‘Dark Phoenix’ Has a Pandering Girl Power Moment That Diminishes Its Most Progressive Quality

[Editor’s note: The following post contains minor spoilers for “Dark Phoenix.”]

“Avengers: Infinity War” and “Dark Phoenix” may not have a lot in common, but they do share one annoying proclivity: shoehorning in off-kilter moments meant to bolster the genre’s lackluster treatment of its female characters, with pandering shots and cheap lines that don’t have much to do with what’s actually happening on screen.

The Russo Brothers did it with “Avengers: Endgame,” in a head-scratching sequence that broke away from a key battle to show off the franchise’s many female heroes — some of whom only don’t even have any lines in the film — as they line up, charge forth, and look vaguely powerful while they do it.

Now, another superhero franchise is getting in on the action, as Simon Kinberg’s “Dark Phoenix” includes its own hammy jab about renaming the mutant team the “X-Women,” one that Fox has apparently been pleased with enough to release as its own standalone clip before the film even hits theaters.

The same issue this writer leveled at “Endgame” applies here: The scene “doesn’t add anything to the film as a whole, nor does it expand on the characters themselves, and their roles in earlier movies prove they have more to offer, even as the franchise has lagged when it comes to crafting films explicitly about its many female characters.” (You can watch the “Dark Phoenix” moment below.)

The clip pulls from a sequence that appears relatively early in the film, after the X-Men (X-People? X-Humans? X-Mutants?) have taken on a challenging, space-bound mission in which all of them — men and women — have worked toward a positive outcome. Still, as the mission reaches a critical moment, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) embarks on a daring task in hopes of salvaging both her team and the people they’ve been sent to save. It works, but she’s also hit with a powerful amount of energy that ultimately turns her into Dark Phoenix.

Jean has undoubtedly contributed a lot to the mission, but so has the rest of the team — and if there is one thing that X-Men movies have been able to consistently nail, it’s the importance of a team effort — but the effects of that weird energy have not emerged. And yet the incident is enough to push Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) to spout off to Dr. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) that “the women are always saving the men around here. You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women.”

It’s a scene that has little to do with the film as a whole, the scenes that have come before it, or even the very franchise it exists within. It’s a moment designed meant to illicit cheers from its audience, but so disconnected from the movie and the mood that at a Monday evening press screening, it was mostly met with groans.

And while “Dark Phoenix” as a whole has some serious problems — the film has been savaged by critics, and currently holds a 21 percent “Rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the lowest-rated film the franchise — it actually succeeds at building a story around women that doesn’t need to otherwise hit its audience over the head with yet more “Look! Women!” signifiers.

The film itself is female-centric in more constructive ways: It follows the arc of female superhero (Turner), who falls under the sway of a female villain (Jessica Chastain), and whose most defining act within the film involves another female superhero (Lawrence). That doesn’t stop weaker lines pointing to the way the film is “about” being a woman: At one point, Jean is admonished for letting her emotions control her, cribbing from a similar scene in “Captain Marvel” that also seemed needless. But it does shows how easy it can be to center female characters in the age of superhero supremacy.

So why are so many big-budget blockbusters unable to escape the pandering? In search of some perspective from female filmmakers — “Dark Phoenix” was both written and directed by Kinberg — IndieWire turned to rising horror filmmaker Roxanne Benjamin (“Body at Brighton Rock”). “Any scene or dialogue has to come from the motivation of the character to feel true, no matter what the subject,” she said. “If it doesn’t, the audience can sense it.”

And, yes, it’s cheap. Recalling the similar moment in “Avengers: Endgame,” Benjamin added, “The ‘Hey, look! Here’s all our girl characters fighting together! Look! Girls!’ moment was the biggest eye roll for me. It felt like [they] were doing so well not drawing attention to that and just having real female characters as part of the team. Why did you have to call attention to them and make it feel like they won a special pat on the head medal?”

“Dark Phoenix” is guilty of the same thing. The X-Men team, including its most visible female members like Raven, Jean, and Storm (Alexandra Shipp) have all just participated in a key mission. We’ve just seen them perform to the best of their abilities, using their mutant talents to save a bunch of innocent people and presumably avert a bigger disaster. There are, of course, more consequences to come for Jean and Raven, but that’s not in this scene and that’s not yet part of either character’s motivations. So why is it still in the movie? Future blockbusters, take note.

Fox releases “Dark Phoenix” in theaters on Friday, June 7.

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