Dark Phoenix Is Rising — But Can The X-Men Do A Powerful Woman's Story Justice?

Photo: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
The Dark Phoenix has risen...again.
20th Century Fox dropped a trailer for its latest X-Men movie this week: Dark Phoenix, an adaptation of Marvel’s classic Dark Phoenix Saga led by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner as Jean Grey.
The Dark Phoenix Saga, which is widely recognized as one of the most popular and influential comic series ever printed, was the culmination of Marvel’s retcon of the Jean Grey character. When Jean was first introduced in the X-Men series in 1963 as a telekinetic, she was one of the least powerful figures in the Marvel canon. Over the next decade, the character was given telepathic abilities, a larger role in the series, and eventually became the host of the Phoenix Force, a cosmic being with the ability to manipulate pure energy. As one with the Phoenix, Jean’s role was completely flipped: she was now one of the most powerful figures in the universe, let alone the X-Men.
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But eventually, the Phoenix was corrupted. As Jean grew more powerful, she was targeted by outside forces wanting to use her for their own gain. In the comics, she is seduced and manipulated by the supervillain Mastermind; in Dark Phoenix, it looks like Jessica Chastain is pulling the strings as a potential new character.
This is 20th Century Fox’s second try at adapting the Dark Phoenix Saga after 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. (Dark Phoenix, it should be noted, is written and directed by Simon Kinberg, who also co-wrote The Last Stand.) However, after a delayed release and a new trailer, some are concerned over how the film might fail to hash out the nuances of the story.
Jean is an all-powerful entity, but she is also a young woman. The premise of the Dark Phoenix Saga is rich for exploring a plethora of issues that non-superpowered women face, too: abuse and gaslighting, mental illness, inferiority complex. It could give Jean the space to be a powerful woman with difficult emotions, the space to be a woman whose anger and pain and sadness are not considered a weakness, but human. Early skepticism about Dark Phoenix, even in 280 characters, gets at the very real concern that the film will instead simply gloss over these issues, chalking them up as female hysteria and delivering a very dangerous warning about repressing a woman’s power and voice.
Dark Phoenix is also an opportunity for the X-Men to reckon with Jean’s role in their ragtag family — which has often been on the sidelines. But the X-Men films don’t have the best track record in spotlighting Jean’s point of view. There’s Professor Charles Xavier, who encouraged Jean to suppress her powers due to the potential danger they posed, and her love interest Scott Summers (Cyclops), who often tries to swoop in and save the day. Jean is introduced from the vantage point of characters such as Wolverine, who she begs to kill her when her powers get out of control in The Last Stand, or the super-villain Apocalypse, who considers Jean more as a godlike conduit of power than an actual human being in X-Men: Apocalypse.
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Perhaps this is a side effect of having little to no women in the writers’ room, or maybe it’s due to an ultimately regressive attempt to preserve the spirit of the original material, which sometimes trades in dated gender dynamics. But either way: should this pattern continue, Dark Phoenix also runs the risk of telling Jean’s story from the point of view of the men in her life, further robbing her of her own agency.
Fan reaction to early marketing has been less than positive, with some wondering if the complex superheroine at the film’s centre will be reduced to tired tropes.
There’s no doubt there may be more than a little bit of Marvel fatigue mixed into early criticism of Dark Phoenix — a side effect of following the X-Men film franchise, which spans nearly 20 years now. But concern over Dark Phoenix’s portrayal of Jean Grey is also true to the nature of the source material itself. Comics have always been reactionary and timely and political; they have always served as thinly-veiled commentary on society at large. In 2019 — a charged era of social media, political activism, #MeToo, and Time’s Up — presenting a superpowered woman as a two-dimensional outline of a character would be outdated at best.
Dark Phoenix hits theatres on June 7, 2019.
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