The Dark Phoenix: A Moral Suicide
Once a clean-cut look at teenage mutants trying to fit in a human world that does not understand in its beginnings in the 1960s, The Uncanny X-Men took a steep turn in the late 1970s. Chris Claremont and John Bryne took over the fledgling comic book, infusing character development and cerebral, complicated storylines, none more complicated than the legendary Dark Phoenix Saga, which brings about the eventual suicide of one of its banner characters, Jean Grey. Morally, suicide is looked down upon but The Dark Phoenix teaches that for the greater good of the universe at large, it was better that suicide happened, a Christ-like act, rather than whole galaxies to perish.
The Dark Phoenix Saga begins as an introduction to two characters that are still an integral part of X-Men lore (Kitty Pride and White Queen) but morphs into a massive intergalactic tale of justice, love, morality and sacrifice. In an earlier storyline, Jean Grey (also known as Marvel Girl) had died from radiation poisoning while escaping a battle by passing through a radiation storm in a space shuttle. While she was dying, the Phoenix Force, a space entity, saved Jean Grey by creating a duplicate Jean Grey, absorbing her consciousness, complete with memories and personality. Combined with Jean Grey, the Phoenix became a benevolent being, “a primal force second only that to the Creator. It was more power than any she – or any human – could ever hope to control,” The Watcher says (149). As an avatar for the Phoenix, Jean’s powers were at near infinite levels, causing mass destruction to the entire universe if the Phoenix ever were to turn its power against it. Unfortunately, the mental manipulation of Mastermind caused the Phoenix to go insane, birthing the Dark Phoenix (106-111), causing mass destruction by absorbing g-type stars, causing supernovas and the destruction of entire planets. How does an all powerful, god-like cosmic entity get stopped from her reign of terror? The only answer: suicide.
Philosopher Immanuel Kant was in the camp of a school of ethics called dentology, which judges an act “according to their intrinsic moral quality, often based on a system of rules or duties” (47, White). Kant discusses suicide as immoral specifically in The Metaphysics of Morals (“Disposing of oneself as a mere means to some discretionary end is debasing humanity in one’s person, to which man was nevertheless entrusted for preservation” (48). But what if your death means the salvation of an entire galaxy? In the Phoenix’s case, suicide is the only way to prevent mass murder on an epic scale.
Marvel Girl in happier times.
Fortunately for the Marvel Comics universe, the Phoenix isn’t in full control of Jean Grey’s psyche. Before being brainwashed by Mastermind, Jean Grey establishes a mental link with her lover, Cyclops (Claremont, 84). Cyclops attempts to establish connection with Jean when she is brainwashed, which then Mastermind meets Cyclops’ psychic self and kills him in the Astral Plane (92). This act unlocks and twists the Phoenix into the Dark Phoenix. Even then, Jean establishes connection with Cyclops in the “real” world (“That voice, Jean’s voice, her presence in my mind. She’s re-established our psychic rapport! I can hear her, feel her” ). If the only thing Dark Phoenix wanted were destruction, it wouldn’t have used Jean to establish her connection to Cyclops. This was an act of free will on Jean Grey’s part. Jean is also aware of the Dark Phoenix’s awakening (“Jean Grey is terrified… More afraid now then she’s ever been, because she knows what is happening to her. And she cannot stop it.” ) Further clues are when she confronts Mastermind, as she yells, “Do you have any idea what you have done; what forces you have set in motion?” (107) Jean Grey is well aware of the evil inside of her and knows the destruction that will ensue. Either way, Jean Grey is clearly not herself anymore and her choices are limited. Mark D. White’s quotes Kant in relation to the Dark Phoenix Saga, saying, “In The Metaphysics of Morals, Kant posed several questions suggesting that suicide can be permitted. One of the cases he presented goes like this: ‘A human being who had been bitten by a mad dog already felt hydrophobia coming on. He explained, in a letter he left, since as far as he knew the disease was incurable, he was taking his life lest he harm others as well in his madness (the onset of which he already felt.) Did he do wrong?” (White, 49) The situation is similar to Jean Grey as she’s been “bitten” by the Dark Phoenix and knows full well of the outcome. This leaves the X-Men in an interesting conundrum of whether or not to protect Jean from the Phoenix (herself) and the Shi’ar Empire.
As the X-Men are defeated by the Dark Phoenix, the Dark Phoenix goes on her intergalactic destruction spree, destroying a Shi’ar Empire battleship. The Shi’ar Empire, an extra-terrestrial semi-humanoid race that has established a galaxy-wide empire, had experiences with the Phoenix before, aiding in the saving of the empire (in X-Men #107) but knowing the Dark Phoenix’s potential danger, the empress Lilliandra recognizes that “…if the universe is to survive… Phoenix must be destroyed” (133). After Professor X temporarily subdues the Phoenix, the Shi’ar Empire teleports them for Jean Grey to be destroyed but instead, Professor X calls Lilliandra to a duel on both sides. With full knowledge of the Phoenix’s potential, the X-Men struggle to find moral reasons to help their holocaust-causing friend.
One X-Man that struggles with mass genocide is German Kurt Wagner (otherwise known as Nightcrawler). Searching for reasons to defend Jean from the Shi’ar, Kurt ponders, “…I knew people who had survived the Holocaust… I still cannot forgive the butchers responsible for those atrocities. How then can I forgive Jean. I wish I knew what to do, which way to choose. (156)” Kurt’s memory of those affected by World War II affects his moral decisions, while other X-Men make their decisions on the law (Beast ), love (Colossus and Storm ) and mercy (Cyclops ). As Cyclops thinks about his reasons, Jean enters the room in her old costume. She forecasts her own suicide when asked by Cyclops on why she’s dressed the way she is, she says, “I’m not sure. Nostalgia? Pride? I started as Marvel Girl, and that’s how I finish. ). …And that is exactly what happened.
Although Kant would deem suicide mostly immoral, Kantian philosopher Thomas E. Hill argues that in the case that someone would rather die than be prostituted, enslaved or fight in a war (or in our case, be taken over by an insane, god-like entity like the Phoenix), it would be moral in a Kantian sense, “To be sure, one cuts short the time one could live as a rational, autonomous agent; but doing so can be a manifestation of autonomy, an ultimate decision of the author of a life story to conclude it with a powerful expression of ideals he autonomously chose to live by. (White, 51). As her teammates ruminate on unquestionably difficult justifications to fight for her survival, Jean finds a way to morally justify her self-imposed demise, although painful (“Now, the time has come to pay the price. God… Merciful God, help me. Give me strength. )
During the ensuing battle, the Shi’ar champions trounce the X-Men and only Cyclops and Jean remain. The stress of battle triggers the Dark Phoenix deep within her. At this time, it is clear to even-keeled Professor X “must act to save the human race” (178). Cyclops obeys Professor X’s command to attack her. Although the Dark Phoenix is reborn, Jean still has autonomy of her thoughts at this point, welcoming the attack (“Good, [Cyclops]. You’re doing exactly what I prayed you would.” ) Jean comes back to the surface after Colossus attacks her. Jean exercises her own little remaining autonomy and commands the X-Men to kill her. Cyclops tries to convince her of her own capabilities, “You have an intellect, Jean, a will, a soul. Use them! Fight this dark side of yourself!” (181) Little does he know, Kant’s predicament of a man being bit by a mad dog is presenting itself in Jean, as the Phoenix is still a part of her. In Jean’s autonomy, her decision to die is outside of her teammates’ will (“The choice was never yours to begin with.” ). She explains to Cyclops her moral reason for suicide and then quickly kills herself using secret Kree and Skrull weapons. Upon her death Cyclops realizes her problem, “I should have realized that you could not become Dark Phoenix and remain true to your self, the Jean Grey I knew, and fell in love with.” (182). Although it resulted in the death of his lover, he realizes that Jean did exactly what Hill describes as “an ultimate decision of the author of a life story to conclude it with a powerful expression of ideals he autonomously chose to live by.” (White, 51)
The Phoenix Suicide Panel
While ruminating on his decision to protect Jean, Beast comments that, “The law separates humanity from its animal ancestors. And like it or not, the law protects everyone, good, evil, victim, criminal. It has to, or it – and civilization – aren’t worth beans.” (157) What Beast could be saying is that morality is what separates us from other beings. The Dark Phoenix Saga is not just only an exercise if suicide could be moral or not, it’s an exercise of the power of humanity to know right from wrong and its means to exercise its ability to fight for justice. To quote the Watcher in the Saga’s last page,
“…That is what makes humanity virtually unique in the cosmos…
This extraordinary capacity for self-sacrifice… This ability to triumph
over seemingly insurmountable obstacles if the cause be just, knowing
all the while that to do so means certain death. The X-Men do not realize it,
they may never realize, or accept it, but this day they have won perhaps
the greatest victory of their young lives. Jean Grey could have lived to
become a god. But it was more important to her that she die… A human.” (183)