What Would Have Made “X-Men: Apocalypse” Better? More Screen Time for Female Characters

Alexandra Shipp plays the awesome Storm in the new X-Men film—but doesn't get much time on screen.

Once upon a time, I loved comic book movies, and I looked forward to each new film with scream-into-my-hands excitement. But the last few years of ensemble superhero movies have disappointed me (looking at you, Avengers: Age of Ultron), so I had low expectations going into Fox’s latest cinematic cash cow X-Men: Apocalypse. Despite introducing a number of superpowered women over the course of its franchise, I accepted long ago that the X-Men films would prioritize the friendship/rivalry between Charles “Professor X” Xavier and Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr, who can never agree on whether or not humans and mutants can peacefully coexist. The most recent X-Men film before Apocalypse, 2014’s Days of Future Past, was criticized for rewriting the original comic book plotline to make it more male-centric. I hoped the film writers would learn from that backlash to incorporate more of the great female X-Men characters this time around. It seemed to be a good sign that Apocalypse marks the film debuts of female characters Psylocke and Jubilee and younger versions of Storm and Jean Grey. The film’s heavy promotion of Raven “Mystique” Darkhölme (played by Jennifer Lawrence) also had me hoping for gender parity and the kind of focus on complex female characters that we haven’t really gotten from other Marvel films as of late.

But it was a fool’s hope. X-Men: Apocalypse conformed to my already low expectations.  

In X-Men: Apocalypse, the “world’s first mutant” Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) awakens after centuries of slumber and forms a four-person squad—which includes Magneto (Michael Fassbender)—called the Horsemen to help him rid the world of humans. Naturally, the X-Men feel obligated to stop him, but as you might’ve guessed, defeating a mutant named Apocalypse poses a challenge. When our heroes aren’t being heroic, they’re students at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, where they learn to control their powers and accept them as natural extensions of themselves instead of aberrations to be loathed and suppressed. So while I understand Magneto’s resentment toward the human race and appreciate the escapism he provides for marginalized people who identify with his anger, I gotta say, my pacifist heart is strictly Team Xavier on this one.

Sophie Turner as Jean Grey

One of the film’s highlights is Sophie Turner, who plays the telepathic/telekinetic Jean Grey with a relatable confidence and vulnerability that had me questioning my usual indifference toward the character.  All-powerful superheroes generally don’t interest me—it’s hard for me to identify with someone who’s consistently competent—and as an adult, Jean Grey is one of the most powerful telepaths on the planet. But young Jean fears the massive potential inside her abilities and doesn’t believe she is capable enough to be a hero. It’s the kind of struggle one usually sees in characters like Superman, now seen in a teenage girl, and it’s pretty great.

        Read This Next — Marvel Writer: The Comics Industry Needs to Stop With “Lazy Storytelling” 
       Read This Next — Marvel Debuts a New Series: The All-Women X-Men

The blue-toned, shape-shifting Mystique goes through a similar struggle in the film. In spite of her dubious past, Mystique is worshiped among the younger generation of mutants (Storm has a Mystique poster on her wall). But even as she rescues Nightcrawler from an underground mutant fight club in one of the film’s better scenes, Mystique still carries the burden of the murders she committed in the name of mutant liberation and thus doesn’t consider herself a hero. Her insecurities regarding her “monstrous” appearance also continue to be present, and she spends most of the movie in her human form (granted, that probably has more to do with the grueling hair and makeup process involved), but by this point in the films, she’s cautiously begun to accept herself, and I enjoyed watching her wrestle with the complicated nature of her journey toward self-love.

Sadly, these were the two highlights of Apocalypse, as the other significant non-mutant female characters were reduced to two-dimensional mothers, daughters, and love interests—all of whom were not present much in the film. I would’ve liked to see larger roles for Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn), who are popular, long-time characters in the canon and who, in the film, become two of the Horsemen. Storm initially appears as a young pickpocket recruited into Horsemen-ery, but we only see her use her awesome weather-controlling powers to their full effect near the end of the film. As for Psylocke, somehow I know more about the exercise, diet, and training regime Munn underwent to achieve her physique for the role than I do about the actual onscreen character. I’ll also admit a soft spot for Jubilee, as she was the character closest in age to me when I first got into the X-Men as a teen, but it’s impossible to say whether or not actress Lana Condor made a believable Jubilee because the character is barely in the film. Even Moira MacTaggert, a capable CIA agent played by Rose Byrne, was eventually pigeonholed into the role of Xavier’s love interest (one whom Xavier occasionally creeped on using the human-detecting machine Cerebro, which, ew, stalker much?).

Olivia Munn as Psylocke: How we hardly knew ye.

And then there’s the fridging—the killing off of female characters as a plot device, reducing their roles so they’re just mile-markers along the male hero’s journey. In Apocalypse, Magneto is seen living a quiet, humble life in Poland with a new wife and daughter. When coworkers discover his powers, the police get involved and accidentally kill his family in the process. So now Magneto, hell-bent once again on establishing mutant rule, has enough reason to join Apocalypse in his plan to obliterate the human race. Okay, sure. While a similar backstory for Magneto takes place in the comics, superhero movies divert from comics canon all the time—surely writers could’ve come up with a better motivation for Magneto to ally himself with Apocalypse than increasing the family death count in his tragic backstory. Say it with me, gang: No more women in refrigerators.

Overall, the film was…well, it was a film. It wasn’t terrible, and I don’t think it entirely deserves its dismal 47 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But it should serve as a wake-up call regarding the franchise’s future direction. Something has to change if X-Men wishes to compete with other superhero films, and doing better by its female characters should be a start.

        Read This Next — Marvel Writer: The Comics Industry Needs to Stop With “Lazy Storytelling” 
       Read This Next — Marvel Debuts a New Series: The All-Women X-Men

by Ariana Vives
View profile »

Ariana Vives is a former Bitch new media intern. She finally got into The Walking Dead and hopes some good will come from this.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

0 Comments Have Been Posted

Add new comment