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How ‘Dark Phoenix’ Fails Its Female Cast — and Audience

Plus some other random thoughts about the latest X-Men adventure

Trusting soul that I am, I tend to believe that filmmakers have honorable intentions when trying to give their movies a more feminist worldview. In the wake of #MeToo and Time’s Up, male storytellers are doing their best to examine their own blind spots, question their biases and work harder to ensure that their female characters have added agency. That’s my hope, anyway, and it’s a sign of my possible naivety that I don’t see the shift that’s been happening over the last couple years as empty and cynical.

The problem, at least thus far, is that those attempts to appear woke have largely been lazy and cringe-inducing. Wanna show that your female character isn’t just a pretty face? Give her a love of science! Hungry to prove that your female superheroes are just as remarkable as their male counterparts? In Endgame, let the lady Avengers have a scene just involving them — one that lasts about 50 seconds in a three-hour movie. All of these narrative moments are well-meaning, acknowledging that something needs to be done to bring gender equality to Hollywood movies. And, sure, they’re baby steps, but maybe they’ll lead to more significant strides in the future. You have to start somewhere, don’t you?

But all my Pollyannaism runs into a brick wall when encountering Dark Phoenix, a supremely wannabe-woke superhero movie that fails its female protagonist and its female audience. But what’s fascinating is that the film itself is about how men misjudge, marginalize and discredit women — even when that man is the seemingly noble and heroic Professor Charles Xavier. A better movie could have done something insightful about that irony, but Dark Phoenix, largely made my men, blows it.

The film is based on a popular storyline in the X-Men comics, and it involves Jean Grey (played by Sophie Turner), who travels with her fellow mutants into outer space, where she confronts a malevolent energy source that infuses her with a power that starts to change her personality. Even more frightening, she becomes increasingly powerful — and because Jean can’t control these powers, she’s now a looming danger that Charles (James McAvoy) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) can’t contain. And so, they may have to destroy her before she destroys the planet.

From that plot description, you can see how Dark Phoenix might be more female-centric than previous X-Men movies — including 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which also dabbled in this Jean Grey storyline. But if it’s not clear, let writer-director Simon Kinberg spell it out for you. “To me any movie going forward should be a feminist movie,” he declared recently, later adding, “This movie is a reflection of the shift we are experiencing all around us, is a celebration of that.” To further burnish the film’s feminist credentials, the studio released this Dark Phoenix clip, which involves Mystique telling off Charles for not appreciating the female heroes around him:

This scene is at the heart of what’s well-intentioned but also misguided about Dark Phoenix. Yes, Mystique absolutely should call Charles out for his smug, condescending attitude. One of his core qualities is to be a nurturing mentor, taking in scared mutants and giving them a home at his School for Gifted Youngsters. When the world treats these people like freaks, Charles is there to be supportive and welcoming. But there’s also an undercurrent of superiority to his kindness — he thinks he knows what’s best for everybody else, and so, he treats them like children. In a sense, Dark Phoenix is about Charles’ discovery that he doesn’t always have the answers — and that he needs to stop coddling the mutants. Just because he rescued Jean as a girl, raising her as if she was his daughter, that doesn’t give him the right to expect her to be grateful to him.

Funny, then, that Dark Phoenix ends up sporting the same sort of patronizing attitude as Charles.

In the last few years, superhero films have embraced female protagonists more boldly than ever before. (Spare a thought for poor Halle Berry in Catwoman so many years ago.) But outside of Wonder Woman — which, it has to be pointed out, was directed by a woman, Petty Jenkins — these movies too often tend toward the “atta girl!” reflexive stance, celebrating their female characters’ proactive, ass-kicking tendencies by patting them on the head condescendingly.

Dark Phoenix too easily follows the formula, giving us a Jean who quickly becomes a symbol rather than a person. She represents lots of things — amorphous “female empowerment,” mostly — but as conceived in the film, she’s not a particularly interesting character. Essentially, she comes across in the same way as how women are often perceived by men who don’t understand them. Consider: Jean is temperamental and erratic, held hostage by powers that are consuming her and throwing her body out-of-whack. As a result, the men of Dark Phoenix are mostly just freaked out by her, afraid to get too close lest she explode at them. I kept waiting for the film to skewer the obvious chauvinist assumption the X-Men are making: You know how irrational chicks are. That moment, though, never arrives. In the end then, it’s bitterly ironic how much the mighty X-Men get all “Women be shopping!” as soon as they can’t control docile Jean.    

I don’t know if Kinberg is conscious of how that aspect of Dark Phoenix comes across — if he was a little more self-aware, it could have made for a terrifically dark joke about society’s ingrained sexism, even among superheroes who are otherwise laudable. That would have been a legitimately feminist stance, indicting his male characters — especially Charles — for being too hung up on their own bullshit to help Jean when she really needed them. Instead, we get the same ol’ blandly inspirational lip service concerning damaged female characters who find their inner power — spoiler alert, Jean discovers that her emotions aren’t her weakness, but her strength — that doesn’t really challenge the men’s attitudes toward her. Ultimately, Jean gets to be a completely toothless hero who saves the day without ever disrupting the status quo.

It doesn’t help that Chris Claremont, the writer who shepherded the Jean Grey comic books in 1980, was recently interviewed about conceiving of a compelling storyline for a female superhero. “At the time, women weren’t regarded as credible [in society],” he told The Stranger, “and oftentimes people found it scary how professional and competent they could be.” According to Claremont, the inspiration was to break Jean out of the stifling “girl-next-door, Marvel Girl” template. (“It wasn’t interesting anymore.”) And in the process, he helped create a complicated female hero that Hollywood still can’t crack.

“It’s not doing anything special to write an interesting woman character, if you know interesting women,” he said. Filmmakers like Kinberg surely know interesting women. But based on the evidence at theaters, they don’t have a clue how they think or who they are.

Here are three other takeaways from Dark Phoenix

#1. Sweet Jesus, enough with the traumatic-car-crash scenes.

Early in Dark Phoenix, a young Jean is sitting in the back of a car while her parents ride in the front. It’s a peaceful scene as the characters all aimlessly chitchat for a few moments while driving. So you know what that means: A devastating, probably fatal traffic car accident is about to occur. And sure enough, it does, setting in motion Jean’s realization that she has incredible, albeit unpredictable powers.

We have become conditioned to expect these traumatic scenes in movies. Off the top of my head, here’s a list of films that feature such a moment: Sea of Trees, Adaptation, Shazam!, Disturbia and the new Pete’s Dragon. The idea is always the same: We’re meant to be lulled by the coziness and then, bam, metal carnage erupts, creating a dark stain on the character’s psyche that will stay with them the rest of their days. The traumatic car crash has become the new “gratuitous rape scene” or “Bruce Wayne’s parents being shot by the Joker” Screenwriting 101 tool for making us feel bad for the main character. And I absolutely hate it.

The first reason I despise these scenes is their appalling sameness. Much like in horror movies when a jump-scare that turns out to be nothing — oh, thank goodness, it’s just a cat — leads to the real scare, the cinematic car crash always tries to make us think that nothing’s going to happen so that the actual accident can be far more jolting. I’ve become so trained to this dramatic device that I now basically hate every scene in a moving car — I just sit there bracing myself for imminent disaster, cringing until it happens or we safely cut to the next scene. This is a terrible way to watch movies.

The other reason these scenes are deplorable is their cheap emotional manipulation. Anyone who’s been in a car accident of any severity can tell you that it’s devastating. The loss of surety, the feeling of being out of control, the anxious anticipation of not knowing exactly where the car will end up as it spins… it’s all awful. I’ve been in a car crash that was nowhere near as terrifying as what’s depicted in Dark Phoenix, but I can still remember the feeling, and I don’t enjoy reliving it — especially in a mediocre superhero movie.  

#2. Jessica Chastain has a theory about her character that makes the movie approximately 15 percent better.

I have yet to mention that Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain plays a new character, an evil alien who’s on the hunt for Jean. Well, actually, the evil alien looks like an adult-sized Groot — it can shape-shift, you see, and when it lands on Earth, it assumes the form of the first human it encounters and kills, who’s played by Chastain. But Chastain had a wild idea that she floated in a recent interview: What if the character she’s playing is actually… Jessica Chastain?

“We were shooting that scene, I was meeting everybody and then the director, because I’m married to an Italian gentleman, very nice man, and [Kinberg] cast the guy who plays my husband in that scene as an Italian, he’s an Italian. It was just funny. I mean, I look like Jessica. Maybe it’s Jessica Chastain the actress.”

For the record, I don’t think her Dark Phoenix character is actually meant to be Jessica Chastain. But it would have been funny to watch her menacing the X-Men and think, “Wow, actual Zero Dark Thirty star Jessica Chastain has been turned into an alien and is trying to kill Magneto.”

But there’s a huge problem with Chastain’s made-up theory about her character. If it really had been a super-famous movie star who had become a murderous alien, lots of people in the world of Dark Phoenix would have made note of this. This, of course, is the “Julia Roberts in Ocean’s Twelve” rule, which brilliantly had the idea of letting her character Tess go in disguise at one point as Julia Roberts, a ruse that can’t miss because… well, she looks a lot like Julia Roberts.

So, sorry, Jessica — it’s a clever idea, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. There’s no way during any of Dark Phoenix’s big action scenes that one mutant wouldn’t have leaned over to his buddy and said, “Hey, doesn’t that alien look a lot like…?”

#3. Here’s the story of the emergency alarm that went off during the last 10 minutes of my screening.

I go to press screenings, sometimes at small screening rooms, sometimes at big movie theaters. But wherever I see a film, the idea is that it’s supposed to be an optimum viewing experience. (After all, the studios want us to like their movies.) Still, every once in a while, chaos reigns.

Take, for example, last week’s press screening at the AMC in Century City for Dark Phoenix. I already knew about 100 minutes into the film that I didn’t like it. But near the end, there’s a pretty epic action sequence on a speeding train involving helicopters, commandos, mutants and a whole lot of guns. It’s a really loud sequence, especially its repeated use of a piercing siren noise. But when the sequence quieted down, I noticed that the siren was still going on. What kind of weird sound design was this? That’s when my colleagues and I realized: The siren’s not coming from the movie, but from the theater.

So, we sat there, the movie still lifelessly playing on the screen, as this screeching siren wouldn’t stop. It’s a strange feeling to be in a public space where there’s an alarm going off but no indication about what you’re supposed to do. Should we stay in our seats? Should we leave? Is there an actual emergency? Is it a malfunction? And if it is a malfunction, when will the wailing stop? There are always security guards in press screenings to ensure that no one’s illegally filming the movie — but they just stood there, frozen. Nothing was happening, except for a howling alarm and a X-Men movie on the wall that we all were sorta kinda trying to watch.

Several painful minutes later, the alarm finally ceased. By that point, we’d gotten to the end of the movie. Charles Xavier was saying some hushed, mournful words about one of his fallen colleagues, but all we could hear was, “I shall always SCREECH!!!! WHOOP!!! SCREECH!! WHOOP!! her.”

Did all of this affect my feelings on Dark Phoenix? Oh, maybe. Mostly, it made me think about how loud most blockbusters are. My life wasn’t actually imperiled at Dark Phoenix, but maybe my hearing was.