Shapeshifts: The Inconsistent Characterization of Mystique

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I have to preface this by saying explicitly that I’m fully aware Mystique is not at all a shrinking violet in any shade of her many “shifts” both literal and figurative. Similarly to how I feel about Helena Bertinelli, one of the things I happen to love about her character is her unbridled aggression. Mystique always take things to the limit and I’ve often felt that her modus operandi is that of a crusader who considers anyone who attempts to curtail her overall mission to be fair game.

But as of late, I’ve just felt as though the Mystique torture has gotten gratuitous and some essential parts of her character have lost in melodramatic vertigo. These days, Mystique gets bored and a little angry then a massacre occurs, she plays dirty, says something scummy, and gets gutted for the 90 millionth time by Wolverine. At this point, she’s been stalked and hunted down by Wolverine, sliced within an inch of her life completely naked and been left for dead. Then she came back, she saved Wolverine from hell (though she initially played a part in sending him there) as a favor to her deceased son Nightcrawler but still got gutted by Wolvie while he was possessed. Then she tried yet again to save Wolverine from the Red Right Hand and was viciously gunned down by Lord Deathstrike then carved up and killed by Wolverine to boot (only to come back).

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Honestly, it's kind of creepy. It's almost as though Mystique is constantly being depicted as some sort of misogynist nightmare, particularly during the whole "Get Mystique" arc. The art teetered dangerously close to looking somewhat like sexual violence especially when Mystique massages herself to shift into nudity for Wolverine, they tackle (and straddle) each other, it ends with her on her knees and him holding a gun over her head....need I tug the already paper-thin veil on the imagery this evokes?

Then there's the issue of her being singled out whereas other villains like Magneto, who've killed and betrayed just as much, are at least negotiated with somewhat…even celebrated (in Scott’s case at least).

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In the past 10 years or so, this has been Mystique’s cycle of torment with a few dashes of fights with Rogue thrown in here and there as well. What confuses me is that Mystique’s most vicious acts were previously carried out rather as an agent of fate than just an angry, violent seductress with impulse issues. She killed Ms. Marvel’s boyfriend after one of Destiny’s prophecies predicted Ms. Marvel would do serious harm to her. Cold? Brutal? Yes and yes. But there was a motive at the very least, a semi or quasi (or deca) understandable motive with a terrible collateral.

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Even in killing Moira there was an ultimate benefit which was the cure to the legacy virus, something Destiny predicted years ago. Mystique exploding the labs at Muir Island and creating a human strain of the virus ended up giving Moira the answer she sought. This role Mystique had as someone who doles out the world’s evils to contribute to a greater good gave her an interesting dilemma. What if someone knew the outcome of their actions, no matter how vicious and cruel, would ultimately contribute to a greater purpose? In a way, Mystique hasn’t any other choice but to be the villain, the most heroic thing she can do is to be a menace. I love that, it’s fascinating. Why oh why has that never been capitalized on? It's brilliant! Is anything Mystique does of this nature fully justifiable? No but it's interesting that she would view it as serving her fate and have an arguably valid reason for believing in that.

But of course, shortly after her Legacy Virus saga, Mystique slit Banshee’s throat and killed Sunpyre as well as launched attacks on Paris of all places, all rather arbitrarily without a definite explanation as to why...ever. I'm sensing some characterization issues from writer to writer, it seems as though people have a lot of difficulty orientating Mystique's character on stable ground. Her episode with Banshee was never explained and then she would go on to get one last glimmer of purpose in her solo series.

The only time Mystique has addressed the X-Corps incident with Banshee
The only time Mystique has addressed the X-Corps incident with Banshee

If you hadn't read her solo series, you must. If you've read this far, if you're this interested then it's worth it because this is one of the best solos I've ever read. I think it was the last time I'd ever seen Mystique informed by her character's history in a way that gave her dimension. It pointed out that, in spite of her villainous tendencies, Mystique is an intelligent, resourceful, strong-willed person who fought her way to the top and has a complex vision of what the world is and what she hopes (or demands, rather) it should be.

The series touched on Mystique’s almost kaleidoscopic identity, she’s never solely the villain or the hero but instead a mixture of both with many layers that intersect. There wasn’t too much drama with Rogue nor was there any unexplained resentments carried it out with vicious impulsiveness. She made plans, she made her motives clear, and at points she even exercised restraint and showed compassion. Finally, we have some sense as to why she hates Xavier and what her vulnerabilities are as well as why she has so many defense mechanisms and not in a psychoanalytic way but in a way that gave her character credibility.

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As deplorable as her behavior can be, there is some semblance of sense to it and there's nothing more compelling to me than a villain who can make a case for themselves. At this point, she's been handled carelessly to a point where she's almost pathetic in her attempts to settle scores with Wolverine seeing as how she's brutally foiled again and again. It's all about melodrama for her these days whereas previously Mystique had always led a life of purpose. We're talking about a woman who infiltrated the Pentagon at one point using only her intellect, not seduction nor by blowing a hole through the wall. She's a woman who cleverly arranged a presidential pardon for her crimes in exchange for a government-funded task force of mutants called the Freedom Force. To me, that brought yet another interesting perspective to mutant politics that both Xavier and Magneto hadn't yet covered.

I envision Mystique taking on a role which isn't that of the overbearing mother or Wolverine's personal scratching post but instead one that's more political, a leadership position or at least something with more complicated agenda. Moreover, I think it's due time to see her behave in more humanly way and I do believe there's plenty to substantiate some softer, more sympathetic aspects of Mystique's character. She raised Rogue, she was deeply beloved by Destiny who seldom (if ever) showed even a hint of malice, surely she isn't a 100% "bad" person. As far as I'm concerned, she doesn't really fit the bill for your clinically-diagnosed sociopath and what's funny is that often times she's depicted as being reformed in alternate universes. In Age of X, she tended to the mutant children, she wasn't totally evil in "Age of Apocalypse" (maybe a little selfish), and in the "X-men: The End" series she ends up taking care of Rogue's children after Rogue is killed.

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My ultimate point overall is that I don't see Mystique living up to the standards writer's once had set for her, standards that are the basis for her character's continual success and survival throughout different generations and many different incarnations. One of the things that largely distinguished the X-men from almost any other Marvel title (or comics as a whole) is that their characters are very versatile, they have much more fluid yet intricately-planned arcs that make them fully-realized and extremely fascinating characters. Mystique is a perfect example of this, like many characters her morality fluctuates but there's a consistent baseline that maintains her. Think about Magneto or the Scarlet Witch or Pietro or Rogue or Professor X, they've all made bad decisions for different reasons but came out much stronger through ambiguity and their convictions rather than playing up to a role.

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Though there's still time for it to get screwed up but Mystique has showed some semblance of regret/introspection in Uncanny X-men lately. I just hope that one of these days a writer will see a little bit more complexity and moral ambiguity in her character because it really is the foundation everything since the beginning has rested upon. I suppose only time will tell...

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