Beloved as Marvel’s animated X-Men cartoon from the 1990s continues to be, we’ve long since looked back on the classic series and recognised how, in the grand scheme of things, traditionally powerful characters like Storm, Rogue, and Jean Grey were done few favours in terms of depicting them at the top of their games. Jean, in particular, was constantly exhausted — something we can all relate to right now.
It feels safe to assume that when the animated series first aired, Jean and the other X-Women’s penchant for fainting had less to do with any specific plot at hand, and more to do with the fact that it created excuses for male characters to catch them. With Jean’s Phoenix arc being such an established part of her Marvel Comics lore, her constantly falling out of the sky or passing out simply for using the tiniest bit of her powers always felt off in the animated series. But rewatching in 2021, it’s hard not to empathise with Jean and her constant exhaustion, especially given just what sort of madness she was dealing with at the time.
Though all Jean wants is some downtime, her date night with Cyclops in “Captive Hearts” is doubly marred by Wolverine’s decidedly overbearing advances, not to mention a surprise attack by the subterranean Morlock mutants who kidnap the unsuspecting couple. After a day in which she saves a group of humans, fights off a few Morlocks, understandably rebuffs Logan, and makes a long-distance psychic call to the X-mansion for backup, Jean more than earns her right to a few fainting spells.
“The Unstoppable Juggernaut”
Easy as it is to give Jean flack for sleeping on the job, it’s just as easy to forget how utterly unstoppable a force Cain Marko is usually depicted as being. In “The Unstoppable Juggernaut,” it takes the combined efforts of the X-Men to take the evil mutant down, but the bulk of the burden falls to Rogue and Jean — and their reactions are completely justified. After absorbing a portion of the Juggernaut’s power, Rogue flies off in a fit of unhinged screaming, presumably because she can’t handle the mystical energies that give Cain his powers. When Jean faints after finally getting at the man’s mind, it’s not because she’s being lazy or anything, it’s just that he’s the Juggernaut, and there weren’t any other psychics lending a hand at the time.
“Days of Future Past (Part 2 of 2)”
Something that’s actually sort of interesting about the animated series is how it generally frames the use of all psychic abilities as uniquely taxing among mutant gifts. While it’s easy enough for Xavier to project his thoughts across the planet with Cerebro’s assistance, telekinetically holding up massive chunks of buildings is well out of the scope of his powers. Jean, on the other hand, can do that just fine long enough for civilians to escape their deaths, which is really all anyone can ask for.
Though the animated series played a little fast and loose with the X-Men’s Externals lore, it did give Jean’s encounter with the “X-Ternal” a level of import, implying that the other woman was no mere mutant. In order to convey to the X-Ternal how she’d been deceived by a scheming woman seeking to ensnare Gambit, Jean formed a brief psychic connection with the X-Ternal that ended with her collapsing, wide-eyed, into Wolverine’s arms. One can only imagine what sorts of wildness might be lurking in the X-Ternal’s mind that prompted Jean to have a laydown, and we shouldn’t begrudge her for taking that space for herself.
“Time Fugitives (Part 2 of 2)”
At this point in her life, Jean should have understood the potential danger of receiving psychic feedback when scanning areas, but you can’t really fault her for being surprised at bumping up against and immediately shocked by Apocalypse’s mind in “Time Fugitives.” Aside from the fact that Jean had no idea who or what she was connecting to at that moment, Apocalypse is… Apocalypse, and mind-melding with him would be inadvisable for anyone.
“A Rogue’s Tale”
Though Rogue’s mental troubles weren’t necessarily Jean’s problem to get involved in, she lent a psychic hand in helping Rogue suppress Carol Danvers’ resurfacing psyche, which was threatening to take over her body. Given the nature of Carol and Rogue’s entanglement and the potential dangers there was in touching their interconnected minds, it’s little wonder that the ordeal left Jean wiped out back in the X-mansion where she’d been projecting herself into the battle.
“The Phoenix Saga – Part 1: Sacrifice”
Though Jean’s dizzy spells would eventually become associated with her manifesting the Phoenix Force in “The Phoenix Saga – Part 1: Sacrifice,” her first knockout comes by way of a strange gas that incapacitates the entire team. Not only is she one of the last people to succumb to the gas, she’s also one of the few people who has the sense to try to escape in a way that doesn’t involve a dangerous use of their powers that could have easily backfired and killed them all. However, later in the episode, she does properly lose consciousness after knocking out an entire crew of astronauts. Once she takes it upon herself to save the day by piloting the spacecraft as its burns up in Earth’s atmosphere, the episode closes out with her shrieking in pain as one of the first signs of You Know What showing up and giving Ms. Grey a whole new set of reasons to take a break.
“The Phoenix Saga, Part II: The Dark Shroud”
If you had recently simultaneously died while also being possessed by a cosmic entity and then resurrected yourself in a grand flash of light debuting your new name and costume, you, too, would probably want to go to sleep for a bit. Anticlimactic as the Phoenix’s arrival might have seemed in the moment, you could also look at it as Jean’s core self trying to stave off the Phoenix’s eventual turn to madness.
“The Phoenix Saga, Part III: The Cry of the Banshee”
It’s likely that an entire season of internal psychic battles between Jean and the Phoenix would have been too costly to put on TV, but these sorts of fits followed by naps got the point across all the same. Jean was dead tired.
“The Phoenix Saga, Part IV: The Starjammers”
Though Jean’s general troubles are what defines The Dark Phoenix Saga, her fits subside in the animated series once she begins to bond more with the being living within her and use its vast powers to her advantage. But the effort of using the Phoenix Force to transport a group of the X-Men deeper into space to save another group of their allies leaves her conked out all the same and in need of assistance.
“The Dark Phoenix, Part I: Dazzled”
By the end of The Dark Phoenix Saga, Jean’s naps were less about her and more about the Phoenix fully subsuming her personality and going on an interstellar rampage that left billions of people dead. At the beginning of the saga, though, Jean was still in the throes of her possession and trying to force the Phoenix out with little success. Out of all the times in Jean’s life where she prioritised lying down, few are as understandable as her Phoenix heel turn considering the effort she was exerting. Easy a target as Jean is for derision (some of it deserved), you’ve got to give her credit for always picking herself back up, eventually, even from death. Her whole resurrection bit’s mostly due to the Phoenix’s power, sure, but it’s nice to think that at least some of it is due to the fact that throughout her superheroic career, she never wasted any energy pretending she wasn’t on the brink of physical and mental exhaustion. Relatable.