which is no easy feat for a character associated with a cosmic force.
His approach relies heavily on mystery elements while also bringing every major X-men team into the picture. From a situational standpoint, that makes sense. Jean Grey coming back, and likely bringing a cosmic force with her, is bound to require more than a few veteran X-men. However, Rosenberg doesn’t throw everything into the story all at once. That may work for the Cables, Deadpools, and Wolverine knock-offs of the Marvel universe, but Jean’s story requires a different kind of nuance.
A big part of Jean’s appeal, both as a character and as a catalyst for a major story, is how her stories are built around significant emotional undertones. The original Phoenix Saga itself is an emotionally-driven story, one that has a major impact because it makes the losses and emotions feel genuine. Phoenix Resurrection already sets Jean up for a similar impact. While the situation is very different compared to previous stories, but when a character has been dead for over a decade, that’s understandable and somewhat necessary.
This is where the mystery elements of Phoenix Resurrection really shine. In the same way it avoids putting the X-men at ground zero of another Phoenix-powered clash, it establishes a series of unknowns that puts Jean and the X-men in a volatile situation. It doesn’t start off with a cosmic bird, but it doesn’t take long to hint at one. Even with those unknown, it makes clear that the X-men’s path is eventually going to find its way to Jean.
Like going up the first steep hill of a roller coaster, it’s fairly obvious what Jean and the X-men are about to face. Anyone who knows anything about the stories surrounding Jean and the X-men can sense it, but the subtleties of the story still find a way to make it enticing. Rosenberg doesn’t try to use old formulas that involve cocoons, time travel, or evil clones. His approach is different, even if the themes are similar. That big drop at the top of the hill is still coming and it promises to be every bit as thrilling and dramatic as other Jean Grey stories before it.
Beyond just setting the stage for the X-men’s reunion with their beloved friend, Phoenix Resurrection also takes the time to acknowledge classic elements of Jean’s story. There are references to the original Phoenix Saga, End of Greys, and even some of the lesser-known aspects of Jean’s history. There’s a sense that both the past and the present matter, which is difficult to do when it’s just so much easier to use time machines, clones, and Skrull agents.
In a sense, the outcome of the story is already established. Phoenix Resurrection makes clear that this isn’t going to be a tease like Phoenix Endsong. Jean Grey is, indeed, coming back. It’s just a matter of how volatile, dramatic, and impactful that return will be. Any story involving Jean Grey is bound to be emotional to some extent and Rosenberg puts everything in place for those emotions to shine.
The final page, alone, effectively guarantees that hearts will be broken and spirits will be wounded. The presence of Jean’s loved ones, of which she has many, also guarantees that the drama will be intense. The narrative sets all these important themes up without utilizing a single clone or cocoon, which counts as an accomplishment.
While these nuances work beautifully for anyone familiar with Jean Grey’s history and the dramatic undertones that her stories inspire, there are times when her prolonged absence hinders some of the impact. When a character is dead for so long and the world changes so much, it’s hard to fit them into the bigger picture. In a sense, Phoenix Resurrection is starting behind the curve in terms of creating impact on the larger Marvel universe. After multiple civil wars, a Skrull invasion, and a take-over by Hydra, Jean’s return almost feels out of place.
However, even though the Marvel universe has gotten used to functioning without her, Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey #1 does plenty to generate excitement for her overdue return. Her being dead for so long may have limited her impact, but it does little to diminish her place in the X-men and the Marvel pantheon of heroes. She still is, even after 14 years, the heart of the X-men. The team just isn’t the same without her. No amount of time travelers or alternate universe versions can change that.