Is Our Fascination with the X-Men Healthy?

First published 23 July 2011

Like many people recently I have spent a very enjoyable 132 minutes in the company of Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr. However I found that my enjoyment of the characterisation and well executed period setting was tainted by a nagging negative sensation. We are all aware that the great strength of the X-men franchise comes from its strong allegory, speaking to those who feel alienated and different from “normal” society. It speaks very strongly to the ostracised geek in us all. However, the problem I found when watching the movie was that my inner thirteen year old identified too much with the mutants, especially with that dark reflex, Magneto. Indeed this negative sensation came on most strongly when I was watching Magneto’s successes. I sat in that cinema and willed him on with a connection born of fellow feeling. Yet who am I to assume a fellow feeling? I do not possess any special powers nor have I suffered at the hands of a totalitarian regime. In that sense, the allegory became too good and instead of illuminating for me something of humanities’ shared experience it succeeded in validating any vanities of superiority remaining from my teenage years and separating me from my essential humanity. This was the nagging sensation. The solace offered by the story is so easily perverted into a power fantasy and that I was becoming too involved in it.

The, not so cleverly hidden, message that can be seen in any given X-men movie is that it is ok to be you. This a worthy message and a particularly powerful one, given that it can work on two different levels. It can speak to the wider problem of bigotry and discrimination in society as well as to the individual who is feeling lonely and persecuted. It is in this latter, more personal iteration that its call is most seductive. The character of Magneto shows both of these aspects at work and how dangerous it is to let this sense of superiority run away with you. His early experience in the concentration camps, dwelt upon to a much greater extent than ever before in First Class, gives a clear indication to the audience that one way in which to view the struggles of the mutant community is through the lens of racial discrimination. Indeed, to veer slightly off-topic, this parallel can be seen in the Civil War story arc of recent years (2006-07), in which Luke Cage drew the parallel between registration and slavery. In order to present a flawed but essentially “good” character, Erik Lensherr is introduced to us in the role of vengeful Nazi hunter, his personal grievance being worked through on a wider international, racial stage.

This approach to the character has a greater resonance in the year of the film’s release as 2011 saw the conclusion of the John Demjanjuk trial, the final National Socialist to face justice in an international court. Indeed viewed in this morally ambiguous light, that is while Demjanjuk’s punishment is just as he was a participant in genocide, he was a participant in the lowest echelon of power and questions have been raised over the appropriateness of concluding these historic trials with the hounding of a 91 year old man, seventy-one years after the cessation of hostilities. This morally justified cause whose actual execution has raised some questions offers a neat backdrop to Lensherr/Magneto’s goal, the protection of mutants which he pursues by violent separatist means. This, of course, is the final irony of the character, that his personality is shaped by his early experiences of persecution and hatred at the hands of the Nazis and this in turn results in his sense of racial superiority and genocidal quest to eliminate humanity.

Yet alongside actual cases of discrimination the teenage, geek audience of the films and comics can see themselves in the plight of the persecuted mutant, as I did sitting in that cinema and that is where danger lies. It is not too much of a leap for a geek audience to see themselves in the X-men. They can pass for “normal” people yet they are often faced with hostility, often for being intelligent, or at least working hard. There is a link between mutant powers and intelligence that can be seen in the film: in the opening sections Charles Xavier is studying at Oxford and becomes a professor, or at least a doctor waiting for a teaching post. Erik Lensherr is shown as fluent in at least four languages and again, as in other films, we have a scene in which he plays chess against Xavier. The role of intelligence plays in the character of Beast need not be explained. So apart from their more offensive powers what sets mutants apart is their intelligence. This coupling of intelligence and persecution makes a tempting touchstone for the geek community. That sense of community and fellowship is one of the great benefits of begin a geek and one of the ways in which the X-men relate to us, as they themselves are a group formed of shared talent and not blood or race. They present us with a fine allegory of the ‘conundrum of the human condition: we want to fit in and we want to stand out’.

Yet we must be wary of stripping the allegory of its power and subtlety by making it merely a power fantasy; by creating experience that allow us to feel superior to the common mass of people and forget the hours spent hiding in the toilets. Not only does this make for solipsistic, one-dimensional art, but feeds the false notion that there is an us and them. There is not. This is not a fantasy universe, we are all people and we all are the common mass of man. This is a cautionary tale of getting too involved in our fantasies; enjoy the escapism but remember, we are all human after all.

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