Warning: This post contains spoilers for the entire plot of Dark Phoenix.
In X-Men lore, the Dark Phoenix saga is one of the premier mutant storylines, about a woman named Jean Grey and the insurmountable power that’s accidentally foisted upon her. It’s a story loaded with symbolism; about female rage and mental illness, and how isolating and punishing they can be. Sophie Turner, who plays Jean Grey in the latest X-Men movie, even immersed herself in mental health studies to prepare for the role. Unfortunately, the film itself didn’t allow much room for Turner to play with those concepts, because, as a final product, it’s less about Jean than about the men in her path of destruction. It’s one of many ways the film fails not only Jean, but all of its female characters.
It’s a shame that a movie all about the perils of female otherism is more focused on characters like Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan). Jean gets more screentime, but Charles gets the interiority. Ultimately, due to the fast-forward nature of the film—which cycles through the comic plot in minutes, instead of over dozens of installments—Jean’s own personal dilemmas are regulated to murky plot points. We see, for instance, that she’s responsible for the death of her mother in a fatal car crash and for her father’s all-encompassing grief. This is knowledge she assumes after obtaining her Phoenix powers in space, and it drives her over the brink. But we spend no time in her head, no time understanding why this revelation—which we can assume she, in part, already knows—is such a personal devastation, given her placement in the Xavier School and her found-family of mutants. The film puts no work into examining the sideways nature of Jean’s post-Phoenix psyche. Instead, she just… shows up to places and is angry, hurts people, and leaves. Aside from an opening and closing narration, we barely hear from her at all.
Instead, it’s Charles Xavier who gets the meaty storyline. He’s the one who wrestles with his role in Jean’s villainous development. He’s the one with the most fascinating arc. In the fringe of the main action, we see him grappling with his stardom as an American patriot; his role as leader of the X-Men has made him buddies with the president, his face plastered in newspapers and magazines. But his brush with fame comes at a cost. He’s nearing a breakdown, and we see this in his wavering speech and his turn to the bottle. He’s fraying at the seams, and it’s the most touching bit in the film.
But it shouldn’t be. Not that Charles doesn’t deserve a fascinating arc, but it should, at the very least, be of equal weight to Jean’s. But while Charles laments his failures to Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) or is scolded by Raven “Mystique” Darkhölme (Jennifer Lawrence), the bulk of Jean’s dissolution is kept offscreen. Yes, she runs off to an isolated Magneto, but she’s never able to express the true depths of her rage. It’s clear that writer/director Simon Kinberg doesn’t have either the patience or the chops to go deep into female psychology. One has to wonder why men continue to tell this story, but then shy away from doing the hard work of digging into duality of feminine power.
Unfortunately, Dark Phoenix‘s woman problem extends beyond just Jean Grey, which further illustrates this point. Raven is also reduced to nothing but a nagging side piece, yelling at Charles for ignoring his students, and eventually dying at Jean’s hands; something that is maybe intended to motivate Jean’s storyline, but fails in that aspect. Instead, her death moves Charles to action, and can be categorized as another instance of what Gail Simone refers to as “fridging,” or, a woman dying to motivate a man’s arc. (Raven also gets the movie’s worst line, when she says the mutants should be called the “X-Women” on account of how much saving the girls do; it’s well-intentioned, but comes off goofy and lazy.)
And then you have Jessica Chastain as the film’s main villain, a D’bari shapeshifter whose planet was destroyed by the power that now lives inside Jean. Chastain was the most obvious victim of the film’s now-legendary reshoot; she’s barely there until the muddy final act, and though her character gets named onscreen, it’s almost impossible to catch. (According to the credits, her name is “Vuk.”) It’s a shame, because in theory, Vuk is a great foil for Jean. She’s a woman who’s also familiar with the devastating nature of unknowable anger. She’s also watched it annihilate and consume. But the two barely get screentime together before Vuk starts vying for Jean’s powers, something that’s in step with her plan from the beginning, but which still feels weirdly tacked on amid edits and a lack of development. Vuk is barely given a second thought—is barely even given a name—so it’s hard to care much about how this all shakes out by the time the finale comes around.
Speaking of the finale, it fits itself in a similar spot as this year’s Captain Marvel, another cosmic female superhero film where the fate of the world hinges on a woman’s ability to control her emotions. In the case of Captain Marvel, the plot mechanic works because there’s a movie’s worth of Carol Danvers’ personal confrontations with pain, and plenty of time spent in her head mining the depths of those emotions. (It helps that Captain Marvel was also written and directed by actual women.) When Jean Grey says her emotions make her special, it falls completely flat. What emotions, and when did we see them?
Jean falls victim to the same story problems another popular Marvel character did: Black Widow, whose role in the MCU was almost always in service to men, and who ultimately died for them. At least Jean got her own film before her death, but they’re both endemic of a genre that wants to tell their female stories without much of an effort. The creators need to try harder, or hire more diversely behind the scenes, if they want these stories to ring true. And they need to find a way to balance characters like Charles Xavier with characters like Jean Grey, so the former doesn’t unravel the potency of the latter. Because of that imbalance, among other storytelling and acting problems, Dark Phoenix is destined to fade back into the ashes, where her story should stay until someone better equipped comes along to tell it.
Images: 20th Century Fox, Marvel