Dark Phoenix villainizes women, and that’s a good thing

How X-Men’s cast of dynamic women superheros is setting a new standard for major comic action films.

May 21, 2019
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“[The] X-Men comic books helped make me a feminist,” culture writer Michael Campochiaro realized in 2016. “Those comics were some of the first places that I saw women as leads who did not need to derive their agency from men.” The X-Men franchise has a rich history of putting determined, feisty, and powerful women front and centre. The Dark Phoenix, directed by Simon Kinberg, promises to continue in that trajectory.

Introducing feminist narratives and ideals into a genre that’s widely perceived as created for male audiences has been a hard-fought battle. From its advent in 1960s, to the incredible 1990s animated series, and onto the successful film adaptations of the last 20 years, the franchise has been on the frontlines of pushing for women-led superheros.

With The Dark Phoenix, Kinberg promises to live up to this legacy. “Some of the most powerful characters in this movie are women,” said Sophie Turner at WonderCon 2019. The actress, who is also the face of Game of Thrones’ brilliant and complex Sansa Stark, will star as the all-powerful mutant Jean Grey, as well as her alter ego, the Dark Phoenix herself. “The lead of the movie is a female and she’s not only the protagonist but also the antagonist. I loved the concept of that, so that really excited me.”

Turner isn’t alone in that excitement. The film revisits the storyline from X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), pointing the spotlight towards Jean this time as she struggles to contain her powers and turns into the Dark Phoenix, her villainous alter ego who threatens the whole world. While The Last Stand offered a one-sided Jean at the mercy of Magneto and other men around her, producer Hutch Parker created Dark Phoenix to provide Jean Grey with more narrative agency. “[Director] Simon [Kinberg]’s decision was to tell the Dark Phoenix story but really tell it as Jean’s story,” he explained in an interview. This is no small feat: A nuanced woman protagonist with power who is neither wholly good or wholly evil is hard to come by in the comic world, where we’re more used to women who are either evil temptresses or souped-up versions of the sexy girl-next-door.

And our newly complex Jean Gray is in good company among the X Men. The main characters of Dark Phoenix truly do constitute a terrific and terrifying girl gang: she’s joined by the undeniably fierce Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the fearless Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and an intriguing new alien shapeshifter played by Jessica Chastain. And though this time they may differ in their methods, they are united by one goal: Helping Jean through a rough patch of colossal proportions.

At this point, the X-Men lore features its fair share of badass women: with the unpredictable Emma Frost, the evasive Rogue, the spunky Jubilee, the mind-boggling Psylocke, and the untameable Kitty Pryde. Now, the X-Women make up a veritable army. And, while we’d like to see them stop fighting over the same men, this is also one of the first times that women on the silver screen get to combine their powers—scary!—instead of opposing each other in all areas.

“I really wanted to acknowledge the strength of the women in the comic…in the actresses that we have the central storyline demands it,” Kinberg told Entertainment Weekly. “It really is about her relationships with the females in the film, especially Jessica Chastain’s character. It’s really interesting to have those two characters be kind of the two biggest characters in the movie and both be female and so layered and so complex.”

A nuanced woman protagonist with power who is neither wholly good or wholly evil is hard to come by in the comic world.

The result is a film that prioritizes the relationships between women and in doing that, passes the Bechdel test with flying colours and in which Turner’s character, despite being incontestably the film’s protagonist, shares the spotlight with other nuanced women instead of fighting for it.

The Dark Phoenix is the kind of growth that fans have come to expect from X-Men. The franchise walks a fine line between pushing the boundaries of the genre of comic book blockbusters without alienating its huge fan base. It’s this intentional but careful approach to representation that makes X-Men capable of turning conversations driving the political zeitgeist (like female empowerment and holding men accountable for their actions)  into the accessible, enjoyable material that made Campochiaro and many others fall in line with feminism.

For The Dark Phoenix, X-Men has gone out of their way to make women, well, people, and that’s disappointingly revolutionary. By contributing to the genre’s now-growing number of complex, powerful women, X-Men is both packaging a version of feminism that is more palatable to the men who think of themselves as the target audience and creating a world that women, for once, can see themselves in.

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