Opinion: Death, rebirth, and redemption – Ashley digs deeper into ‘Dark Phoenix’

The Story Geeks blogger Ashley Pauls responds with an additional perspective to the same topic discussed in this week’s podcast – digging deeper into “Dark Phoenix.” Want to share your own take? Join the conversation in The Story Geeks Facebook group!

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Our pasts are a complex web of memories.

Some good, some bad. Some happy, some painful. Some we want to share and recollect, and others we’d prefer to keep hidden in the shadows forever.

If someone offered you an opportunity to select which memories to keep and which ones to discard, would you take it? Would you be better off if you could forget and move forward, unaware of what pieces of your past you’d left behind?

Charles Xavier doesn’t exactly give this choice to Jean Grey; rather, he makes the decision for her.

As a child, Jean accidentally kills her mother when she activates her mutant powers during a car ride. Hoping to save her from the trauma and darkness that could poison her future, Charles buries Jean’s memories and takes her to train as a member of the X-Men.

All seems to be well, until Jean goes on a mission to save a team of astronauts. She absorbs what appears to be a solar flare and then discovers her powers have been dramatically amplified. This kicks off a chain of events that lead Jean to inadvertently harm someone very close to her, seemingly locking her onto a very dark path.

While the latest X-Men film, “Dark Phoenix,” was not a hit in theaters (or praised by critics), I hope that fans don’t dismiss it too quickly. Regardless of how you feel about the execution of the concept, “Dark Phoenix” asks some powerful and challenging questions regarding atoning for past sins and the possibility of future redemption.

***Warning: Spoilers ahead!***

One of the key questions the characters must address in this film is whether or not Charles was justified in hiding the truth from Jean.

Obviously, his motives weren’t wrong; he wanted to save her from having to carry such a dark burden. He thought that by freeing her from this past, he could give her a better future.

However, trying to cover up the past never really works, because the truth always seems to reveal itself in the end. And Jean finding out later that Charles manipulated her mind has a far worse outcome than if he had helped young Jean work through her painful memories in a more open and honest way.

Instead, these repressed memories have an explosive effect when they’re finally revealed, causing Jean to flee from the X-Men and accidentally kill Raven. Jean feels the need to keep hiding, and decides that she’s too far gone for redemption and might as well commit to this path.

Character development or fridging?

Speaking of Raven’s death… This moment is a key catalyst in “Dark Phoenix,” but does it work as a plot twist or is it really just fridging?

“Fridging” is defined as killing, depowering, or otherwise harming a female character in a story for the sake of male character development.

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with killing off characters in a story (it literally drives the narrative in shows like “Game of Thrones”). This type of event can challenge characters and lead to some meaningful storytelling.

However, fridging can be a problem in fiction because for a long time, female characters often were treated as objects or side characters without much agency. As a female fan, it’s really frustrating to watch an older movie and see women pushed to the sidelines. Female characters also should have a chance to be fully fleshed-out and play an active role in the story.

I personally don’t see Raven’s death as fridging in this movie (Black Widow’s death in “Endgame” actually feels more like fridging to me). While Erik and Hank do want to seek revenge for Raven’s death, this story is primarily about Jean.

When Jean accidentally kills Raven, she feels so much grief and guilt. I didn’t feel that Raven’s death was belittled or wasted; it made sense within the story.

The Phoenix rises…

After spending the movie struggling with the darkness inside her, Jean does find redemption, by (apparently) sacrificing herself to defeat the villains. She becomes the Phoenix and then disappears in a burst of fire and light.

Of course, at the end of the film we do see a Phoenix shape burning across the sky, so we’re led to believe that Jean may not truly be gone.

I love the Phoenix metaphor so much, and it’s one I’ve thought about often in relation to my own life. In this movie Jean reaches a point where she’s so broken down and consumed by the darkness, that there seems to be no hope. And yet, by letting go of her anger and making peace with her mistakes, the past burns away and she is reborn as a new creature, with a fresh start and an opportunity to reshape her destiny.

I’ve gotten to points in my life where I felt like I’d hit bottom; I was discouraged, burned out, and exhausted. And yet, beyond that period of darkness, I emerged as someone stronger and more determined. I could start over fresh, and I didn’t have to let past disappointments define me.

I really wish we’d gotten to see more of Jean’s journey in the X-Men franchise before the slate will be wiped clean by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, I wish “Dark Phoenix” had been expanded and split into two movies, with a third movie featuring a redeemed Jean.

I feel like I might be in the minority, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m really not excited about the X-Men joining the MCU. Sure, the X-Men franchise has had its highs and lows over the years, but at least for me, the highs (like “Logan,” “First Class,” and “Days of Future Past”) were really high.

We’ve had some great performances (since this is the last entry in The Story Geeks’ X-Men series, I’ve got to sneak in one more shout-out to Michael Fassbender as Magneto!). These movies have also played with some really fascinating themes, and I loved that this franchise had its own unique tone, separate from the MCU and the DCEU. I love the MCU, but it’s also nice to have some films that feel entirely different. I don’t want to lose what makes the X-Men characters special.

Although I’m sad that we may not see these actors in these roles again, I’m thankful for what we got, even if sometimes it was flawed. Perhaps not all fans will agree, but I think we could have gotten a far worse coda than “Dark Phoenix.” And maybe someday, in some other form, the Phoenix will rise again.