X-Men: The Psychology of Fans Going Dark Phoenix

Psychologist Dr. Andrea Letamendi considers how fans develop parasocial relationships with fictional characters, like X-Men's Dark Phoenix.

This article contains some mild Dark Phoenix spoilers.

X-Men has always been a property rich in allegorical potential. In part created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as a way to loosely comment on the civil rights movement of its era, the perennially evolving mutants have long been used by artists to reflect nearly every social change of the past 50 years—and that includes the X-Men movies too. Early films held a mirror to the struggle of coming out as LGBTQ at a time when gay marriage was still illegal and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was enforced, and Logan more recently showed big Americans with guns chasing Hispanic children across a border.

But these themes are not not just part of the franchise’s general interest to Dr. Andrea Letamendi, a clinical psychologist who has spent a decade studying the parasocial relationship between fandom and the fictional characters they adore; it’s a part of a larger discourse between fans and their fiction, one that allows audiences to better understand aspects of their own lives via kinship to characters whose heroic journeys now dominate popular culture. All of which could make the newest X-film, Dark Phoenix, the most potent yet since it presents a superhero who discovers her greatest battle is within… as it might also be for her fans.

“Historically, X-Men has given us so many important messages that are about sociopolitical movements and psychological meaning,” Letamendi says. “But in particular with Dark Phoenix, of course, when we think about powers that she can have—whether they’re telepathic powers or now these enhanced elevated levels of power with the Phoenix entity in her—this gives us an opportunity to extend our sense of how we feel about good and evil. It extends our sense of moral reasoning and it extends our understanding of our own limitations.”

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The possibility of fans emotionally investing in a character’s storyline, to the point where they’re experiencing a friend succumbing to their demons when Jean Grey fails to prevent the Phoenix Force emerging in violent ways, seems like a growing trend in overall geek culture. After all, fans’ disappointment about character developments in recent years involving the likes of Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones or Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi has led to online petitions demanding rewrites. It’s a psychological phenomenon—where fans who understand characters are fictional but still process their adversities and failings personally—that Letamendi has been fascinated by since well before becoming an Associate Director of Mental Health for Res Life at UCLA.

“I grew up a huge comic book fan; I watched Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men: The Animated Series, and I was deeply fascinated with Marvel and DC,” Letamendi says of her formative years before graduate school. After embarking on post-grad academic pursuits though, she initially felt compelled to toe the line about what was considered to be of serious intellectual value.

“I didn’t really see other models for professionals who made the two work, so as I became a professional, I rejected the identity of the fangirl,” Letamendi recalls. “I definitely struggled with some identity confusion and wondered how I would ever integrate some of those feelings about fictional narratives and my love for superheroes until I realized just how connected psychological science and fictional narrative can be.”

It was in her professional life that Letamendi has found a way to shine a light on the intersection of popular culture and psychological science, not least of all as pop culture increasingly becomes defined by characters in operatic settings that are practically worshipped by their fans. Which brings Letamendi and fans back to the allegorical heft of Dark Phoenix. Originally a 1980s comic book epic by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, “The Dark Phoenix Saga” took the then revolutionary step of turning a heroine into an ambiguous antagonist troubled as much by her own psychological vulnerabilities as the threat of aliens and cosmic power. It is a quality writer-director Simon Kinberg attempts to transfer to screen in Dark Phoenix, a film noticeably more intimate in its stakes with Sophie Turner’s superhero battling the effects of an alien entity within her who’s supercharged her natural mutant abilities to godlike levels.

Less about magic stones than a woman trying to control the pain of her own trauma, Dark Phoenix potentially allows fans to vicariously deal with their own internalized feelings while watching a character they may feel a strong connection with sort through her own pain.

read more: Explaining the X-Men Movie Timelines

Letamendi has been familiar with “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and Jean Grey’s plight for years now, having even recently revisited it before sharing a Comic-Con stage with Chris Claremont, and she thinks there is something uniquely compelling about Jean’s journey into darkness.

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“I think the best way that I can capture what happens to her is similar to what happens in the movie,” Letamendi explains, “which is this incredible cataclysmic event outside of her body actually impacts her psychology tremendously. What results from that is trying to integrate those different feelings, those external feelings into internal feelings, and trying to reconcile those new experiences into her personhood.” Also by extension, it forces audiences and fans who are invested in that journey to recontextualize their idea of Jean’s personhood, and perhaps their capacity to appreciate her failings as easily as her triumphs in previous movies.

“This is a really fascinating opportunity for us to understand our own limitations when it comes to forgiveness, when it comes to our understanding of failure, vulnerability, and I would say very real negative repercussions… If people are following her arc, and following X-Men, they may have developed a relationship with Jean Grey and with the characters around her. So, over time, I think with both the intensity of the relationship and the duration of the relationship, we do get a sense of false closeness to a fictional character, and she puts us in a very interesting position of whether we agree with her, whether we reject her, whether we are going to stand by her until the very end.”

read more: Best X-Men Movies Watch Order

Citing this as a perfect example of a parasocial dynamic between fan and character, Letamendi notes these are healthy non-delusional beliefs. Most fans understand Jean Grey is not a real person, and that they logically can have no real, terrestrial relationship with someone who does not exist, yet at the same time, they might feel an affinity toward her and are impacted by her decisions, particularly if fans feel her choices might be out of line with her ego and the characterization they believe her to have.

This element of being able to accept characters’ actions, and by extension how creators and writers craft them, is also an increasingly visible aspect of various fandoms’ parasocial relationships with fiction. Repeatedly comparing Jean to the recent fan outcry over Game of Thrones’ Mother of Dragons burning King’s Landing to the ground in the series finale, Letamendi introduces another clinical term to understanding the current conversation around fan culture: egosyntonic. A phrase referring to how one’s self-identity perceives behaviors, values, and feelings that are in harmony with the needs or goals of their ego, Letamendi extends that to how fans perceive fictional characters’ interactions, and whether they’re fundamentally aligned with the person we feel they are supposed to be.

“I can’t help but think about Game of Thrones and how audiences or fans felt that characters were not in-sync with their expectations and violated their characters’ personhood or identities,” Letamendi says. “As audience members and fans of these stories, our expectations are that these characters are consistent over time, especially over the course of several events… Naturally, we do measure the consistency of these characters throughout those changes, as well as through our own.” As a consequence, fans develop expectations for how characters need to act and how they need to be.

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read more: Why the Time Was Right to Redo Dark Phoenix

However, Letamendi seems open to considering that the modern age of social media and on demand culture is transforming what she considers a false sense of ownership fans feel for fictional characters.

“Through social media, we do have a sense of avid control, and there have been times when decisions are made by creative writers, and directions that films take, because the resounding zeitgeist is so powerful, and I think that that cannot be dismissed, that we do have an added element of decision-making that we didn’t have before. I do think that can be an interesting way that we’re now choosing our own adventure here, where we’re no longer passive observers. We now have this sense of being more proactive in the narratives… We get the sense that we can now direct and decide how these characters will change and evolve, because we now feel we are part of them, and we are meshed in the story.”

That can also include how fans evaluate Jean Grey’s choices of whether to embrace the Phoenix’s godly power, as well as reflect on if Simon Kinberg rightly did the auburn-haired mutant justice as her own definition of self evolves.

“What’s interesting with Jean Grey, because she does become the Dark Phoenix, we have this opportunity to think about what really creates personhood, what really creates personality, and at what point does she actually develop another identity?”

It’s a question fans will surely debate, along with everything else, when Dark Phoenix opens on Friday.

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David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.