I don’t remember where I saw the comment. It was probably a tweet. I don’t even remember what the wording was, exactly, but the substance was something like: why, just before the climax in X-Men: Days of Future Past, are all the characters of color standing sentry (and then dying) outside, while the white dudes (and white lady) stay inside and save the world? How had this comic book franchise, of all the franchises out there, fallen into the same white-centered tropes and patterns of so many other Hollywood movies?
Well, shit, I thought. I love the X-Men comics precisely because they’re diverse and tell stories of othering and oppression, but the Forgotten Commentator was right. The X-Men movies (which, let’s face it, have been pretty white from the beginning) duplicate the tropes that have gotten so common and so tiresome over the decades: White people save the world, people of color are expendable. White people are the leads, people of color are the supporting cast.
I’ve been mulling this essay over in my head for months, and have been hellishly blocked on it, but also unable to forget about it or move on. I watched all the movies again, taking notes, trying to make some kind of quasi-objective evaluation that didn’t feel right. I wrote a bunch of it and it was boring to read, even for me. And I could also write a whole thing on how if people of color don’t have any substantive parts in the X-Men movies, well, that’s totally natural, right? When you have actors as good as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, and a character as popular as Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, of course there aren’t any prominent characters of color who last for more than half a movie. There just isn’t space in the story, you see. It’s a perfectly natural narrative/money-making decision. Why would they make a movie about Storm, who was perfectly terrible in the first movie, when they could make one about Wolverine, who was amazing?
Well. Let’s think about Storm for a second.
On the one hand, the X-Men franchise does a reasonable job of avoiding some of the most common racist tropes in cinema (Sassy Black Woman, Black Best Friend, Black Guy Dies First, etc). They avoid these pitfalls by…not having any Black people in the movies other than Storm until Days of Future Past. And Storm has basically no lines, especially in the first movie, where almost all of the ones she does have simply provide exposition (she asks how the adamantium got bonded to Wolverine’s skeleton, for example).
Storm also has these conversational moments (in both the first movie, talking with Senator Kelly, and in the second movie, with Nightcrawler) where she sort of…stands in to speak to where prejudice comes from? Which is a little bit of a weird choice, from a character point of view. When she’s alone with Senator Human Purity, he asks if she’s afraid of “normal” people, and she says, “Sometimes. I think…I think I’m afraid.” She’s a member of a persecuted minority, being afraid isn’t a prejudice, it’s a reaction to her life experiences. The power dynamics are never addressed, it’s just fear=prejudice=bad. The Senator never reflects out loud where he thinks his prejudice came from.
That said, the emotion behind this line worked fine with the late-90s/early-00’s. Conventional wisdom back then was that bigotry stems from lack of understanding. But I don’t like that line anymore. I can see why Singer (a gay man who definitely saw mutaphobia more as a metaphor for homophobia/gay panic than anything else) included it, but hatred of a thing isn’t always because of fear of that thing. Sometimes hatred is a cynical power grab, because if you can convince other people to fear the thing, you have power over them. If Senator No Education For Mutants had more air time, I bet he would be the second. He doesn’t fear mutants. He thinks he can control and exploit other people’s fear of them.
Anyway. Back to Storm. Goddammit, old white dudes, still distracting me from talking about Storm. In the comics, Storm is amazing. Her mother is Kenyan, her father American. Born in America, she grew up in Cairo, and as a young girl, survived a terrorist attack that killed both her parents and left her an orphan. She survived by learning to pickpocket, and eventually traveled south to the African plains and lived with a tribe there, where she learned how to master her mutant powers. She was already a powerful mutant in control of her abilities before Xavier ever found her and brought her back to New York (and yet somehow, later on we’re to believe that Jean is the true badass here? Pffft). She was the bedrock center of the X-Men team for a long time, taking over leadership of the team when Cyclops couldn’t do it. She eventually became the Headmaster at Xavier School for the Gifted. She always prefers negotiation and preserving life to fighting, but when she decides to fight, she is one of the most formidable opponents you could ever imagine. She beat Cyclops in battle. Storm is a fucking badass. She is amazing. Also, Bryan Singer had Halle Berry, an Oscar-caliber actress, in his cast! So what does he do? “Do you know what happens to a Toad when it gets struck by lightning?” Goddamit, Singer. Just…goddammit.
To be fair (?) to Singer, his problem may not be black women, but just women, as I also have serious problems with how Rogue is portrayed (Rogue is not some frightened, delicate flower who hides in her shell. Rogue is also a fucking badass. She is sassy Southern, not demure Southern). Mystique doesn’t have any lines, but she spends much of the climax fighting Wolverine, so you know she’s tough. Jean is powerful but there’s hints that she has powers that she doesn’t use because they are uncontrolled and “dangerous.” But Rogue seems lost, and Storm does nothing. It’s infuriating.
So in this movie, which is establishing the universe for future movies, there’s one character of color, and that character of color has almost no lines or character establishment. The white actors (who are great! Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman are all amazing) dominate the movie, and fans and movie-goers responded accordingly. With everyone responding positively to Wolverine and nobody responding to Storm at all, it becomes that much easier for the screenwriters to give Wolverine screen precedence on the next outing.
The racism we have here might be called where the fuck is everybody, because we are supposed to accept that just outside of the most diverse city on earth, in a school devoted to serving a population that are the result of random genetic mutations, most of the faculty of the school, and even most of the students that we see, are all white. Except for Storm. And that just carries on for another 5 movies and 13 years (including two solo Wolverine movies), until we get to Days of Future Past, where it turns out that the PoC characters who have been established are expendable. No setting up a multi-movie arc for Bishop or Warpath here.
Days of Future Past isn’t even where the expendable PoC tropes begin. In X-Men: The Last Stand (the third movie), a bunch of new characters are introduced when Magneto recruits new followers. Lots of these folks are PoC, which is cool (I really like Arclight, for the record), but we never get to know them, and a bunch of them die at the end of the movie. None of Magneto’s new recruits survive to have an impact on subsequent movies in the franchise. As far as I remember, none of them even appear in any of the subsequent movies.
And look, I realize that this is maybe not on purpose. The studio can certainly make an argument that there’s a finite amount of marketing space, a finite amount of space in a story, a finite amount of space in merchandizing, and that Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, and Hugh Jackman just take up a damn lot of space. And a lot of folks will see that argument as having merit. But racism isn’t always on purpose, and impact doesn’t equal intent. And it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: Storm doesn’t have enough of a following to get toys made in her likeness or a movie made about her, so kids going to see the X-Men movies never learn enough about her to get curious, so they don’t demand more Storm, so the studio doesn’t make a movie that it doesn’t think people would be interested in. And we can all talk ourselves into never having people of color on screen and make it never about race at all.
So, no more Storm. No more Bishop, or Blink, or Warpath. No Sunspot. No Jubilation Lee. We had Lady Deathstrike, for a hot minute, but she’s gone. And whatever reasons you or the studio wants to give for why we had three Wolverine movies and no movies about Storm, I think that sucks.
Random Tangent #1: I know that Magneto often plays the role of the villain in the comics, but can we just take a minute and sit with the fact that all the villains in these movies who hold systemic power and influence (Senator Kelly, Colonel Stryker, Bolivar Trask) are tertiary villains, passing fads, while the primary, unkillable nemesis is…Magneto? The Jewish war refugee who lost his family (twice!), whose anger and grief is deep and cold and bottomless, and whose reaction to oppression may be summarized as, “You killed my family and there is no justice for that so come on, just try it, try anything, because I have been looking for an excuse to drop a football stadium on your heads”? That’s…not how oppression works at all, actually. Ian McKellan and Michael Fassbender are both great. And it’s really hard to make a compelling narrative about fighting a power system (see also: the Captain America: Civil War movie, which took all the thematic conversations in the comics about freedom vs oversight and made it into a personal beef between Captain America and Iron Man). But also, making the survivor of a genocide into a perpetrator of terror while white villains disappear in between movies is not a politically neutral decision.
Random Tangent #2: Speaking of evil-doers, in X2: X-Men United, the most queer-coded movie of the entire franchise, the baddie is Col. William Stryker, who enslaves mutants as part of his master plan to eradicate them. Near the climax, it’s made clear that his son is also a mutant. Stryker declares that he “has no son,” rather than accept the fact that a) his son is a mutant; b) he has subjected his son to brutal scientific experimentation to control him because he can’t accept him; and c) he is sitting right there. (Perhaps it wasn’t intended to refer to this at the time, but when I watch it now that line makes me think of the ex-gay movement that holds gay kids captive and brainwashes them into trying to be straight). There’s adults out there who haven’t talked to their parents since they came out in the late 90s, because their parents disowned them. There’s kids out there right now living on the street because they can’t safely live with their parents, because their parents are homophobes. William Stryker declaring that he has no son is perhaps the most pedestrian, believably evil line in that entire movie.