Towards the beginning of Dark Phoenix, the film plays with the idea that the villain is the patriarchy. This thematic push isn’t well handled but, at this point, I at least gave the film some credit for trying something. Unfortunately, Dark Phoenix drops this (sadly) contemporary take on society and decides the the real evil is space aliens. Oh, and the patriarchy, that’s a system that will appropriate feminism-lite so as to maintain control. This may be tragically true, but it certainly shouldn’t be the political thrust of your narrative.
Due to a number of poor plotting decisions, a movie that has marketed itself as progressive actually feels like a tasteless step backwards. These elements include making most women disposable – despite their apparent power and influence (and, shockingly – on a closer read – perhaps because of this) – and making most men domineering and useless, yet continually victorious or given second chances (more on this later). Dark Phoenix wants to sell itself as X-Men for the #MeToo era and, in the end, this is pretty true – just coming from the opposite side. This film is yet more proof that diversity is necessary and that it can’t be tokenistic. A progressive message is not established by having one character jarringly bring up how the group should be ‘X-Women,’ it’s about being thoughtful about the stories we tell and making sure they come from the right people.
To explain how the plot of the film actually pushes the idea that feminist ideology is just a flag to fly to enforce the patriarchy would be to delve too far into spoilers (but, please, hit me up – it’s a conversation I’d love to have). Luckily the context of the film already makes the point for me. Here we have one of the writers of the reviled X-Men 3 having another go at telling the exact same story. Only this time… Well, they’ve let him direct as well. Because no matter how much the white males of Hollywood screw up, they will retain control and maintain their privilege. The result here is a poorly written screenplay that dabbles in territory so far from the writer’s lived experience that it can’t help but fall flat. I am a passionate supporter for more political, diverse and interesting mainstream cinema, but it needs to be authentic. And it needs to not just be marketing. X-Men: Dark Phoenix is proof for why things like ‘F-Rated‘ need to exist because without female writers, directors and general representation across the board, you get crap like this. You get an old white man’s view of the world in which a narrative about hapless men retaining power is presented as a victory for women. ‘Write what you know’ is often passed out as advice, but the truth is that it is natural, and that the men in suits behind this movie have seen their experience as the default experience for so long that this regressive logic can’t help but trickle down into their narratives.
And I don’t blame the brilliant women involved in this, because those in front of the camera are pretty great in roles where they are given very little. In fact, judged by performances alone, Dark Phoenix is good. The film has inherited an excellent cast who are great in their roles (helped by the fact that the source characters – Cyclops aside – are excellent) and its new additions are solid. Jessica Chastain’s entire plot line is awful and the film would be better without her but, it’s not that she is bad, the script is just terrible. It’s not just political issues either, the plotting and character development just sucks. A weighty arc is pushed into a single film with extra content chucked at it and this leaves no time for coherence or sense. It does make for a pretty pacy film – find the positives where you can – but it doesn’t make for a satisfying or enjoyable one. There are a couple of action sequences that are well handled, especially one on a train towards the end where mutants get to flex their powers in interesting ways. But there are also a bunch of uninspired sequences where characters just take turns to do their thing, and ones in which certain characters are so powerful, or unestablished, that it’s hard to be interested. There’s also a notable moment of cruelty from a character who manipulates a disabled character like a puppet. It’s horrifying to watch – and not in any kind of good way – and displays a level of absolute sadism that is at odds with the character and any idea the movie is supposedly pushing.