Movie Review: Dark Phoenix (2019)

Dark Phoenix is still playing in my local theater despite critics’ damning reviews. Honestly, it’s a passable film in a string of X-Men films from Fox that stand apart from Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) And is in line with the sort of superhero movies we see outside the MCU. It’s certainly better than X-Men: The Last Stand (2003). Sophie Turner is a welcome addition to the cast as Jean Grey, the titular character who becomes the Dark Phoenix after learning of deep betrayals from those she trusted. The cast of the soft X-Men reboot are back and giving good performances. So what’s got everyone so upset?

The film brings up some interesting moral questions regarding responsibility and discrimination too. Watching it made me want to go back and reread the full Dark Phoenix saga, and not just because of the inevitable differences between the movie and the comics. But, it also left me wondering why this adaptation fell flat. This is Jean Grey, one of the most powerful X-Men. She could have easily given Thanos a run for his money if she were in the MCU. So why does she seem so powerless?

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

Sophie Turner as Jean Grey aka Phoenix

So while it’s a decent send-off for Fox’s brand of X-Men, it’s also a movie that clearly suffered rewrites and tweaking in response to other Marvel films: check out this controversy here courtesy of The Film Theorists. It’s also not sure what to do with Jean once she has her power. Like Captain Marvel in the MCU, Jean spends a lot of time off-screen or troubled instead of taking control. But unlike Captain Marvel, she doesn’t get time or effort on the director’s part to illustrate what makes her tick. We know she’s angry, but we never get the full why. We know she has a mutant family in the X-Men, but we never see why her rage exists for everyone aside from Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). Turner does her best, as does Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique aka Raven, but this isn’t really a story about them: it’s about men reacting to them.

X-Men and X-Women

It’s a shame because Dark Phoenix is the most powerful of the group and a beloved character because of her inner conflict and strength, yet the movie ends up being more about Xavier coping with his failure than about Jean herself.

Interestingly, the movie is aware of this. Early, Raven calls attention to it after Jean risks her life on Xavier’s orders and by all accounts should have died:

“It’s funny. I can’t actually remember the last time you were the one risking something. And by the way, the women are always saving the men around here. You might wanna think about changing the name to X-Women.”

And she’s absolutely right. The movie framed Xavier in the worst possible way: an egotistical wealthy man full of privilege looking for young people to risk their lives to better his image. His claims that he made these decisions to protect his young charges smacks of infantalizing and appears self-motivated. Xavier only risks himself when the situation proves dire. As Magneto aka Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) says, “You’re always sorry, Charles. And there’s always a speech. But nobody cares.”

Agency and Power

This gets at the heart of the matter: Who here has agency? As I used to tell my students, agency is the ability to make choices for oneself. Characters stripped of agency often lack the ability to make meaningful decisions in their own lives, living instead at the whims of others. It’s what makes a character like Batman so intriguing: his wealth, education, family reputation, connections, and training give him a great deal of agency which he in turn uses in every capacity for Gotham City’s benefit. He makes mistakes, but they’re his mistakes to make.

In Dark Phoenix, Jean lacks this same freedom. She’s subjected to a force she doesn’t understand after going on a space mission against her better judgment. She lacks awareness of her own past and therefore cannot make informed decisions about her present. Instead, Xavier uses his own agency (wealth, connections, privilege, prestige, education) to subdue her ability to make choices. He, in short, strips her of agency. So when she lashes out, when she is swayed by aliens, even when she sacrifices herself at the end, all of it is dictated by the decisions Xavier made to meddle with her perception of reality and the longstanding consequences for her mental stability.

Women deprived of agency? That’s a classic critique, going all the way back to include Jane Eyre and a plethora of other Victorian fiction. But it holds true here. Furthermore, Raven is refrigerated for calling Xavier on it. She defends Jean, tries to help her, and Jean lashes out, accidentally impaling mystique and killing her. It’s a shocking scene because of how powerful we know mystique is, but also because it’s a death that only serves to depower two women in order to increase the angst and character development for Charles Xavier. In short, it’s the definition of what Gail Simone famously called refrigerating: depowering a female character and making her suffer as a way of inciting plot for the sake protagonist. TV Tropes explains it this way:

“This character has a familial or romantic relationship with a protagonist, which allows creators to derive heart-wrenching sorrow from her death.

Simone, herself a comic book author, cane to this conclusion in the late 90s much to her dismay: “When I realized that it was actually harder to list major female heroes who HADN’T been sliced up somehow, I felt that I might be on to something a bit … well, creepy.” Mystique dies to motivate characters against Jean and separate her from her X-family.

Who Is The Hero?

Meanwhile, Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and Magneto team up to outright murder Jean while only yelling at or insulting Xavier, the man who manipulated her into this situation. Even Storm (Alexandra Shipp) implies Jean is a monster that should be hunted down: “Sometimes, you want to believe that people are something that they are not. By the time you realize who they are, it’s too late.” Storm, oddly, witnessed the accidental killing. This should apply to Xavier, not Jean. In claiming to be the unbiased, rational leader of the X-Men, he’s portrayed himself as beyond reproach. In trying to control everything and placate Jean with lies, he made things worse.

The problems with Dark Phoenix are many, but the biggest is that it fails to make Jean the star of her own story. I grew up with very few serious superhero movie attempts, so I’m grateful I got to see Dark Phoenix’s story, flawed as it is, on screen. Only time will tell whether Marvel takes a stab at the story again, or if Jean will even show up in the MCU at all. As a big fan of Jean Grey, I’ll likely still be using gifs and rewatching scenes from this movie. It has some nice visuals and dialogue moments. It’s honestly better than nothing. The actors do their best, but the odds weren’t in their favor.

My rating: 3/5

Selected Bibliography

Lindsey Romain. “Dark Phoenix Makes Jean Grey’s Story About The Men.”

Simone, Gail. “Women in Refrigerators.”

Elkind, George. “X-Men: Dark Phoenix Does Its X-Women Wrong.”

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