Dark Phoenix isn't simply about corruption by unimaginable cosmic power, and the rise and fall of Jean Grey. There's a subtext to the character's struggle in the upcoming X-Men sequel that's difficult to miss.
"It feels like a release whenever she kind of embraces that Phoenix power, it’s almost like a meditative state that she goes into and keeping that Phoenix power in is the hardest thing for her And that’s the struggle really," said Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner, who debuted as Jean Grey in 2016's X-Men: Apocalypse. "But being able to just kind of embrace that and be Phoenix and let it out is the best feeling in the world for her. It’s like a drug. So that’s why it’s so difficult for her.”
Dissociative Identity Disorder and schizophrenia have received the most attention in the lead-up to Dark Phoenix’s June premiere. Turner and writer/director Simon Kinberg studied both conditions in preparation for the film, and the mystery surrounding Jessica Chastain’s character is rooted in whether she's an alien or a hallucinatory manifestation of the Phoenix Force. However, the cosmic entity feels allegorical to heroin or alcohol, which can take over the lives of users and those around them.
Jean’s connection to the Phoenix Force gives her nearly unlimited power, and when she uses it, as Turner pointed out, it feels like a drug. Fans of "The Dark Phoenix Saga" comic book storyline, or anyone who’s seen the film's trailers, know there’s disastrous fallout from Jean’s exhibition of her powers, most notably the death of Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique. By all indications, her loss splits the X-Men and Magneto’s Brotherhood into two sides – one that wishes to redeem Jean and return her to her former self, and the other that wants to eliminate the threat she represents.
When asked by CBR at WonderCon Anaheim how the concept of addiction informed her characterization of Jean, Turner spoke directly to that kind of fallout. "It was more to do with how addiction can affect the family and the people around that person and whether they choose to stay or whether they choose to leave," she said. "That was kind of something that we grounded the family relationship in.”
Alexandra Shipp echoed those sentiments when she discussed how confounding Jean’s behavior is, and how the X-Men are torn when it comes to protecting humanity and dealing with their family. "I don’t think anyone knows how to deal with Dark Phoenix," the Storm actress explained. "I don’t think Professor X does, I don’t think any of our characters do, we’re all kind of grasping at straws trying to figure out how to protect people, but also to protect our sister.”
While the Dark Phoenix story lends itself particularly well to that kind of metaphor already, Kinberg and producer Hutch Parker absolutely tackled the subject of addiction and mental health with a lot of intention.
"We talked a lot going into this about Simon’s desire to ground the story and treat the issues that these characters were confronting in a really real way," Parker said. "And one of the metaphors for somebody being inhabited by something was addiction and mental illness and the challenge it puts everybody through in terms of how do you now … how do you deal with that person. Do you turn away from them, do you try to save them? What is the right step? And the truth is the answer’s sort of unknowable.”
That the X-Men don’t know what the right move is also adds dimension to the idea that the crew begins the movie in an incredibly assured place. They’re beloved heroes, and what look to be pop culture icons in the manner of, well, the X-Men. It’s very meta, until one of their own becomes a major threat. Much of this film is, rightly, about figuring out loyalty and conviction when every choice feels untenable. The terrible part -- and what promises to make Dark Phoenix the superhero genre’s first real, permanent tragedy – is that Jean is going through the same thing, and looks to be fighting a losing battle.
“I’ve certainly had experience being around people that struggle with mental health issues,” Kinberg asserted. “I’ve been around people that have taken their own lives that I cared a lot about. And what I’ve seen in all of those cases is the heartbreaking tragic struggle that a person goes through with their own psyche. And the Dark Phoenix story is very much about that tragic struggle of a character that we love, that we’ve come to love from the comics and from the movies struggling with her own psyche because in this case, she’s being in this case inhabited by a cosmic force.”
Written and directed by Simon Kinberg, Dark Phoenix stars James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters and Jessica Chastain. The film is scheduled to be released on June 7.