X-Men: First Class and Days of Future Past, well-written and clever films, have ignited in me an interest in the earlier X-Men films. The interest these films hold for us is based partly on the cool powers the characters have and the spectacular fight scenes this leads to. But as The Fantastic Four proves, CGI isn’t enough to make a film entertaining. It must have a beating heart and an active brain. The X-Men series is exceptional because of the way it treats the plight of the mutants like the real-life historic experience of racism and homophobia.
They’re not the only superhero movies with a political message. Christopher Nolan’s (thudda-dada-thudda-dada-thudda-dada) Batman films advance a deeply conservative and paranoid world-view: we have to suspend freedom and privacy to fight “terror”; movements against inequality end in chaos and bloodshed. They’re gripping but they leave you feeling negative. The X-Men films, though lighter, leave you with a more refreshing sense: equality and mutual respect are good, positive things; we don’t have to be afraid of each other.
The films are at their strongest when dealing with the prejudice and oppression mutants face: the most memorable image in Last Stand is of a young boy in a locked bathroom sawing and chopping his angelic wings down to stumps just to keep his mutation a secret from his bigoted father, who’s banging on the door.
The weaknesses and limits of the films are the weaknesses and limits of the timid, liberal outlook of the film’s authors and their negative portrayal of the “radical” side of movements for equality and freedom. I’m saying this as someone who always had more sympathy for the villain Magneto (Ian McKellen) than for the noble philosopher-king Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart).
At the climax of each film comes a moment when the good, liberal mutants, led by Xavier, have to prevent a gang of bad, militant mutants (usually led by Magneto) from attacking the US government, or non-mutants generally. The bad mutants in First Class want to trigger a nuclear holocaust. Magneto in Days of Future Past wants to kill Richard Nixon on live TV. In X2 he (quite implausibly) wants to kill all humans.
The plot by the bad mutants usually involves a conspiratorial act of individual terrorism or mass murder which will spark off repression against all mutants and thereby backfire.
But the other side of it is a bit sinister. The films seem to say: It is the duty of all “good mutants” to defend the establishment and the authorities from the crazy and stupid radical mutants. What is the real-life equivalent for all these mad militant-mutant conspiracies which the liberal mutants must foil?
We have recently seen in movie form the real-life story of how the most radical and assertive LGBT rights activists in Britain organised an inspiring solidarity campaign with the miners during their great strike of 1984-5. If X-Men was really comparable to real life, or if Pride was anything like an X-Men film, Mark Ashton and co would have hatched a plot to kill all the miners, only to be foiled at the last second by a group of closet gays who are strictly monogamous, never sleep around, never go to gay bars and never dress in unusual clothes in case they “offend” straight people.
Or are Marvel trying to compare Magneto and co to, say, the Black Panthers, the most “extreme” wing of the black liberation movement in the United States? If so the comparison doesn’t hold up for a second. The Panthers didn’t target civilians. They engaged in community self-defence, not individual terror. They organised school meals for poor children (black and white alike).
Magneto, even though he is superbly acted by McKellen and Fassbender, often doesn’t ring true as a character. It seems that whenever he sits down to cook up some scheme, this highly intelligent man only cares about two requirements: 1 – is it visually spectacular? and 2 – will it almost definitely provoke repression against the mutant community? The films force us to sympathise with the liberals rather than the radicals by having the radicals always cook up some completely ridiculous, evil and counter-productive plot. The authors are cheating!
The outstanding exception to this is The Last Stand. In this movie, the liberalism of Xavier and co and of the writers is grating and obtrusive. In this case, I am with Magneto 100%. He bases himself this time not on a small circle of conspirators but on a mass army of mutants. His target is Alcatraz, where a weaponised “cure” for the mutant condition has been developed. It is damn clear that this “cure” has been designed to exterminate mutants, to forcibly suppress their powers. Even if he keeps saying sinister things like “the pawns go first”, Magneto is doing the right thing, the right way.
The only thing stopping Magneto and the other mutants from destroying the cure/weapon is a posse of “good liberal” mutants. What incredible confusion must reign in Wolverine’s head! How did he conceive of the idea that they should risk their lives and kill loads of mutants just to defend the people who are trying to exterminate them?
Of course, there are and have been in reality plenty of movements with legitimate goals but bad, counter-productive methods. But if the X-Men films are a portrait of a struggle for equality (and I’m not saying they are, necessarily, just that’s what I get out of them), they are a false picture. On the one hand we have Xavier and co, who defend the oppressor in an attempt to maintain their comfortable position and gain “acceptance”. On the other hand we have Magneto and friends, who fight for mutant rights but “go too far” and employ counter-productive methods. Where is the force of mutants that fights the oppressor, while employing effective and positive methods, in solidarity with other non-mutant oppressed groups? Nowhere to be seen. The films come closest to this in X2, when the two sides briefly work together against a Pentagon nut who wants to kill them all.
The gobsmacking myth with which every X-Men film ends is as follows: if the oppressed try their very hardest to show the oppressor that they are “reasonable” and “responsible” then they will gain acceptance from society. Let’s illustrate the wrongness of this liberal fantasy by posing two questions relating to a real-life fight against oppression: Was it the obedient slaughter of Vietnamese people by African-American conscripts that beat Jim Crow? Or was it mass protest, organisation, civil disobedience and self-defence?
I’m open to the idea that I’m taking a light superhero movie too seriously. But popular movies do reflect ideas that are prevalent in society – and they do reinforce those ideas. When we look at some struggle for freedom, at home or abroad, and start talking about “moderates” and “extremists”, we’re making a huge mistake based on a false conception. It’s this idea, expressed in the X-Men films, that I’m criticising here.