Olivia Munn has made a career out of quietly defying expectations, whether it’s shining as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart despite criticism about being hired solely for her looks, or being one of the more charming characters in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. All of that is small potatoes compared with her next gig, playing a telepathic ninja in next year’s X-Men: Apocalypse. Yes, that’s right, I said “telepathic ninja.”
As revealed yesterday by director Bryan Singer, Munn will be playing Psylocke, a character with what could generously be described as a complicated history in the follow-up to 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. Her casting has drawn criticism from X-fans online, outraged that Munn is neither English, a supermodel, nor Asian enough to suitably fulfill the needs of the role — this despite Munn’s mother being of Chinese descent, and Munn having been raised in Tokyo, and having spent time as a model in the Japanese fashion industry. (Not to mention, of course, that whole “acting” thing; I don’t remember fans being upset that Hugh Jackman wasn’t a short Canadian amnesiac with a metal skeleton when he was announced as Wolverine way back when.)
If those demands make Psylocke sound like a somewhat ridiculous character, it’s because she is; while many comic book heroes arrive fully-assembled, Psylocke’s backstory is one that clearly demonstrates that her writers and artists were clearly making it up as they went along, trying out new ideas, looks and even ethnicities for her to try and find one that stuck. (Yes, ethnicities. Just wait.)
The character first appeared in the UK-only Captain Britain weekly comic in 1976, created by writer Chris Claremont and artist Herb Trimpe. At that point, she was “merely” Elizabeth Braddock, a telepathic pilot of private charter planes and the sister of the eponymous British superhero. This unlikely occupation clearly wasn’t glamorous enough for readers, however; by the time she reappeared a year later, she’d become a supermodel for reasons that were never explained. By 1983, that career had also been abandoned, and she’d become a government operative, using her psychic powers for Queen and Country.
Elizabeth’s big break came in 1986, when Claremont — who, by this point, had become one of the most successful writers in the comic industry thanks to his work on X-Men and related series — brought the character to the U.S. and put her on the best-selling team of mutant superheroes in the middle of the popular “Mutant Massacre” storyline. It was a move that brought her to a new audience unprepared for a purple-haired Brit with an inexplicable taste for pink outfits, but not the move that cemented her as a fan-favorite.
That came in 1989 when, inexplicably, a character who had previously been a white Brit was transformed through super-science and latent fetishization, into an Asian woman of indistinct origin who now had mad ninja skillz because why not? (It would later be declared that what had actually happened was that the character has been mind-swapped with someone else, explaining the new body, but crazy comic book science is crazy comic book science no matter how you explain it.)
The switch from “Hot White Chick Who Wears Armor” to “Hot Asian Chick Who Wears Skimpy Skintight Costumes” was enough for the fanboy faithful, and Psylocke’s dominance in fandom was assured; with the exception of a short-lived death in 2001 (She returned in 2005, because comics), Psylocke has remained a constant presence in Marvel’s X-Men family of comic books ever since, even going on to serve as the defacto lead of series like Uncanny X-Force and New Exiles.
Quite which version of Psylocke Munn will be portraying is unclear, although given the 1990s-era focus of other characters in the movie (including Jubilee and Gambit), the popular ninja take is likely to be the obvious choice. Munn haters, prepare to have your complaints silenced when a combination of intense physical training and CGI turns her into the most bad-ass telepath around. Everyone else, try to get your mind out of the gutters when imagining her in that utterly improbable, breast-hugging outfit.