SPOILERS follow for Avengers: Endgame and Dark Phoenix/
Every so often I’ll tweet something about feminism in a movie or TV show and inevitably some dude will slide into my mentions with an American flag emoji in his Twitter bio and 17 followers and tell me about how “FeMiNiSm iS DUmB” or whatever. And so there is a part of me, I will not lie, which is thoroughly amused when a major motion picture inserts some scene or some line to directly counteract what those dudes say on the Internet.
… or in Dark Phoenix, when Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven is fighting with her brother Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and complains to him about the disparities within their band of heroic mutants:
“The women are always saving the men around here. You might think about changing the name to X-Women.”
Look, did that moment make me cackle? Yes! Did that scene with Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, Danai Gurira’s Okoye, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Evangeline Lilly’s Janet van Dyne/Wasp, Gwyneth Patrow’s Pepper Potts, Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, Pom Klementieff’s Mantis, Letitia Wright’s Shuri, and Karen Gillan’s Nebula give a moment of visceral, fist-pumping satisfaction? Also yes! Eat it, shitty men of Twitter!
But it’s frustrating, too, that these are the moments we get. There was a lot of hubbub within the discourse about that Endgame scene, about how Marvel was seemingly patting themselves on the back when it took them decades to give a female character her first standalone film, and when in the same movie, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow sacrificed herself so Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye/Clint Barton could live. Necessary? Not so much! Sure, now we’re finally getting a Black Widow movie, but after how long?
And the same goes for the Dark Phoenix scene. Yes, the female X-Men possess a plethora of impressive powers that the most-recent films haven’t known quite what to do with.
In First Class, January Jones’s sole responsibility as Emma Frost seemed to be walking around in a corset. Zoë Kravitz’s Angel Salvadore was killed off. Days of Future Past brought back Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Famke Janssen, and Ellen Page from the original X-Men franchise, but did little with their characters, and Fan Bingbing’s Blink was also of little consequence. In Apocalypse, Rose Byrne’s CIA op Moira MacTaggert has her memory wiped, and she doesn’t interact much with the main plot. Olivia Munn’s Psylocke has some solid fighting scenes, but her character doesn’t do much else; Lana Candor’s Jubilee is there, I guess; and Alexandra Shipp’s Storm and Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey are introduced, but barely developed.
And so it goes that by the time we reach Dark Phoenix, and we’re supposed to be heavily invested in Jean Grey’s emotional arc, the bond isn’t there — and truly, Raven’s death? I was similarly unmoved, because Jennifer Lawrence has been checked out of this franchise for so long, and her performances within these films have been so phoned-in, that her much-wanted exit from it garnered in me only a shrug.
What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that these “Girl power!” moments are initially delightful but don’t hold up very well to scrutiny, not when we consider what else we know about these franchises. The Marvel Cinematic Universe took its sweet time giving us a female-focused story. The X-Men franchise has always been about McAvoy’s Charles and Michael Fassbender’s Erik/Magneto, and that’s fine because the actors are great as foils, but its female characters have always been shortchanged — so much so that even the Dark Phoenix storyline, one of the best from the comic books and the ’90s Saturday morning cartoon, lacks the necessary impact.
I love pissing off dudes on the Internet with the mere mention of the word feminism, but the Avengers women scene and Raven’s X-Women declaration would have more power if these film franchises didn’t make these moments seem like checking off boxes rather than putting in work. What we need next is to push past this lip service and an understanding of feminism solely about female visibility and deliver films that truly develop, explore, and complicate female characters. That will legitimately feel like feminism in action, and if you need an example of how to do it in a big-budget franchise film, please see Rian Johnson’s treatment of Rey. It’s not that hard.