I laughed at a lot of weird things during Dark Phoenix, the latest and most disappointing instalment in the rebooted X-Men franchise, but only one scene made me physically cringe.
Let me set the mood: the X-Men have just returned from a very dangerous mission to rescue stranded U.S. astronauts in space. Something goes wrong, and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) ends up absorbing a hazardous energy source that should have been strong enough to kill her. Instead, she returns to her friends, alive, and by all appearances, better than ever. But no matter how many times she assures her fellow costumed heroes that she feels “good,” they’re not convinced. This leads Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) to confront her surrogate brother, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), about his cavalier attitude towards putting mutant lives in danger for his own personal and political ends.
She has a valid point. Charles is indeed taking bigger and bigger risks with lives that are not his to toy with, an idea that gets hammered home even further when we find out what role he’s played in suppressing Jean’s powers. This conversation is essentially getting at the crux of the conflict within the movie. But Raven’s dialogue ends with a throwaway line that completely neuters her argument.
“By the way, the women are always saving the men around here,” she says flippantly. “You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women.”
Writer and director Simon Kinberg probably expected rousing girl power cheers for that line. Instead, it was met with eyeballs rolling into their sockets, and groans of discomfort. You can watch it in full below.
The fact that the studio has been using this very clip as a way to promote the film before its release highlights the problem faced by major studios: they don’t know what women want. Fortunately, some movies do get it right, and it’s worth examining where and why that disconnect takes place.
A moment like the one above comes from the deep-seated assumption that superhero franchises are really for men and that in this woke era there needs to be a gratuitous moment to pander to the women in the room. Women can cheer for their hero without thinking too much about how ill-used they are throughout the film, and men can rest assured that they’re watching a feminist film. Everybody’s happy, right?
Except we’re not because, as Indiewire’s Kate Erbland writes, those moments don’t feel organic to the characters or the story. They’re there for show, and they feel incredibly condescending — and it’s a growing trend. Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame recently featured a similar moment, in which the franchise’s women rallied together in a high-profile during a battle. It didn’t bother me as much at the time – I was under that movie’s spell in a way I wasn’t during Dark Phoenix — but the more I think about it, the more it irks me. (Especially in light of the film’s treatment of Black Widow, but that’s a whole other story.)
It would be easy to chalk this up to these films having mostly male directors. But even Captain Marvel (co-written by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who wrote Dark Phoenix with Geneva Robertson-Dworet), featured some heavy-handed THIS IS A WOMAN MOVIE moments. It’s almost as if the genre sees this as a way to compensate for its treatment of women in the past. But in many cases — not so much in Captain Marvel, which I think is genuinely earnest — it feels like a token gesture. A better approach would be to genuinely take care in crafting real, well-rounded women characters with intriguing arcs, who aren’t just there to advance a man’s plot.
It isn’t just a superhero problem, either. The new trend of gender-flipped blockbusters, like Ocean’s 8 and The Hustle, to name a few, also leans on this crutch. Rather than reinvent the story and characters, those films instead focus on reminding viewers that “look, we’ve got women now! Isn’t this girl power?”
There are ways to have women take centre stage without spelling out. Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, gave us an entire first sequence in a woman-warrior dominated island paradise. It was powerful and moving, and not once did I roll my eyes. By grounding Diana’s story in a world where she never questioned her ability to be the best, the film surrendered the need to keep justifying it throughout. In fact, Jenkins has remained adamant about her film not being considered “a woman movie” just because it has a female protagonist. "A movie about a woman doesn't make it a 'woman' movie," she said in 2017. "Wonder Woman was about being a hero."
More recently, Julia Hart’s critically-acclaimed indie Fast Color gave the superhero tale a fresh spin, centering on a Black matriarchy during a climate emergency. Its most powerful scene was entirely visual. Protagonist Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) stood in front of a wall covered with family photos of the women who have come before her, transmitting their extraordinary abilities through the generations.
Likewise, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart is an unquestionably feminine and inclusive take on a story that’s long been dominated by white, heterosexual men. But you never feel as if Beanie Feldstein or Kaitlin Dever’s characters are yelling their feminism at you — it’s conveyed through the story (two high-achieving young women wanting to have a memorable high school party experience), and the careful way it’s put together (the female gaze is everywhere from the clothes to the poignantly awkward sexual encounters). The fact that neither of these movies got the kind of box-office turn-out that’s almost a given for a film like Dark Phoenix makes it even more urgent for studios to take note. The messaging that’s getting out is not necessarily the best one out there.
And there's Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, which took the male coming-of-age tale and, rather than simply gender flip it, owned that narrative in a new way.
It’s not just a modern, or indie, phenomenon. Take The Matrix, which weaved in a powerful commentary on gender into its plot and symbolism, and featured an interesting, and physically strong leading woman (Carrie Ann Moss’ Trinity), without beating the point into our heads.
If phase one involves getting more women behind the camera (I wish Dark Phoenix had gotten that chance), phase two is letting female-centric storylines develop organically, without these kinds of showy, spelled-out-in-lights feminist rallying cries. The only woman who can handle that kind of neon is Wonder Woman. And she’s busy saving the world and gearing up for her sequel.