At the End of X-Men: Apocalypse, I turned to my friend and said, “In the year two thousand and sixteen of the common era, I watched a movie famously based on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and it featured only two characters of color, both villains.”
Before I get too far, I want to say I enjoyed the movie. As a matter of taste I do not love action movies, preferring more cerebral fare. X-Men has always been my favorite of the Comic Book franchises because I do love a good action sequence, but at its best, X-Men punctuates them with interesting conversations that have a lot to say about our present politics—and that is where this post is going. Overall, the movie delivers good action and has enough interesting politics that it is worth your time.
It drags a bit in places. It has a few too many characters for its own good and expects the audience to do some work on characterization. I think the stakes got too high too early and stayed there too long, but I have the complaint about most comic book movies I’ve seen. It deserves some of the criticism it is getting, but it is a fun movie overall.
The movie is about an ancient Mutant who rises from the dead to destroy and rebuild the world. He recruits what are basically the Four Horsemen to help him and the glower in completely awesome costumes before getting some killer fight scenes. The only two prominent characters of color are both recruited into his Let’s Destroy the World and give it to Strong Mutants cult. Storm, played by Alexandra Shipp, and Psylocke, played by Olivia Munn form half of his cadre. Both are half-white, which is itself worth a moment’s consideration. There is not nearly enough representation of characters of mixed descent, but we should hardly welcome it at the expense of other people of color.
That they play the villains is troubled, too. Well-rounded representation requires that we show people of color capable of the full range of humanity, but “villains first” is not at all the ideal order. On top of that, they are not very well done. Psylocke is the better of the two, putting up a good fight; in an action movie that would be forgivable. But Storm sits out a lot of the final battle until she sees Mystique take her mutant form and switches sides. Good thing she had white people to help her. Any poignancy is undermined by the fact that her decision to switch did very little to change the course of the battle. The final battle focuses on Magneto, which has a good deal of narrative significance, but means that Storm and Psylocke are both pushed to the margins.
This is frustrating because not only is the franchise steeped in the mythology of the Civil Rights Movement, this movie is too. The X-Men have long been an allegory exploring Professor X’s reformism against Magneto’s separatism. Dr. King and Malcolm X are the patterns for each, though huge liberties have always been taken with their politics and relationship. The movie franchise has been more interested in the assimilation versus separatism debate among LGBTQ folks, which is genuinely fine. MLK and Malcolm X are read and cited by LGBTQ folks on both sides of the debate and King in particular seems to have been warming up to the idea that gay and lesbian people deserved liberation too.
There is a scene where Professor X is waxing poetic about Mutants and humans living and studying together. He never uses the phrase “sit down at the table of brotherhood”, but he all but says it. Mystique rebukes him, saying that maybe things have improved in the Northeast, but elsewhere Mutants are still oppressed and hunted. She claims that nothing changed, except people have learned to be politer. We’ve seen this in the film, so it resonates.
But it also speaks to the ways that we are failing people of color in real life. This is a movie that wants people to sympathize with not just Reverend King’s vision of racial harmony, but to understand the much less marketable separatist movements. It wants us to nod along with the idea that “Mutants” are oppressed and in need of a solution, but also that they have diverse enough experiences to have multiple veins of political thought. Marvel just cannot seem to learn the essential lesson that people of color have trouble getting acting roles because of that quiet, “polite” racism.
I am prepared to forgive the movie all its other flaws. It is pretty to look at and has great action sequences. Most of the LGBTQ allegories are not only correct, but expertly delivered. I actually cried when the kids said Mystique coming out changed their lives. When she tells the Mutants to stop controlling their powers and use them (with pride, is the implication), I wanted to cheer. The messaging on racism in America is on point too.
But maybe the next movie could have some people of color talk about it.