This essay includes major spoilers for X-Men: Apocalypse.
Every few years, another X-Men film sees the light of day. Just over two years ago, I wrote about the issues with female erasure in the series, specifically taking issue with Days of Future Past. Last month, I finally saw X-Men: Apocalypse and was feeling vaguely optimistic about it. My optimism proved foolish though, and I was yet again betrayed by a film series that has no genuine interest in its female characters.
With the set photos of X-Men: Apocalypse that hit the web over the year prior to its release, audiences were exposed to some shots of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Jubilee (Lana Condor) hanging around and having fun, the latter decked out in her trademark outfit. This, along with all the colorful eighties outfits that seemed to fill the Internet (as well as the blue paint-job that rendered Oscar Isaac’s beautiful face unrecognizable), seemed to imply that Apocalypse, contrary to its title, would fall into relatively fun territory. More than that, it seemed as though some more female characters would be featured this time around. Arguably, there are a fair amount of women at the forefront of this movie: Jean, Jubilee, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Moira (Rose Byrne), Ororo/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and Psylocke (Olivia Munn). Of these women, one is left off-screen for the majority of the film, one is offered absolutely no backstory whatsoever, and the other four are dealt with in ways that should give audiences major déjà vu.
Let’s start with Jubilee: the one entirely left out of the action. Over the years, Jubilee has been a delightful character that not a lot of people take seriously. She is widely considered one of the worst mutants by many (though arguably a pretty strong one whose powers were never properly utilized, but that’s an essay for another day). In Apocalypse, Jubilee gets a couple of scenes with the youthful gang of Jean Grey, Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), but is left on the sidelines as the other three manage to sneak on board and get shit done in the final act. Why she’s left behind is never really addressed, and adding her to the young team trying to save the kidnapped old team – comprised of Raven, Moira, Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver – wouldn’t have made much of a difference. There were more scenes in which Jubilee was featured, where the kids go on a mall trip, have a good time, and her powers are shown, but these were all cut for time.
Then there’s Psylocke, another character that has struggled with being well-written in the X-Men comics. If you dare dive into her history, you’ll realize “problematic” and “convoluted” are two words that would describe it perfectly. Psylocke is introduced on screen as what one must assume to be an enforcer for Caliban, a mutant who can track other mutants and works in the black market. Her true powers are unlocked by En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), she does some fighting as his Horseman, and then runs away when things get tough. Of the four Horsemen of Apocalypse, she is offered the least characterization. We’ve spent multiple movies with Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Angel (Ben Hardy) is offered scenes in which his alcoholism and life of being forced into fighting are showcased as motivation, and Ororo we’ll discuss in a bit. Psylocke is given no reason for joining Apocalypse’s team and we’re left to assume that she’s either power-hungry or simply trying to survive in a shitty situation. To quote Angelica Jade Bastien in her review of the film, “None of these characters are all that interesting but Psylocke and Storm embody the ways this entire series has failed its female characters; Psylocke is such a one-dimensional villain she seems two steps away from twirling a mustache. [Bryan] Singer and [Simon] Kinberg are seemingly incapable of developing more than one female character at a time.”
Prior to discussing the last four women, I’d like to talk about two characters whose names I can’t remember to save my life and I don’t think Bryan Singer or any of the writers can either: Erik’s wife and daughter. Every time we step into an X-Men film, we know that Erik is going to 1) experience some kind event that will frustrate him into hating non-mutants, and 2) experience some minor change of heart until the next time something bad happens. The first time around, one of the biggest events to change his life was the Holocaust, something that this film painfully reminds us of when Apocalypse takes him out for a stroll at Auschwitz, which they promptly tear up. In Apocalypse, Erik has settled down with a wife and had a child, who is revealed to also be a mutant for all of thirty seconds before she’s murdered in cold blood in her mother’s arms. Yeah, that’s right. They’re dead. Wife and daughter exist for the sole purpose of making Erik have a bad day, kill a bunch of people, and return to his magnet-friendly ways until he has, you guessed it, a change of heart in the face of his old pals.
As quickly as the film stops caring about them, we’ll move right along to the non-mutant of the four remaining women: Moira MacTaggert. Back in First Class, Moira was a pretty cool lady (and I’m not just saying this because of my fondness for Rose Byrne) who did a lot of CIA stuff with Charles and Erik during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That is, of course, until Charles smooched her memories away and left her alone until Apocalypse, where after seeing her in Cairo on her own spy adventures, Charles awkwardly jokes that he’s spied on her multiple times with Cerebro. Once they meet up, it’s as though they’ve never met and he comfortably goes along with the lie, which the film plays for laughs often. By the grand finale, Charles returns her memories and all’s well that ends well.
There’s no reasonable telling-off. No scenes where Moira tries to process a lot of mixed emotions regarding the fact that her memory was completely manipulated by someone she admired. Nothing to imply that these two characters won’t go straight back into dating now that she has her memories back. To call the relationship between Moira and Charles uncomfortable is the understatement of the century, something made far more unsettling X-Men: Apocalypse being directed by Bryan Singer (who has been accused of drugging and taking advantage of underage men in the past). “I would have punched the shit out of him,” my friend said as the credits rolled and we discussed our frustrations with the film. That, however, would mean Moira’s entire involvement in the series wasn’t reliant on Charles’ manipulative love for her.
One of the other characters first introduced in Cairo is Ororo. When we’re introduced to her, Ororo’s weather powers are developing. She’s a pickpocket who has banded a ton of other youths together to lead and protect them. In her home, she has a poster of Raven, the woman she idolizes after what happens in Washington at the end of Days of Future Past. It’s tough to discuss one without the other so let’s talk about Raven for a moment. Where Mystique’s blue skin has always been something that the films use to fill her with shame about her true identity, it’s curious to see how Apocalypse has now made it into something representative of hope.
Of the four individuals in this film with blue skin, Apocalypse has no qualms with it, Kurt is partially persecuted because of it but seems comfortable in his skin when spending time with other mutants, Hank takes medication for the sake of hiding his true form, and Raven is ashamed of her true form. As with any X-Men story, characters with visible mutations are those who face the most challenges in how they see themselves, but Apocalypse doesn’t quite dive into Raven’s internal conflicts due to the sheer amount of characters and plot. She’s dedicated her life to being a loner and saving younger mutants from damnation before leaving them to their own devices. Rather than approach this by making herself a make-shift family of mutants (the Brotherhood that is so prominently featured in the comics), everything about her process in this film feels aimless and lacks any motivation other than residual feelings of discomfort toward the events of Days of Future Past.
This is, of course, in direct contrast to the way Ororo sees Raven and, presumably, has modeled herself after her. Ororo has created her own make-shift family of humans, a small community that she lives with in the city, living off the stuff they steal. This is a situation that is barely explored, as she immediately ditches them for the sake of being given stronger powers by way of Apocalypse and joins him on his journey to end humankind. It’s strange that a young woman who idolizes a mutant who would bring humans and mutants together would immediately betray her values until the film’s final act, but the film tries to save itself with just that. Her change-of-heart comes with a moment where, after she sees Mystique being strangled and tossed around like a rag doll, Ororo decides to contribute to the defeat of Apocalypse. In the scene, Mystique is barely useful, only serving as a meager distraction for the other mutants to band together. Oh, she’s also got a lot of scenes where Hank and her awkwardly interact because of his unrequited crush on her.
To make matters worse, the marketing for X-Men: Apocalypse heavily featured this moment of her being strangled. To quote Sasha James at The Mary Sue, “There’s an indulgent, gross, and exploitative quality to this decision, where the promotion of the film relies on images of abuse. With Mystique at the mercy of Apocalypse’s destructive will, this poster reinforces a narrative that commandeers and reduces women into a position of helplessness through violence.” (Fox recently apologized for this marketing.) Outside of Charles, she is the only character of the X-team who is completely incapacitated by Apocalypse (as the others continue to rise and kick ass while she is lifted off the floor and set aside so the real mutants can battle). This is basically it for both her and Ororo, whose contribution is a little lighting tossed into a fight of many vs. one.
This climax is where we reach the one, the only, Jean Grey. It’s interesting to note that, in every piece of art in which she has been featured, she’s always been a character who loses control of her powers. This case is no exception, with Jean’s nightmares tormenting her and her fellow students at night, as well as the impending doom that Apocalypse’s presence in the world spells for them. The film also slides comfortably back into something that has plagued Jean Grey in comics and film alike: the Phoenix Force. By no means is the Phoenix’s presence in this movie as explicit as in X-Men: The Last Stand, a film that Jean herself makes a dig at after walking out of Return of the Jedi and saying, “At least we can all agree the third one is always the worst.” It’s not subtle either though, with Jean rising into the sky with flames in the shape of a phoenix surrounding her and Apocalypse tellingly staring at her with recognition of a force far greater than his own as the climactic battle comes to an end. This is merely an indication that the worst has yet to come and that, regardless of Days of Future Past’s revisionism, history will repeat itself.
Aside from that, Jean’s narrative is tied to the men in her life, notably Charles and Scott. These are men who, for better or worse, try to love her and control her. Charles has already had two feature films to establish him as a well-rounded individual and, rather than focus on his role as a mentor for Jean here, the writers try to further humanize him and give him his own story and struggle with the film’s villain, in addition to Moira. In fact, the only reason that Jean taps into her Phoenix ability is because of Charles’ inability to manage Apocalypse in a mind-battle. This does place her in the role of true heroine, but nothing really sets us up for that great moment to feel satisfying.
Jean’s powers are just as highlighted as those of her male teammates, but she isn’t as well-introduced as they are. Kurt gets his stint with Raven for a short period of the film. Scott gets a mountain of screentime, giving him scenes at school, with his brother, and mourning the loss of his brother, all while falling for Jean at first sight. It’s also telling that Jean is presented as rude through Scott’s perspective until he sees how beautiful she is, at which point he rescinds his opinion of her and they bond. The only bit of history we get for Jean while at school is that she’s an outcast because of her telekinesis. But exterior history is implied in one scene that echoes the relationship between Jean and Wolverine/Logan (Hugh Jackman), in the scene where she calms him down telepathically and he stares at her with love in his eyes. This is a moment that recalls the relationship between these two characters when both are adults, but with Jean Grey as nothing but a teenager and Logan being much older, it’s just a plain uncomfortable instance of a woman being used to move along the man’s journey (which is, thankfully, not featured in this movie).
X-Men: Apocalypse’s issues aren’t limited to its female characters and many will argue that characterization is weak for every mutant, not just the women, and that’s a fair point. Could the younger women in this film have benefited from having the adults relegated to smaller roles while the teens, who make up the best teamwork-fueled segments of the movie, had their roles beefed up? Could the film have done better by having both Ororo and Psylocke as students and featured Jubilee in the main team as well, instead of making this a fight between two teams? Yes and yes. But it is also telling that of the four writers credited in this movie, none of them are women.
Where the X-Men comics have their own fair share of flaws, the Marvel comics universe has at least figured out a smart balance between male and female characters, with a few of them scoring their own titles, and even a title with an all-female X-team. To say that Marvel has made some great leaps in keeping comics diverse lately isn’t too much of a stretch and it would be nice to see films based on those comics follow suit. Rather than try to stuff as much as physically possible within two and a half hours, having three individual groups in focus with barely any moments for characters to shine without being tied down to those who came before them, Singer and co. need to take a page from what made First Class feel fresh and tight: out with the old, in with the new.
Jubilee, Ororo, Jean Grey, and Psylocke were all characters who could have received interesting treatment had they left Moira out entirely, as she contributes nothing to the narrative, and relegated Mystique (as well as Charles and Erik) to the mentor role that she may be slipping into for the upcoming film. If there is anything we can hope for, it’s that the next installment in this series will be doing exactly this: ushering in a new era of X-Men that cares about the diverse cast of characters it lazily introduced here for a generation that wants and needs better than what they’ve been given.