Mar 19, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.