X-Cluded: Why Are All the Minority X-Men Left Out in the Cold?
[Spoiler alert: Major plot points of X-Men: Days of Future Past discussed below.]
During the opening sequence of X-Men: Days of Future Past, when a small band of X-Men battle the part-robot army of Sentinels, I experienced a little thrill of pride at how geek culture has redefined what a superhero could be. Here were the X-Men, Marvel’s ambassadors of tolerance and diversity, finally looking the part: There’s Chinese actress Fan Bingbing (Blink) creating time-traveling portals; French-African actor Omar Sy (Bishop) shooting energy blasts from his fingers; Mexican actor Adam Canto (Sunspot) bursting into robot-fighting flames; and Native American Booboo Stewart (Warpath) fighting with superhuman agility. It’s a virtual United Nations of mutant-kind, under the command of out-and-proud Ellen Page (Kitty Pryde).
Then the actual plot kicks in.
After the battle, the group rendezvous with the older surviving mutants in an abandoned Chinese monastery. Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) reveals his desperate plan to win the war: Kitty will project Wolverine’s consciousness into his younger self’s body, so he can prevent the Sentinels from ever being created. Xavier, Magneto (Ian McKellen), and Iceman stay by Wolverine’s side for moral support — or something like that — while Storm (Halle Berry) takes the rest of the team outside to the front lines of battle.
In other words: in the first twenty minutes of the film, all of the non-white mutants are pushed aside. We don’t really see them again until the killer robots arrive at the monastery for the big showdown. And then the audience watches them die, one gory supernatural demise at a time, until Wolverine re-jiggers the timeline and saves them.
X-Men does have a huge cast, and it’s understandable that Bryan Singer devotes the most screen time to stars like Jackman. Unfortunately, the scenes that do highlight the new characters tell us next to nothing about who they are. Take Bishop, played by Omar Sy. The actor is a big-deal French movie star, best known for the 2011 international hit The Intouchables, and his role was promoted accordingly. But I had no idea what he was doing in most of his scenes. He seems to move energy around, particularly when people touch his head? It looks cool. Turns out that, according to Marvel canon, Bishop is a time-traveling antihero from the future. In a time-travel movie, wouldn’t that be worth mentioning? He probably would have been a helpful guy to have in that room with Wolverine.
I liked X-Men: Days of Future Past a lot, and I appreciate the strides it does take toward inclusiveness: putting complex female characters (notably Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence) front and center, and featuring two gay actors (Page and McKellen) in starring roles. Still, even in comparison even with this year’s other Marvel films – Captain America, which turned Anthony Mackie into a superhero, and Guardians of the Galaxy, which stars Zoe Saldana – X-Men is lacking in the diversity department. It’s the worst kind of Hollywood trope to turn all the minority characters into monster bait, and it’s especially jarring in this movie, because it goes against the entire ethos of the X-Men franchise. The X-Men themselves are a minority, fighting for a better world despite being reviled and misunderstood by humans. Professor Xavier dreams of a future where mutants are not feared, but appreciated for their talents. I’m glad that Marvel is letting a more diverse group of mutants join the cause — but with all those Sentinels to fight, they shouldn’t have to fight for screen time, too.