Mystique is now a female antihero we can root for

After seeing X-Men: Days of Future Past, I’m happy to report that my earlier fears were mostly unfounded. Bryan Singer apparently did learn a few things about directing action movies in the past decade, and for the first time, he managed to make an X-Men film that’s colorful, fun, and emotionally engaging.

Sure, Days of Future Past suffers from a few dud jokes and poorly thought-out plot points, and putting Wolverine into Shadowcat’s role really dragged things down*. But overall, it has much more of the feel of X-Men: First Class than it does Singer’s previous efforts.

[*And not for the usual fanboy “faithfulness to the source material” reasons, either. Kitty Pryde is just a more likable character overall than Wolverine. It continues to irk me that this franchise made one of the best casting decisions ever in the genre by hiring Ellen Page, and then gave her nothing to do. Imagine her delivering that “so you were always an asshole” line to Magneto. That’s cute and funny, whereas with Wolverine, the response is “you’re one to talk.” Plus, she probably wouldn’t have cold-cocked Beast for no reason.]

But by far, the best part of the movie was Raven Darkholme, AKA Mystique. And not just because she was played by Jennifer Lawrence in nothing but body paint, though that was certainly a plus. I love what Matthew Vaughn started with the character in First Class, and those seeds he planted really pay off in this film.

Mystique is now a female antihero we can root for
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Raven Darkholme is now essentially the heart and soul of the X-Men franchise, a walking thesis statement for what the X-Men represent. Her character comes from her inner conflict between the two extremes offered by Professor X and Magneto. She’s neither as compassionate and naive as Charles, nor as vengeful and proactive as Erik.

In the last film, she started on one side of the fence and ended on another. In this film, she’s hovering somewhere between, and must decide who she is and where she stands. And those conflicted feelings, and the uncertainty of how to live in the world, and how we perceive others and ourselves, those are the things that the X-Men have always been about.

What I love about who Raven has become is that, in her own way, she’s ultimately the most correct and level-headed person in the movie. Charles has always had his heart in the right place, but his idealism has a tendency to make him naive. Erik thinks of himself as a realist, and often is, but his vengeful bitterness usually tips him toward needless violence. Raven is the balance between the two.

She’s not as wide-eyed as Charles and not as destructive as Erik. She doesn’t want revenge on humanity, and she doesn’t want their friendship. She just wants to be left in peace with her own kind. She wants to be happy and proud of who she is, free from the judgment and persecution of others. She doesn’t go after Trask because she wants a war on humanity—she only wants justice for the friends he killed.

Mystique is now a female antihero we can root for

That of course, is also her weakness. She’s (willfully) small-minded. She doesn’t care about the bigger picture. She doesn’t care about the long term consequences of killing Trask, or how the rest of the world will react. It isn’t about the rest of the world for her. This is about her and Trask. It’s about how he took her family from her and left her alone in a world of fear and superstition.

But while she may share Erik’s anger and some of his violent tendencies, she also takes from him an unshakable pride in herself as a mutant, something Charles lacks at this early point in his life. Young Charles Xavier, for all his good intentions, still seems somewhat self-conscious about being a mutant. He’s not as ashamed of it as Beast is; he openly identifies as a mutant and campaigns actively on behalf of his kind. It’s just he seems a bit apologetic in the way he goes about it.

Charles’ approach to dealing with humans and gaining their trust seems to be by assimilating into their culture as much as possible. He encourages Raven to conceal her true form, even in private, which unintentionally causes her to grow up feeling embarrassed by her appearance. It’s no wonder that Erik’s philosophy of being “mutant and proud” is so appealing to her in First Class. Erik, unlike Charles, encourages her to be herself, and to hell with the world if they can’t handle it. Charles never intended to make Raven ashamed of her mutanthood, but by his very nature as a telepath, he was too controlling.

Mystique is now a female antihero we can root for

And it’s in being torn between these two influences that Raven forms her own identity. In Days of Future Past, she’s neither Magneto’s loyal Girl Friday as we’ve typically seen her, nor is she the obedient little sister we saw at the beginning of First Class. She’s struck out on her own, leading her own band of mutant brethren for which she takes responsibility. She’s chosen to embrace Erik’s ideal of rejecting conformity to human society, but elects not to seek open conflict as he did, fighting only when directly threatened.

And in coming to those conclusions, Raven arguably becomes the star and central figure of this new X-Men franchise. Her actions are the driving force of the story, as is the question of “will Mystique kill Trask?” Sure, much of the plot involves the other characters trying to stop her from killing Trask, but ultimately, Mystique ends up not being the antagonist of the story, but rather her own worst enemy. The central conflict isn’t “can our heroes stop Mystique from killing Trask?” but rather, “can Mystique stop herself?” Her self-realization is the climax of the story.

To me, this new version of Mystique is not only one of the best female characters ever featured in a comic book movie, but one of the best female antiheroes, period. And let’s be honest: female antiheroes really need her help. Women in fiction are underrepresented as it is, but antiheroines in particular are a very put-upon group. It’s not that there aren’t many female antiheroes; in fact, there are plenty. They just don’t get treated quite the same as male antiheroes.

Male antiheroes are often glorified, even if they’re ultimately condemned for their actions. On TV, we love our Don Drapers, our Walter Whites, our Dexter Morgans, our Frank Underwoods, and our Spikes. In the movies, we love our Travis Bickles, Tyler Durdens, Alex DeLarges, Gordon Geckos, and Han Solos. It’s fun to be bad, and it’s even more fun to walk the line between good and evil, shirking conventional morality and simply doing whatever the fuck we please. Antiheroes have the freedom that we envy, even when we’re not supposed to.

Female antiheroes, on the other hand, are rarely envied or admired. More often than not, they’re despised. Male antiheroes are cool, charismatic, dangerous, and generally go out in a blaze of glory if and when they ever get their just desserts. Female antiheroes are usually seductive vamps who manipulate men into doing their dirty work like film-noir femme fatales. The fantasy of these characters isn’t being them, it’s being the kind of macho stud who can tame them. And unlike their male counterparts, femme fatales don’t go out in style. Instead, we’re usually meant to feel satisfaction when these women are punished for their wicked ways.

The only time female antiheroes are allowed any kind of happy ending or redemption is through affection and loyalty towards the male target of their seduction, AKA the Catwoman archetype. It doesn’t matter how justified your intentions might have been, these movies tell women, if you don’t stick by your man, you deserve no mercy.

The problem with this traditional approach to female antiheroes is the implication that, unlike men, women have no middle ground to their morality. Femme fatales, no matter how sympathetic their backstories are, are treated no differently by their narratives than an outright villainess. Women in movies must be completely virtuous, and anything less than that makes them the scum of the earth. It’s the screenwriter’s equivalent of a virgin/whore complex.

In light of all this, doesn’t Mystique feel like a rare breath of fresh air? A female antihero with her own goals and desires who’s not condemned by the narrative and isn’t defined solely by her relationship to a man? Who gets to be stylish and cool, sympathetic and tragic? I say, bring on that rumored Mystique movie. We need more of her.

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  • CaptainCalvinCat

    I liked Mystique since the first moment I saw her. I thought, she was quite cool and capable – the only thing, that annoyed me in X3 was, that our good Magneto said “Meh, now she’s a human… Let’s ignore her.”

    Plus – erm… in the Catwoman-Movie she ditched the man a.k.a. the cop.

    • mamba

      Oh I know, that scene drove me nuts too when Magneto rejects her. Especially since she was NOT human after the shot, but best described as a “depowered mutant” or “handicapped”.when they hit that scene, I knew the rest of the movie was going to be garbage refined.

      Would Magneto have rejected her in 10 seconds if she lost a leg? In any other movie, especially since this was a personal rescue mission and not a tactical one so he clearly cared for her, he would have spent the rest of the movie trying to restore her to her former glory and restore her abilities! She wasn’t transformed, she was injured from a mutant POV. In the comics when Storm lost her powers decades ago, she still was a mutant, hung around and even led the team! Calling her “not a mutant anymore” would have been silly. when Banshie injured his vocal cords for a while, was he “human”? No, he was a mutant who’s scream was silenced by an injury. Same deal with Mystique!

      This was Brian’s lazy writing to show Magneto’s predjuice towards baseline humans, and it was so awkwardly handled that it’s NO SHOCK AT ALL when Raven turns in evidence, who wouldn’t in that case? And Magneto knew better than anyone what she knew after years of being #2 to him, if he REALLY thought she was a human at that point, he would have killed her outright before even exiting the van to prevent exactly what everyone saw coming! again, Brian’s lazy plotting to blame here.

      I’m so glad she gets redeemed here in this movie, because she sure got shafted in X3!

      • Immortan Scott

        In the original script, him abandoning her was part of the plan. They were supposed to be shown standing next to each other at the end, but Rebecca Romijn was too busy.

    • greg

      what do you expect him to do bring her along to the dangerous battle without a means of defending herself

      • No. Instead, when he gives a speech to the mutant terror cell in the woods about how the government has a cure they are going to turn into a weapon, Magneto says this:
        “Look to this beautiful woman, a woman who has been my friend, my ally, my confidant for decades. She fought against mutant oppression, for my freedom and yours, and they marred her. They seek to destroy us, not with death, but with mutilation of who and what we are. They seek to cut us, for our radiance offends them. They want to make us bleed, because we are glorious….” (etc.)

        Rejecting her as part of the cause because she was a victim of what you are fighting against is abhorrent and stupid. It would be like slut shaming a rape victim. Or deriding and abandoning the family of someone who had been lynched.

        • greg

          One he is the villain of the story. The audience isn’t supposed to sympathize with him that much. Two he was willing to kill Rogue in the first movie, and brainwashed Charles into committing horrible atrocities in the second movie. This is not the worst thing he has done. Three he is not slut shaming her just making the observation that as a depowered mutant potentially for life, there was little she could do for the cause. Martyrdom only serves the purpose of getting people to join your side which he has already done

          • It’s not the worst thing he has done. It is the most out of character thing he has done. Remember, he invented a machine to turn humans into mutants, he clearly doesn’t think individuals are beyond saving or without use.

          • greg

            He was told that the machine killed the senator in the process of being turned into a mutant and disregarded the warning. He also attempted to kill the entire population with Charles as his weapon. It is completely within his character to sacrifice people for the greater good. It is also within his character to have his hatred of humanity to influence his actions above all else

  • So you mean she’s the same here as in the comics. Good.

  • edharris1178

    Good stuff, Josh. Makes me wonder where they’re going to go with the scene at the end with Wolverine in the next film.

  • TheRedWorm

    That climax was legitimately great. She saves the day not only for herself, but for all of mutant kind. Much respect.

  • Muthsarah

    Since I’ve never been a big comics reader, there’s one element of Mystique’s character/powers that I wish I knew something about, something that I think would be very relevant to understanding her dilemma in these movies:

    Is it at all difficult, physically, for her to assume a form? Could she assume her “Jennifer Lawrence” form and just stay that way forever, without having to worry about going back to blue if she gets distracted, or falls asleep, or gets an electric shock, or something like that? Is her resentment at being asked to fit in with human society purely because she doesn’t feel she should have to hide who she is when no one else has to (even though, of course, we all do at least a lil’ bit), or because assuming our forms is difficult for her for other reasons as well?

    • mamba

      According to cannon, it’s like flexing a muscle, though she’s quite good at it. She can hold a form for many hours, but eventually it’ll exhaust her and she’ll need to revert to form. If unconscious/knocked out, she reverts back to original form (like when Wolvie stabbed her in X-men 1 as she was imitating Storm)

      Plus in X-men First Class, Magneto proves to her that just by trying to assume a form, she’s concentrating on maintaining that form, so only operating at partial capacity and concentration. As expected…she’s distracted a little, like if you had to remember to blink exactly 4 times a second while walking, it wouldn’t be difficult, but you’d always be thinking about the blink count a little, taking away from just walking normally.

      • Muthsarah

        I wish these movies had more time to devote to the mutants’ experiences using their powers so that I understood this when I watched them. I remember thinking that, while she should in no way feel obligated to do so, like Charles and Erik, Raven could have totally passed as a human (many, actually) quite easily, so I didn’t understand why so much ado was being made about her feeling like such an outcast. This is actually one of the few things about the first X-Men film that I felt worked better: Rogue was unable to even touch anyone else, so she was a very sympathetic protagonist. Raven’s powers, though, seemed like nothing but plusses; like her biggest problem would be indecision – what or whom am I gonna look like today…? These movies always went out of their way to make her shapeshifting look effortless (including always showing her stone-faced before and after the transformation, and often showing her having fun doing it).

        It does add quite a bit to her character to know that there are pretty substantial limits to it, though. Can’t risk falling asleep near anyone else, can’t do anything too mentally-taxing, can’t get hurt (EDIT: Although I guess she can walk off a bullet if she has time to brace herself – I wonder how long she was in that hospital). I don’t recall that scene from First Class, but I suspect it just didn’t seem that important. Sure, it may have required some effort on her part, but it was only apparent in that one scene, and hey, she’s still young, she could still get better at it (like the first Mystique was).

        Thanks for fleshing her out a bit more for me :).

        • mamba

          You’re welcome, happy to inform!

          The scene in first class I was refering to was the one where she’s lifting the barbells in “blonde” form, and Erik gives her minor flack for even bothering. He then almost makes her drop the weights (as she loses concentration and shifts back to blue form) while telling her she’s wasting her time and concentration being “fake” (remember he truely loves the blue form as more beautiful, can’t say he’s wrong!)

          I thought the more “human” mutants were silly to be predjuiced against as well. I mean, I can see why nightcrawler or blue Beast would have issues in public, or even cyclops would get picked on a little, but all I could think when I saw Storm complaining about her mutantness is “Just don’t mess with the weather and wear a mask if you do and nobody could possibly know nor care!”. a lot of the mutants have that issue as you say, and it’s almost silly. If you could read minds and didn’t want people to know you can read minds, it’s not that hard to just, you know, not read minds or shut up about how you learned about what you find if you do.

          And yes, to her the shapeshifting is effortless, like you holding a wink. So after a while, sure you would have fun with it. In the comics she survived being shot in the chest firing-squad style by shifting her internal organs to her feet, making the entire shooting a flesh wound.

          Another funny part in the comics was she was being interrogated after a security camera caught her in blue form commiting a crime, and she said “You moron, I can change my apparence faster than you can change your mind, why the hell would I commit a crime looking like me?” and then literally in the time it took her to say that sentence, assumed the form of everyone in the room with every word being spoken by a different person. (she was secured to a chair at the time)

          She’s a facinating character, and this article nailed it perfectly, she’s not necessarily good nor evil, but really pissed off at the injustice against her (and her kind) and is more than capable of fighting back so she does. Like she said best in X2 when Nightcrawler asks “why don’t you just go as human always?” and she stoically replied, “because I shouldn’t HAVE to”. she probably COULD fake it easially enough, just like today every black person could apply white makeup every day before leaving the house to avoid racism, but as she said, people shouldn’t HAVE to hide who they are.

          …and given that hiding who they are is the literal nature of her powers, it just makes her personality more fascinating.

          • The idea that you can “pass” as a normal human is another problem. The idea that you are not only squelching your appearance (like Beast would have to) but you have to put a lid on your personal potential and abilities is abhorrent.

            Imagine as a smart person, having to pretend to be dumb so a government robot doesn’t come to your home to lobotomize you. Imagine being athletic, and you have to pretend to be clumsy so a mob doesn’t try to crush your legs with a sledge hammer because they think you are being uppity (the use of racially offensive language is intended to illicit a parallel).

            Nightcrawler asks Raven why she doesn’t just look normal all the time in “X2”. And she gives the best answer ever, “Because i shouldn’t have to.”

          • Muthsarah

            These are valid points, and I didn’t say that Raven wasn’t sympathetic by how her mutant powers manifest themselves. I’m just saying that Rogue was far more so, and thus made for an even more effective “outcast” protagonist. With Raven, it still felt like having her powers could be fun, and it looked easy enough how she managed them.

  • greg

    what about black widow

  • starofjustice

    Interpretations of her like that have been around since at least the Evolution TV show.

    • Wizkamridr

      Or in Japan for the past 40 years in their tv shows and manga.

  • Not to digress too much from the topic, but your paragraph of male anti-heroes has more examples of villain-protagonists than anti-heroes. An anti-hero does heroic things, but with questionable methodology, which is what mystique is doing in here, as you mentioned, she is trying to stop a massive hate crime by a mad scientist who does human experimentation and builds killer robots, but she does this with assassination and will inevitably provoke a harsh response. Black Widow is also a good example of this, as is Maria Hill (whatever undeserved scorn she gets). Its almost like Marvel has a laundry list of good characters that would work wonders for pop culture with a wider audience.

    A villain protagonist does awful things, but since they are the view point character they are seen as more sympathetic (Walter White is the poster for this). Nothing he does is justified by his cancer, and he admits as much in the series final. He murders, steals, deals drugs, and lies because he finds it exciting, and by virtue of being a dead man walking he fears no consequence to his person. There is a lot of bleed on this topic, but just because you follow a character’s story, and see their point of view does not make them a good person, which is the qualifying trait to be a hero.

  • RandomThoughts

    I assume you’re speaking of female anti-heroes in the comic adaptation realm because the type of female character that you speak of being very unique is actually quite abundant on TV and film today.

  • Magdalen
    • JD

      wow Teri Garr from Young Frankenstein