There are a great many things that separate Dark Phoenix as a mediocre film. Its antagonists — shapeshifting space aliens led by Yuk (a bored Jessica Chastain) — are comically underdeveloped. Its screenplay — written by X-Men franchise veteran and Dark Phoenix director Simon Kinberg — seems to forget that audience favorite Quicksilver (Evan Peters) exists. Its finale — infamously reshot to avoid similarities to other superhero films — is a lifeless showdown on a dimly lit train.
But what makes Dark Phoenix most frustrating is its treatment of its protagonist. Earlier this year, Captain Marvel showed us the triumph in allowing a female hero to claim her emotions as one of her strengths; and while Dark Phoenix clearly attempts to convey the same theme in Jean Grey’s (Sophie Turner) grappling with her newfound power, it does so in a disappointingly clumsy and reductive fashion.
Dark Phoenix begins with a flashback: an eight year old Jean loses control of her powers, leading to her mother’s accidental death. We learn later that Jean’s father wanted nothing to do with her after this incident, so fellow mutant Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) adopted Jean and cared for her at his School for Gifted Youngsters.
But Jean has grown up knowing nothing of her father’s abandonment and thinking him to be dead, due to the fact that Charles forcibly repressed those traumatic memories using his telepathic powers — without Jean’s consent. It’s only after absorbing the Phoenix Force that those memories are jostled loose, and Jean can begin to reckon with her long-dormant emotions about her past.
If that story seems familiar, it’s because we saw it in March; Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers suffered a similar crisis of identity when her own male mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) felt it was his responsibility to erase her past. In Carol’s case, Yon-Rogg is the clear antagonist, and the completion of her arc arrives when she finally overcomes him — claiming her emotions, showcasing the full extent of her power, and, most importantly, condemning him for manipulating her identity and thinking he could control her. In the movie’s best line, Carol coolly explains to Yon-Rogg: “I have nothing to prove to you.”
Jean’s arc ends a little differently. At the climax of Dark Phoenix, Jean heroically saves her X-Family and finally learns how to gain control of the Phoenix power — but only after she forgives Charles for meddling with her brain. She knows he did it out of love, she says. Apparently “love” is now a synonym for “painfully misguided savior complex.”
Up until this point, everyone in Dark Phoenix — Raven, Hank, Jean herself — is rightfully angry at Charles for thinking he had the right to alter Jean’s memory and suppress her emotions. There’s a scene in which Charles forcibly enters Jean’s brain while she’s unconscious, causing the same discomfort among the audience — if not more — as Yuk’s later attempts to blatantly manipulate Jean and co-opt her identity. As if it wasn’t clear enough already, Charles, towards the film’s end, literally says: “I was the villain all along.”
But, instead of letting Charles sit with this colossal mistake, or watching Jean embrace her power through refuting her surrogate fathers’ oppressive protectiveness, we instead get the admission that Jean knows he did it because he loved her; we’re allowed to condone Charles’ actions.
This is why when Kinberg tries to hit us over the head with his intended theme at the film’s end, when Jean proudly proclaims, “my emotions make me strong” in retaliation to Yuk’s taunting, that it feels so hollow in comparison to the same message cropping up in Captain Marvel. Because Jean isn’t really conquering the real villain, the man who’s been suppressing her emotions all along and felt altering her brain was the same as protecting her. She’s forgiven him.
No matter how much it seems to imitate it, Dark Phoenix is a bitter letdown compared to Captain Marvel. Instead of showing how a female character can draw upon her emotions as a source of power, the film asks audiences to forgive Charles’s bafflingly out of character offenses, undercutting Jean’s already poorly developed arc in the process. Instead of a newer, more female-focused iteration of the X-Men, the film is laser-focused on the same male personalities. Instead of “I have nothing to prove to you,” there’s “I forgive you.”
Early on in the film, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) snaps at Charles: “The women are always saving the men around here. You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women.” It’s an unearned, clunky moment that perfectly encapsulates why Dark Phoenix fails. Hopefully one day there will be an X-Men movie that unironically earns that “X-Women” title — because Dark Phoenix doesn’t even come close.
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Dark Phoenix is in theaters now.