THE FEMINIST READING OF X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST IS KIND OF ABYSMAL

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*SOME MAJOR SPOILERS*

Okay that headline is maybe a little harsh, so I feel the need to first say a few things about why I think X-Men: Days of Future Past is overall pretty stupendous. On balance it is a very fun movie and even a progressive movie in many ways.

One of the amazing things about it is that the movie takes a hard look – like the best X-Men comics do month-to-month – at its place within the muddied continuity of the X-Men movie series. And thanks to the time travel component it’s able to take active in-story steps to clean up some messes leftover from previous movies. In essence it becomes a movie about the strange 14-year relationship between the film series and its devoted, sometimes browbeaten audience. When the happy ending comes we cheer because it feels hard earned; after years of wallowing in a sewer of bad movies made by artless goon directors and meddling studio executives, the franchise finally reemerges, like Wolverine in Uncanny X-Men #132, ready to start anew. “Okay Brett Ratner and Tom Rothman – you’ve taken yer best shot” the franchise might as well be saying. “Now it’s our turn.”

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In truth the Wolverine in the sewer thing is probably too much of a metaphor because the movie is actually much more explicit about all of this. Xavier straight up says to Mystique in X-Men: DoFP, “We’re being given a second chance to define who we are.” That goes for director Brian Singer too, who returns to the franchise after he set a high water mark with the first two X-Men movies and then went on to make a string of movies that were at best forgettable and at worst terrible. He clearly gets what this movie has to do for the franchise and for his own career. Bravely, he does not try to hide from or ignore the bad stuff. Throughout DoFP he makes a point to cut in scenes from all six of the other X-Men movies in brief flashbacks and mind-reading sequences, as if to say “all of this happened. Every bit of it. Even X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” There is something kind of beautiful, almost ritualistic about the way everything is addressed, accounted for, and exorcised over the course of the film.

It’s also a movie that, because of the overwhelming amount of returning cast members, effectively had only one significant role to cast: Sentinel creator Bolivar Trask. Singer and the other filmmakers chose to cast a phenomenal actor who happens to be of small stature. And in a brilliant bit of nonchalant progressivism that would be right up the X-Men’s alley, the actor’s stature is NOT ONCE remarked upon in the narrative; his size is not made a key aspect of the character, nor is it “shot around” or concealed in the framing of scenes. Has there ever been a major movie like this with a little person in its cast, where the actor’s size was not the point of the role at least partially? I guess I’m confused as to why this isn’t being shouted from the rooftops. Maybe it’s a testament to how far our culture has come. Or maybe people just really like Peter Dinklage.

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This is just scratching the surface, but there are clearly a lot of things that work well in X-Men: DoFP.

Alas, like all of these giant movies about properties audiences love deeply there are always many little things that can be complained about. Because there is so much going on in this movie, the expository scenes, for instance, are pretty clunky, like when out of nowhere future Xavier suddenly starts giving basically a PowerPoint presentation on the 1973 Paris Peace Accords. Even more egregious is the scene where Beast gives Wolverine an info dump on everything that’s happened to young Xavier over the past ten years in voiceover while we see young Xavier shooting up AND flashing back to when he and Mystique were kids – they might as well have carved all that information into a brick and thrown it at us.

Plus there’s Kitty Pryde and her out of nowhere plot-contrivance-based powers. I get how someone discovers that they can walk through walls, but how exactly does someone discover that they can send someone else’s consciousness back in time? Did she do it by accident the first time? Also, how does she know that someone’s mind would snap if she sent them back decades? Did she try it or does she just have a deeply intuitive understanding of the temporal mechanics that result from this purely biological function? The script also makes an embarrassing mistake by confusing the mind with the brain – we’re told Wolverine has to be sent back in time instead of Xavier because thanks to his healing factor his mind will “snap back” after it’s ripped apart. But that’s ridiculous; surely Wolverine’s healing powers don’t apply when you’re talking about his consciousness. They would apply to his brain, which is a biological organ, but it’s not his physical brain that’s sent back in time, is it?

And while we’re talking logistics, a friend brought up a good point: how in the world did they capture Magneto after he allegedly assassinated Kennedy? Did the Dallas police arrest him? How in God’s name would they possibly be able to do that with their metal guns and their metal handcuffs?

But I digress – when you have a movie with such a solid cast and inventive action sequences like the Quicksilver scene, small grievances like this can be forgiven and even add to the movie’s charm. Yet as the title of this post suggests, I have recently begun to think about the movie in a new and troubling way. I should say first that I am not an expert on feminism and have even read a few articles (like this one) by people much smarter than me who talk about what a great movie this is when it comes to stuff like that. But my intuition, perhaps forged while reading years of Chris Claremont X-Men comics driven by empowered female characters, tells me different. Before I get into it, you can see the whole thing  play out in perfect miniature in the Hardee’s commercial below.

Hardee’s was a promotional partner for X-Men: DoFP and they invented a new hamburger to promote the movie’s release. Say what you will about promotional partnerships, for good or ill they are a necessary fact of life in the age of the $200 million mega-blockbuster.  As the theatrical marketing campaign for the movie ramped up, Hardee’s ran a series of commercials that showed the characters using their powers to eat this new hamburger in interesting ways. While I can’t fault the movie for partnering with Hardees, it always feels cheap to have cool fictional characters directly interacting with mundane real world products like this. It ruins their… well… mystique.

But the Mystique Hardee’s spot does much worse than grossly misuse of one of the movie’s main characters; it straight up says that this burger is so beefy and bacony (note: the Colossus commercial tastefully describes it as “COLOSSAL amounts of bacon”) that she has to LITERALLY TURN INTO A MAN to eat it. Usually when stuff like this comes out you can shrug it off, like I did at first, as a poorly made marketing decision that will ultimately have no impact on the film. On the contrary, this ridiculous ad turned out to be a harbinger of the surprising misogyny of the movie.

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On paper the whole of DoFP hangs on the actions of Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique. Fox and the filmmakers lucked out by casting Lawrence in X-Men: First Class and signing her to a three picture deal just before The Hunger Games hit and she started winning awards. Wisely, the filmmakers built her into the spine of this film. And while Lawrence could have viewed this movie and its hours of blue makeup as a mere contractual obligation, she truly throws herself into the role. When Rebecca Romijn played the character in the original X-Men movies, she was written as a purely visual and action-based character with very little dialogue. Lawrence’s Mystique is given substantially more to do and you totally believe her as half awesome, half absurd character. Lawrence is the second biggest person on the poster and gets billed fourth in the credits. By rights, this is a movie about her … but not really. As written in the film, Mystique is nothing more than a puppet for Charles and Erik’s opposing ideologies. The nice way that many critics have found to say this is that the movie is a “war for Mystique’s soul,” which sounds very noble but basically just means a war for who gets to tell Mystique what to do.

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When we first meet Mystique in the movie she is a woman of great independence and personal agency — fitting for a character who is literally named after the book that kick-started the feminist movement in America. She’s a freedom fighter, releasing a group of mutants who are about to be shipped off and experimented on by Trask. She sees photographic evidence that Trask has killed and experimented upon many of her friends. On her own she has come to believe that killing Trask will be good for the world; we’re told she’s never killed before so she clearly has thought this through a great deal. It’s not a crime of passion and the movie frequently reinforces the fact that Trask is pretty monstrous. In any other movie, this would be a totally justified revenge scenario. To place it in the context of the movie’s period, if this was a movie with Pam Grier discovering that her friends were being hurt or killed by a skeezy corporate dude and she went to take him down, we would be right there with her.

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But that’s not what this movie tells us. It’s shrouded in a lot of new age-y platitudes about “a better way,” but this movie goes to great lengths to tell us that Mystique is utterly incapable of making decisions herself and that if she does the result will be no less than the complete collapse of civilized society into dystopian chaos and misery. The world’s only hope is for two old dudes to send another dude back in time to convince their younger selves to talk some sense into this crazy bitch. Basically the movie is about which of her two pseudo-boyfriends Mystique is going to listen to.

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I can hear you saying, “But Charles wants Mystique to make the right decision on her own.  He knows that she ultimately has to decide not to pull the trigger herself.”  I call shenanigans on that argument though. If Charles truly wanted her to make the right decision herself, he wouldn’t have gotten into her head three separate times – as a father of a three-year-old, I can tell you there’s nothing more condescending and manipulative than saying “I want you to make the right decision.” Even though he talks a big game about her doing the right thing, he is using their shared history to mess with her. Magneto’s first instinct is simply to kill her, which is weirdly a little more respectful in this case – he appreciates and to a degree shares her hatred of Trask, but because of time travel he knows it will not work out well if she is allowed to follow through. Which brings me to another thing that might be a bit digressive.

Charles and Erik have both known Mystique for years at this point in the story. They have known Wolverine for like a day. Yet they trust him immediately on the grounds that he knows their deepest secrets; secrets that he says they will share with him in the years to come. But isn’t it possible, from their perspective, that Wolverine is just a misanthropic telepath who can read their minds and is playing them? Why do they trust this guy with weird hair over someone they’ve known for years? I am surprised that two smart guys like Charles and Erik (and Beast, who is supposed to be a goddamn scientist) wouldn’t confront this situation with a smidge more skepticism. If Fox had hired me to make this movie, this would be the part where 1973-era Carl Sagan drives up in his red convertible with the “PHOBOS” vanity plates and tells Xavier and Magneto that X-traordinary claims like time travel require X-traordinary evidence.

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End digression.

I feel honor bound to also point out that the other female characters in DOFP fair less well then Mystique; practically all of them exist only to give power boosts to the male characters.

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Fan Bing Bing’s Blink, perhaps the most visually interesting of all the new characters introduced, can really only help the male characters get around more quickly. Same goes for Ellen Page’s Kitty Pryde, who had a special power invented so she could move the guys through time, but even when we see her phasing, she’s just using that power to help a dude. (The Mary Sue has a good article about Kitty’s sidelining in general.) Halle Berry’s Storm is given a leadership role, but even then she’s not above using her lightning powers to juice up Bishop. At the end, when the franchise’s resident super woman Jean Grey is resurrected, within a matter of seconds she is again reduced to something for two male characters to fight over.

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Then there is Rogue. Or rather, there isn’t Rogue. Much like the deleted scene of Magneto in drag in X-Men: First Class became a kind of Freudian tell for the homoerotic undercurrents of that movie, an allegedly cut sequence in this movie involving Anna Paquin’s Rogue speaks volumes. According to reports, the scene involved Rogue siphoning Kitty’s time travel powers and relieving her from her days-long effort of shooting beams into Wolverine’s head. I’m sure, as the filmmakers have said, it was an unneeded sub-plot, but it bears noting that that the only female character to use her powers to help another female character was ultimately cut from the film.

But honestly, can I really single out X-Men: DOFP for misogyny? It’s kind of a ridiculous claim. Super Hero movies are notorious for taking amazing actresses and denigrating them to girlfriends and damsels, though that trend seems to be shifting a little of late. Among the girlfriends Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises holds her own pretty well with regards to having her own motives and making her own choices.  Emma Stone is a goddamn national treasure and is just about the only reason to watch those new Spider-Man movies. Haley Atwell’s Peggy Carter from Captain America is getting her own TV show, which, if the one-shot short film is any indication, will directly address issues of sexism and the role of the female in stories like this. Even Gwyneth Paltrow is given a little more to do in Iron Man 3. Of them all, Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow in Marvel‘s The Avengers and particularly in Captain America: The Winter Solider is probably the best handled. In Winter Soldier she’s portrayed as a legit equal and partner, and it’s refreshing that the movie so deftly avoids the easy clichés of romance, betrayal, or death.

I guess I was hoping that something uncanny would happen with a legitimately awesome Academy Award-winning actress like Lawrence playing Mystique in a major role. The filmmakers obviously put so much thought into this movie; it would have been nice if they put a little more into her character. Whatever the end result, I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson from this exercise:

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Eat like you mean it, folks.

 

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