It’s not exactly a secret that Bryan Singer has long viewed the X-Men movies as a chance to dive into a deep metaphor for gay rights, among other historical civil rights movements. He even used it as a pitch to recruit Ian McKellen as Magneto for the original trilogy. While there’s other stuff to consider like enjoying filmmaking and having appreciation for the characters he’s helped craft yada yada yada, since X-Men, Singer has spent about two decades chasing this particular metaphor, with the results being.. well, definitely a series of movies.
But with Singer expressing interest in a solo Mystique movie, it could be that he’s finally found the angle to really get deep into that sweet sweet metaphorical action. Mystique has definitely evolved into a unique version of the character since X-Men: First Class, to the ire of some fans and to the delight of others like myself. But to really get to the heart of Raven Darkholme and the overall queerness of the X-Men, you can go beyond Jennifer Lawrence’s turn at the character and remember when she was instead played by Rebecca Romijn.
In 2003’s X2, when the X-Men are forced to work along with Magneto’s Brotherhood, and of course Nightcrawler who seeks redemption after being brainwashed into an attempt on the president’s life. While hob-nobbing and rubbing elbows over their mutated DNA, Nightcrawler aks the shapeshifter, “Why not stay in disguise all the time? You know, look like everyone else.” which illicits the simple, theme-explaining answer from Mystique, “Because we shouldn’t have to.” We get a similar interaction in First Class, with the worldview being suggested to Lawrence’s Mystique by Magneto.
While so much of this franchise is mired in reflection of the world’s response to people who are different, what sets Raven apart from most of the other characters, save for perhaps Nightcrawler above and Nick Hoult’s Hank McCoy in the prequel trilogy, is how much of her story has to do with her own perspective on her mutation, on her place in the world. If the X-Men movies are about “into the streets,” then Mystique is the “out of the closet.”
As a kid watching the X-Men cartoon, Mystique (and Morph!)’s shapeshifting abilities were the mutant battles that I most coveted, even if Rogue’s southern charm was the attitude I most wanted to replicate. As a little girl deeply unhappy in her own skin, the idea of effortlessly slipping into another face than my own seemed like the dream scenario. But that interaction with Nightcrawler in X2 was the moment that turned the fantasy around on me completely.
Mystique while shapeshifting is not the queer girl gleefully throwing on faces, the faces she sees back at herself in the mirror are the faces of closeted kids wishing we could change. Her ability is such that she simply has to use it and can avoid any of the persecution that comes with being a mutant, but doing that creates her closet. My grown-up epiphany of Mystique’s ability is that I too had could put on a face that would free me from the majority of hatred that I experience. That was the face I already saw in the mirror.
Being in the closet, whether it’s your sexuality, gender identity, or something else, is our shapeshifting. It’s a permanent mask that we put on because it doesn’t show the world the parts of us that they’re afraid of. Just like Mystique, we could put on that face, but it would never be real. Whether it’s staying closeted or simply assimilating in order to feel accepted, it’s just a face we’re pretending is our own in order to keep safe. And just like Mystique, we shouldn’t have to.