The Dark Phoenix Problem: How recent blockbusters failed their most powerful women

Powerful women in fantasy and sci-fi should have shoulders to stand on, not gravestones.
DF-06600_R – Sophie Turner stars as Jean Grey in Twentieth Century Fox’s DARK PHOENIX. Photo Credit: Doane Gregory.
DF-06600_R – Sophie Turner stars as Jean Grey in Twentieth Century Fox’s DARK PHOENIX. Photo Credit: Doane Gregory. /

My earliest steps into fandom were inspired by powerful female characters. There was Hermione, Leia, Arwen, Eowyn, Sabriel, Lirael, Princess Zelda, and Yuna. In adulthood, I continue to be inspired by female characters both old and new: Lyra, Katara, Toph, Korra, Onyesonwu, Binti, Essun, and others. These characters have taught me as much about fairy tales, literature, and life as any male character. They've taught me that good can triumph over evil and that heroes find ways not just to overcome obstacles, but to survive and rule justly. They've taught me about hope and hard-earned happily-ever-afters.

So I was troubled when I encountered the idea of "the Dark Phoenix Problem," the recent trend of blockbuster-sized fantasy stories turning their most powerful female characters into insane or rage-filled revenge monsters, and then killing them (credit to Dan Selcke, writer and editor here at, for the observation and name).

The Dark Phoenix Problem is a reference to an X-Men story arc in which Jean Grey, a powerful mutant and member of the X-Men, is possessed by a destructive power called Phoenix that, simply put, turns her into a villain. That arc first came out in comic form in 1980, but it served as the basis for the 2019 movie X-Men: Dark Phoenix. Jean Grey, however, isn’t the only female character we’ve seen empowered and villainized in recent history. In 2019, we watched Daenerys Targaryen turn into the Mad Queen on Game of Thrones, burning down the city of King's Landing in the final season and shortly thereafter getting killed by Jon Snow. And from 2021-2022, we watched Wanda Maximoff become the Scarlet Witch, a terrifying villain who went on an interdimensional rampage in Doctor Who and the Multiverse of Madness before sacrificing herself.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones /

The trope of “the overpowered woman” and the notion that a woman can only be the most powerful person in the room if she is perceived to be unstable (usually because she’s seemingly insane, possessed, or "overly emotional") has existed for a long time. And because I’ve had a pulse for the past half-decade, I was aware of the discontent around Daenerys, Jean, and Wanda’s narrative treatment: Despite being beloved characters, they turn into villains and then die. There are bones to pick with each of their stories; consider these articles covering Daenerys, Jean, and Wanda, respectively.

There’s nothing wrong with a good, complex, tragic character. A great essay by Emily Zemler argues that the Dark Phoenix Problem isn't a problem at all because we need more depictions of angry women fighting against the people and systems that cause their suffering. But before anyone starts drawing lines from the Scarlet Witch to Lady Macbeth, consider this:

In the span of just three years — from the GoT finale in 2019 to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness in 2022 — Daenerys, Jean, and Wanda all rose to prominence as headlining characters of not just blockbuster-sized franchises, but cultural phenomena. In addition to their prominence, the characters themselves had two important things in common beyond their gender: All three women were the most powerful people in their worlds, and they became the leading focus of stories that were not otherwise women-centric.

Now, they have something else in common: They’re dead. (Okay, technically Jean Grey “evolve[s] beyond this world” at the end of Dark Phoenix, but if that’s not a euphemism for “dead,” then I don’t know what is.)

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in Marvel Studios' DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved. /

Moving beyond the Dark Phoenix

I remember learning in high school algebra that two points make a line, but three points confirm it. The frustrating demises of Daenerys, Jean, and Wanda is a line pointing back to a long history of misogyny. This trio of characters seemed poised to defy that history, and the time seemed ripe for it (if long overdue). Zemler argues why 2019 and its surrounding years were particularly fertile ground for depictions of angry female heroes, but the moment could have moved beyond catharsis to inspiration. The angry, magical, super-powered women we cheered for could have triumphed. They could have lived. And they should have.

The Dark Phoenix Problem doesn’t just highlight the unfortunate outcome of a few female characters: It represents a missed opportunity in cinematic history. I can’t help but wonder if we’ll look back on that moment in time and say, “We were so close, but still so far.” Or worse, maybe we won’t look back at all.

Hopefully, the line that points backward can also point forwards. There are women of great power whose cinematic stories remain incomplete: Carol Danvers from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ciri and Yennefer from The Witcher), Rey and Ahsoka from Star Wars, and more. Even Jean and Wanda continue to live on in comics and on TV (and I’m sure will one day return to the silver screen). Readers of A Song of Ice and Fire still hold out hope Daenerys’ fate may be different in the yet-to-be-released novels. Hopefully, writers, directors, producers — decision-makers at every level — will realize we want powerful women to live. We need them to.

I’ve always been drawn to fantasy and sci-fi stories because of the hope they bring, the way they imagine healing in a broken world. That doesn’t mean genre stories don’t grapple with difficult truths, but the stories I come back to are the ones that light the way through the darkness. Daenerys, Jean, and Wanda's stories are all sitting on my television, ready for me to stream at a moment’s notice. But what hope do they offer except that next time we’ll do better?

There’s always an opportunity to get it right with the next character, but future powerful women of fantasy and sci-fi should have shoulders to stand on, not gravestones. Our stories can and should tell those powerful women, We want you here. We want you to survive so you can light our way forward.

All 5 Mad Max movies, including Furiosa, ranked worst to best. All 5 Mad Max movies, including Furiosa, ranked worst to best. dark. Next

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