Though the ultra-destructive Phoenix Force is most widely known as being a fixture of Marvel’s X-Men comics and the reason that Jean Grey’s been brought back from the dead so many times, the way the publisher’s been setting up this winter’s Enter the Phoenix events has made it quite clear that the firebird’s return won’t exactly be a mutant-oriented affair, which is...rather odd, to be honest.
Set to launch this December in Avengers #40, written by Jason Aaron with art from Javier Garrón, Enter the Phoenix will chronicle the cosmic being’s return to Earth as it searches for a new host following its most recent (and rather emotional) rejection by Jean. Though this is far from the first time the Avengers have gotten involved in Phoenix-related nonsense, it’s been curious the way Enter the Phoenix has been teased as an Avengers-specifics story with little acknowledgement of mutants aside from Wolverine and Namor.
Given the Phoenix’s larger dualistic role as a catalyst for both destruction and evolution, its association with the X-Men always made a certain degree of sense, and that logic made the events of 2012's Avengers vs. X-Men somewhat believable if you squinted hard enough and didn’t think too much about things. There, one of the world’s most dangerous threats comes in the form of five different mutants becoming imbued with the power of the Phoenix after Iron Man manages to split the being’s energy form.
But in last week’s Avengers #36, penned by Aaron with art from Garrón, colors by Jason Keith, and letters by Cory Petit, an important moment building up to Enter the Phoenix’s main conflict made it clear that the Phoenix isn’t necessarily interested in making a go at bonding with a mutant this time around.
Over the past few months, Moon Knight has taken on a new level of significance in Marvel’s comics as the mentally ill hero has set out on a twisted quest to save the world by harnessing the respective energies of the original (read: prehistoric) Avengers, who each have some sort of mystical link to their modern-day analogues. After besting Iron Fist, Thor, Doctor Strange, and Ghost Rider, Moon Knight set out to get ahold of the new avatar of the Starbrand, a baby currently being spirited through space by Captain Marvel in order to keep it away from the deranged hero. As all of this has been happening, Moon Knight’s been working under the assumption that, were he to accomplish his goals, he and the god Khonshu would be able to stop Mephisto from taking over the Earth. But as Avengers #36 opens, it becomes clear that while Moon Knight’s reasons may be just, he’s being played by a greater power.
Because the Black Panther’s otherworldly powers (gifted by the Orisha Bast) are passed down through bloodlines, Moon Knight’s attempt to wrest T’Challa’s energies proves too difficult a challenge, leaving T’Challa as one of the few remaining Avengers with the ability to take Moon Knight on head to head. T’Challa implores his sometimes ally to stand down and resist the thrall of Khonshu, who T’Challa correctly understands is manipulating Moon Knight’s mind into seeing him as the demon Mephisto.
As the two men fight, Khonshu looks on, pleased to see that his human champion is both capable of handling his own in combat and utterly incapable of seeing through the god’s illusion, which T’Challa tries and fails to make Moon Knight understand. For the bulk of issue #36, there’s little question that Moon Knight can’t exactly win against T’Challa, who’s both a superior fighter and is packing an arsenal of high tech weapons—but rather than taking the opportunity to knock Moon Knight out cold, T’Challa instead chooses to leave him once he’s decided the man can no longer fight. Strangely, when T’Challa begins to walk away from Moon Knight, the lunar-themed hero then begins to punch himself repeatedly, which is alarming enough on its face, but becomes even more so when you realize why he’s doing it.
Avengers #36 is split between two different (but close) points in time, the first being at a moment before Moon Knight and Black Panther’s fight when the former journeyed to the moon itself in search of a deeper understanding of Khonshu’s motivations. Though Moon Knight finds the moon itself quite unhelpful, a conversation with the Unseen, the man formerly known as Nick Fury who now fulfills the role that Uatu the Watcher once did, leaves him with a curious resolve that brings us to the events of the present.
The Unseen’s assertion that Moon Knight was worshipping the wrong god by serving Khonshu means very little until the bloodied Moon Knight explains to T’Challa that the god he’s serving now demanded blood of him before it would deign to recognize him. Odd as it is to see the Phoenix just popping back to Earth to take up shop in Moon Knight’s body, the plot twist does work, to a point, when you recall that the Phoenix was also a member of the prehistoric Avengers. While its original avatar might be long since dead, the being itself has a vested interest in Avengers-related, world-changing events.
What is rather weird about this development, though, is that it suggests Enter the Phoenix might erase a significant amount of Marvel’s previously established Phoenix lore that once framed the Phoenix as something that only the most talented of telepaths could ever hope to maintain without being utterly destroyed. Originally, the Phoenix’s existence was a testament to Jean Grey’s innate power, which in turn led to multiple writers over the years treating the Phoenix as a core element of Jean and her family’s story. Avengers vs. X-Men expanded on that aspect of the Phoenix’s characterization by making its presence the sort of thing that caught everyone’s attention and not just the X-Men’s, but there the Phoenix was still very much something meant to be understand in relation to mutants.
If Avengers #36 is any indication, Enter the Phoenix is going to put even more distance between the Phoenix and the characters that originally made it such an important element of Marvel’s mythos, and could end up creating new narrative possibilities for the Phoenix in the future. Or this could all be an elaborate plot to distract everyone from the chance that the Phoenix might just be trying to get back to its old redheaded ways without anyone noticing.
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