‘Dark Phoenix’: A Coming-Of-Age Tale About Building a Better America
“Are you going to fix me?” asks 8-year-old Jean Grey, standing outside Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.
Then Professor Charles Xavier’s face hardens, and he very slowly rolls his wheelchair right up to Jean.
“I can’t fix you,” he says, staring her straight in the eyes, “because you’re not broken.”
Jean felt how many feel during their youth. With no concept of how confused and uncomfortable many people are in their bodies, it’s easy at that age to believe we’ve got problems and insecurities nobody else could possibly understand. And it requires patience from our guardians and mentors as we figure out how broken everyone else is.
That is, of course, the general story of Dark Phoenix, the latest film in the X-Men franchise. But the coolest part of the film isn’t the fact that it’s the franchise’s first attempt at a coming-of-age tale—it’s how Dark Phoenix wraps Jean’s journey into the tumultuous political climate surrounding her.
In other words: modern America.
By doing that, Dark Phoenix isn’t just about how a little girl growing into a woman—it’s about how society evolves and progresses for people of all stripes.
The Macro and the Micro
Movies, of course, explore both macro and micro environments. Macro is societal, and micro is personal.
“Societal” can take on many forms. It can be the dystopian future of The Hunger Games, or spring break in Spring Breakers, or the family dynamics of Inside Out. But those movies also explore the “personal”, which would be Katniss fighting for her family, or the spring breakers living out their youthful years to the fullest, or the emotions that monitor Riley each day.
But it’s much rarer to find a movie that finds a balance between the macro and micro—a movie that allows one to comment on the other and build upon it, creating a world where the environment not only affects the individual, but the individual has the power to reshape their environment.
Dark Phoenix does that by juxtaposing Jean’s personal journey with the mutants’ disenfranchised state in America.
Jean is adored by her friends when she has control over herself, but feared by them when her emotions get the best of her. Likewise, the X-Men are praised by the president when their powers are used to save astronauts, but shunned when those powers cause problems for humans.
This, in turn, makes Jean—who’s been nicknamed “Phoenix” by her classmates—a composite character for anybody who feels alone or abused in modern society. And that alienation can either come in the form of internal insecurities or external prejudices.
As a woman in her mid-20s, Jean is suffering through the kind of self-doubt any girl would at that age. But as a mutant—as an “other”—Jean (along with her fellow mutants) is experiencing something only somebody outside the dominant group would experience.
Building a Better America
It’s hard not to draw parallels to what’s happening today in America—to the sexism, the racism, the xenophobia many people feel percolating as tensions rise between different groups and political parties. Those external tensions will inevitably tear people down on a personal level, leading to the kind of pain and frustration Jean exhibits as someone still trying to figure out who she is.
Both the macro and micro of that situation displays just why so many people feel the need to fight for a better tomorrow: to feel welcome in society, and to feel free in their own bodies. That’s why Jean feels “broken”—and why Professor X has to ensure her she isn’t.
Professor X comes to represent the “old guard” while the first class of students at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters represents the future. Often, systems need to fail and fall apart for new ones to build in their place.
That kind of restructuring can happen on a micro level with groups and factions, but more importantly it can happen on a macro with entire nations and political systems. Eventually, we need to learn to empathize with and accept every single individual for who and what they are-every beautiful and every flawed thing about them.
And by promoting love, by trying to create empathy for his fellow mutants, Professor X became a martyr for trying to assimilate his race into modern society. He is one of the many peaceful leaders that is attacked and misunderstood at the time, but understood and embraced in the future. He might fail today, but the impression and influence he leaves on others can give rise to something much stronger.
And that’s where we get our title: Dark Phoenix. Jean is the Phoenix, but so is the system that resurrects in her place at the end of the movie. She’s painted as “dark” because we don’t understand her powers, but really she’s somebody figuring things out like anybody else.
That’s why Dark Phoenix isn’t just a coming-of-age tale about Jean—it’s a coming-of-age tale about America, which is always evolving and growing and maturing.
New systems often feel scary and intimidating at first. But when we open up and understand where people come from, we can build a better society, a better America.
Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.