If you’re a big fan of Jennifer Lawrence, I’d suggest stopping here.
Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of watching X-Men Apocalypse, the latest installment in Fox’s X-Men movie franchise. While I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, particularly any scene involving Nightcrawler, I found it to be deeply flawed. Now, I could rant about the liberties taken with character abilities or the desire to shoehorn in an endless stream of X-Men characters, but instead I wanted to focus on what I felt was the greatest downfall: Mystique. Well, more specifically, I aim to discuss why Mystique’s character felt deeply out of place.
Comic book movies are nothing new and, if anything, are now a staple of cinema. Superheroes are deeply entrenched in the American consciousness, and now more than ever with the massive box office success of films like The Avengers. Furthermore, the X-Men enjoy a great deal of popularity, not only from their success in the comics, but also from a generation that grew up on the 90s cartoon series (of which I am a member). You’d be hard pressed to find someone under the age of 40 who didn’t at least have a tangential understanding of the characters, and it’s likely that any random Joe off the street at least knows Wolverine. This intense popularity has led Fox to a financially, if not always critically, successful film franchise since the early 2000s.
Part of the X-Men’s strength is the roles fulfilled by each character. One of the greatest strengths of the 90s animated series was how well it portrayed every character’s personality and abilities. In fact, the opening credits do a superb job of introducing the main cast in a few short seconds: we see that Wolverine is a feral bruiser, that Cyclops is a team leader with powers that he sometimes cannot control, that Storm is regal and controls weather, and that Jean Grey is boring and you should probably not pick her as your favorite character. The early movies succeeded fairly well in this regard, showing us nuanced portrayals of the cast while still remaining true to their comic book roots.
Characterization started to breakdown to a large extent sometime around X-Men: Days of Future Past, which nevertheless is still one of the stronger films in the franchise. The most notable culprit was Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who first took over the role from Rebecca Romijn in the franchise reboot X-Men: First Class. At the time, Lawrence lacked her current notoriety, having yet to play Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, which would premier to wild popularity the following year (I acknowledge she received accolades for Winter’s Bone as well, but Lawrence truly became a household name following The Hunger Games). As a result, Mystique’s role in First Class essentially boiled down to a conflicted character who eventually shuns Xavier’s dream and joins Magneto’s side to promote the dominance of mutants over humanity.
Of course, between First Class and Days of Future Past both The Hunger Games and its sequel The Hunger Games: Catching Fire premiered, catapulting Lawrence to become the star she is today. Days of Future Past thus saw the script altered to turn Mystique into a hero; while I wasn’t overly fond of this plotline, it still worked as a sort of redemption story, which felt new for the character and, though out of character, still worked with the arc they’d built.
In the comics, Mystique has historically been a villain who can best be described as someone who “f**ks s**t up” whenever things are going well for the X-Men. She’s helped the X-Men a few times, but in the end it was always to serve her own twisted agenda. Mystique is a go-getter, serving other villains as needed in order to achieve her own ultimate goal. She’s become more of a leader in recent years, though she did take a leading role in the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants at least as early as the original Days of Future Past storyline in the comics.
The original two X-Men films nailed Mystique’s character. While her screen time was limited, Mystique still came across as a cold murderer who believed in mutant superiority and deceived foes to spark cataclysms and international incidents. While this didn’t follow in First Class, it made sense from a plot perspective, as in that film we had a young Mystique who was still building herself into the villainous leader she became.
And then Apocalypse threw it all out the window.
In the latest X-Men film, viewers were treated to a Mystique who is honored as a hero by young mutants for the stand she took against Magneto in Days of Future Past. While Mystique attempts to drive the point home that she’s no hero, it never feels like she believes her own words. This is equally the fault of a weak script and Lawrence failing to deliver a performance that makes the viewer see Mystique’s conflict of personality.
And why did Mystique need to become a hero and a core member of the X-Men film universe? Because of Lawrence’s popularity. I can see no other reason for pushing the character, who has never been overly popular, into greater limelight except to promote an actress who gained greater notoriety after her first, admittedly small, appearance in First Class. It’s noticeable that in each subsequent film we see Mystique not only play a deeper role to the central plot, but also witness more screentime for Lawrence (and, subsequently, more promotion in media surrounding its release). This role feels shoehorned in, and never flows organically from the story, instead seeming as if the writers’ desire is to make Mystique appear in as many scenes as possible and drive the plot wherever she can. Additionally, it’s notable that Lawrence is in her blue form for mere minutes onscreen.
Altering character or plot for an actor is problematic. This threatens not only the integrity of films based on comic book properties, but also that of any film. If story and character are placed second to promote a celebrity in order to draw more viewers we’re left with hollow films that write around the characters, rather than for them. From a marketing standpoint it may make sense to promote the biggest name actor, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they require a larger role nor that fans would avoid the movie entirely if their role as diminished. I admit that most of the X-Men film fans probably couldn’t care less about Mystique in the comics, but even for those without background knowledge it’s become clear that Mystique has been promoted from supporting villain to central hero thanks to Lawrence’s popularity. I can only hope that the next X-Men film will dial back Mystique’s role significantly…but that’s probably wishful thinking.
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