Who Was 'Dark Phoenix' For?

The new 'X-Men' movie pays lip service to feminist ideals without committing to them.
Courtesy of Disney; Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
'Captain Marvel'; 'Dark Phoenix'

[This story contains spoilers for Dark Phoenix]

Stories are told for an audience. Implied in that is a certain specificity. Think of it like aiming at a target: you can’t hit the bull’s-eye unless you know where the bull’s-eye is. Over the weekend, Dark Phoenix's struggles show it didn't hit the target, and may not have known what the target was in the first place.

Hollywood filmmaking is in the midst of a crisis of audience at the moment. Since the earliest days of the studio system, there has always been something of a “default” target demographic. In the beginning, it was women — specifically middle-class white women, because they were seen as having the means and the time to go to the movies regularly, and also because winning over that particular audience was seen as key to gaining a certain legitimacy, in having moviegoing be considered a respectable, morally upright pastime.

But then, in the 1950s and 1960s as the studio system lost its dominance and the rise of television changed the media landscape, a shift took place. The default target audience started to look a lot more like a teenage boy. A straight, white teenage boy to be specific. Adventure, action, explosions. White male he-man leads. Women who don’t say much and often wear even less. Of course, there were a range of exceptions, but the underlying trend was there in terms of what genres came to prominence, what stars made the biggest bucks and the sort of roles they tended to play.

This default continues to at least some degree even today. But particularly in the past decade or so there’s been more and more pushback, more and more people demanding representation both on- and offscreen — more POC, more women, more members of the LGBTQIA+ community. In the past few years, it’s reached a point where even the biggest of franchises are clearly feeling the need to make — or at least attempt to make—certain baby steps in the vague general direction of these demands.

Regarding onscreen depictions of women specifically, 2019 has been something of a banner year, with a number of female-led major releases such as Captain Marvel and Dark Phoenix. However, looking at these two particular films, the number of similarities between them is astounding. In terms of storylines, it’s like someone took a plot synopsis of Captain Marvel, put it through a game of telephone and the result became Dark Phoenix. Both films feature young women in possession of great, otherworldly powers who have had certain memories hidden from them “for their own good,” who in a culminating moment, make a statement about how their emotions make them strong. To make matters even more eerily uncanny, this description nearly works for Alita: Battle Angel as well.

Considering these three films were all released within six months of each other and in development for years, it’s safe to say that we’re not dealing with copycat issues (Phoenix was initially supposed to open before Captain Marvel and Alita). Instead, it seems to speak to Hollywood having a rather uniform attitude toward how to approach female-led blockbusters in the current sociopolitical climate. In fact, even looking more widely, the biggest films of the past year show signs of a remarkably consistent attitude toward onscreen diversity and inclusion that, unfortunately, points to a very underwhelming cinematic future.

In attempting to address this issue, however, what films like Dark Phoenix represent is Hollywood falling into a particular kind of trap. Instead of developing a slate of films that prioritize a range of audiences, there’s a worrisome trend of films attempting to keep everyone happy at once. It’s an attitude that manifests in Dark Phoenix’s cringe-worthy “X-Women” exchange in which Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) crossly tells Professor X (James McAvoy) that he might want to change the superhero team’s name to “X-Women” since “the women are always saving the men around here” — a scene with minimal narrative relevance and a strong claim that isn’t really supported by the evidence presented in either the film or the X-Men franchise on the whole. Looking elsewhere, it’s the attitude present in the “she’s got help” and the none-so-subtle insertion of a minor, boldface, double-underlined gay character in Captain America’s post-Snap support group in Avengers: Endgame.

It’s the attitude generated by the fundamental idea that a film can check off audience demographics like items on a list — one hurrah “girl power” scene? At least one character of color among the good guys? An “exclusively gay” moment? (Remember that doozy from the live-action Beauty and the Beast?) — presumably by the logic that if you tick off enough boxes the angry feminists and PC police won’t come after you on Twitter.

You can take each particular example of this trend and break down why it’s underwhelming and even vaguely insulting to the audience it’s meant to target, but in spite of the huge range in specifics, the same problem always lurks underneath. Namely, that it’s a notion founded in the idea of compromise, and compromise and entertainment are fundamentally incompatible. On one hand, compromising is deciding that, when there is no way to make everybody happy, the best way of dealing with things is to make everybody equally sorta-kinda disappointed. On the other hand, entertainment, as the term indicates, is about entertaining people — making them happy.

It’s perhaps easiest to conceptualize things in terms of a soda fountain — at the very least, it’s thematically relevant. The biggest Hollywood movies have tended to be the exact same flavor of soda (though, as mentioned, they switched from root beer to cola 50 to 60-ish years ago). But audiences have begun demanding more variety — a wider range of flavors. And major franchises are overwhelming responding to this demand for a wider range of flavors by trying to mix all the different beverages together into one nondescript sugar-water catastrophe that absolutely no one wanted.

The reason this metaphor is particularly useful is that it also makes the better alternative quite self-evident — i.e., serve a selection of different sodas. Instead of prioritizing the same target demographic, switch it up. Because films do need a specific target. The best films are those that execute a clear and specific — or at the very least coherent — vision, and major franchise films are collective efforts involving hundreds or thousands of people. A film like Dark Phoenix has no clear vision, no clear message. It wants to throw feminists a bone with 15 seconds of “X-Women” commentary, but not alienate the kind of fanboys who would be upset if the film actually took something that could be considered a “daringly” feminist stance, such as making sexist power imbalances the crux of the film instead of the subject of a throwaway line. It wants to have it both ways and in doing so ends up in limbo, a place with no particular appeal to anybody.

Viewers are demanding more diverse and inclusive representation. But a single film will never be able to prioritize everyone equally in a way that will leave anyone feeling satisfied. Ultimately, it’s not about having each film check every box of an ever-expanding list — that would be a bleak future indeed — but about taking turns and switching things up.

The scant evidence available indicates that making blockbuster films that diverge from the white teenage male target demographic default does not result in the sky falling down. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, for instance, clearly prioritizes Black audiences. That meant a lot to a lot of Black viewers — and it didn’t mean that everybody else stayed at home, as the film’s impressive box office returns indicate.

And that is exactly what continuing to reach as wide an audience as possible while addressing demands for diversity and better representation should look like. It should be about letting different demographics be prioritized and catered to, about removing the notion of a default target demographic. There are many situations in which compromise is a winning strategy, but this is not one of them. Films that try to sort of appeal to absolutely everybody by giving this group a shout-out and that demographic a wink, and so on and so forth, are only doomed to leave everyone vaguely unsatisfied.