Throughout decades of comics and films, The X-Men have become an important symbol for not only the LGBTQ+ community, but also the disabled. It’s a group of people that have mutated and changed beyond what’s normal, or have had certain events or experiences change them into what they are now. They band together to help make the world a better place and find a community. That’s a powerful message of acceptance and hope for communities that are oppressed. Both LGBTQ+ and disabled people can feel a modicum of acceptance, but ultimately their differences make them “other”. That can be devastating. Seeing heroes with the same struggles can be really empowering. Furthermore, it can help neurotypical/cis fans understand these other communities better.
Recently, the first full trailer for The Dark Phoenix was released. This follows the infamous tale of Jean Grey, a powerful mutant transformed into something far more dangerous. It’s one of the X-Men’s most popular and interesting story arcs.
But what’s more exciting is that if the trailer plays out like the scenes hint, this could possibly be one of the most important mental health allegory films in recent years. A mainstream, high-budget film having a story analogous to a disability struggle would be exactly what the stigmatized world of mental health needs.
Let’s give some context first.
Mental health conversations have made great strides in recent years. Certain disorders, namely Depression and Anxiety, have found a voice and acceptance on the internet. While they sometimes get glamorized (a completely different issue), at least they are talked about, aren’t shamed, and are an accepted part of life.
More “crazy” and less common disorders, though, still are heavily bogged down by stigma. For example, people with Bipolar Disorder or Schizophrenia are still often seen as volatile threats. Even if a person is medicated, stable, and doing well in their lives, there are a fair amount of people that see the disorder and recoil. These kinds of disorders are still too “other” and “dangerous” for people to see the humans underneath the brain chemistry imbalances. They’re just like someone with Diabetes. All of these conditions just means something wrong in a person’s body that needs regulation and medication. But people are still weird about brains being wrong, not just organs.
From what the Dark Phoenix trailer shows, this film could be a fantastic allegory for what people with more volatile mental disorders have to deal with.
The best place to start explaining this is by going through the trailer. On a serious mission, Jean has something traumatic happen to her that changes her mind (after all, she is a telepath). Suddenly, instead of just being a mutant, she has these fiery, dangerous abilities that she can’t control. Worse, it’s all tied to her powerful brain. This is very similar to what’s called “manifestation” in mental disorders, when the brain chemistry imbalance is triggered in someone and their symptoms start getting worse and worse.
Next, it shows a white-haired, mysterious woman (cast-list names her as “Smith”) who seems to know a lot about the Phoenix abilities. If she is who a lot of people are theorizing (a physical embodiment of the Phoenix Force that only Jean can see), this furthers the metaphor. There is something in her head leading her into darker places, giving her anxieties and uncertainties about her loved ones, warping her mind.
That’s what happens in Schizophrenia and Bipolar. The brain becomes uncommonly attached to dark, aggressive, or doubtful thoughts. While everyone has the errant “maybe they don’t really love me” ideas, unbalanced minds get stuck on those. Their head starts to spiral thinking about them, and eventually warps the perspective reality around a person. So those average thoughts change from a random thing to, say, as if it was a whole embodied person egging on those dark feelings, those fears. A whole entity and personality dedicated to attracting the worst parts of you.
That’s what Smith might just be to Jean.
And the trailer focuses on her friends and their reactions. Throughout, they seem to be debating on what they should do with her. Should they try to cure her? Can they find her? Can they save her? Is she even really Jean anymore? Or is she too dangerous to keep around?
This, while maybe to less of a “kill her” extreme, is exactly what loved ones of people with mental disorders go through. They don’t know what’s happening to the person they love and they’re afraid. Some people lash out in that situation, blaming the sick person. Other people simply aren’t equipped to deal with any of it. And some can try to save someone, but do it poorly, and get burned in the process. Ultimately, it seems this is exactly the problems the X-Men will face, trying to get Jean back from the dark power within her.
But what will really make or break this theory is the ending. And, of course, it also will prove if this would be an effective allegory or something more discomforting.
Hands down, if Jean Grey dies at the end of Dark Phoenix, that will be the most dangerous way to see this metaphor. While it could still be accurate (many mentally ill people take their lives), it’d be a tragic and even gruesome way to end an otherwise effective and possibly empowering allegory. After all, most all other X-Men properties have Jean quite literally die before the Phoenix Force takes her. Having her live through the experience and immediately go back to the X-Men, normal at first, changes the game a bit.
If they find a way to heal her of the Phoenix Force, say learn how to extract it, the allegory becomes its most moot. Mental health can’t be erased, not yet. Having these conditions is chronic, so it kind of ruins the metaphor. Also, it would be a bit anticlimactic for a film, so let’s just presume they wouldn’t do this (hopefully).
The ending I hope for, and the one that would be the most effective and powerful in this theorized scenario, is if Jean’s friends helped her find a way to regulate the Phoenix Force, maybe even at least destroy the Smith entity. The dangerous powers wouldn’t go away, but she’d have a better handle on controlling them and be able to learn to become the hero she once was. It would take time, effort, and maybe some bridges would be burned. But she’d find a way to manage, not just die or it disappears.
And that would be the ending that’s real for people with mental disorders. Watching a hero have feelings and experiences like that would be powerful, effective, and would go a long way towards normalizing mental health.
While I don’t know if I trust Hollywood to even notice the parallels they’ve made, not to mention handle them well, it would be amazing to see this kind of cultural progress in understanding the stories of the mental health community.
It’s a wild-shot, and it’s just a theory, but it makes me all the more excited for Dark Phoenix than I already was.
And wouldn’t it be great if young people dealing with mental disorders could see themselves in Jean Grey? Just like Wonder Woman did for young girls, it could make a huge difference for future generations of disordered humans.