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Author: Reihan Salam
May 7, 2003



Only at TNR Online

X2: X-Men United is not just any action-packed summer blockbuster— far from it. It represents a cultural moment, a brief opportunity to address crucial questions of difference and democracy, questions that have been with us since the founding, with new eyes. In this case, red glowing eyes.

A number of reviews have noted that the X-Men comic book series, on which the films are based, has long served as a metaphor for the civil rights struggle and other efforts to win acceptance for dispossessed, marginalized, and persecuted minorities. This is true. But what has gone unnoticed, and what's most distressing, is that while the X-Men movies embrace a fairly robust integrationist ideal, the comic book series on which they're based has abandoned its early idealism in favor of crude racialist appeals. What we've seen in recent years is nothing less than the Sharptonization of the X-Men.

To explain, the conceit of the X-Men comic book universe is that evolution has, post-penicillin, continued to work its magic on humankind, and that the next stage in human evolution— the mutants (some super-powered, some who look like chickens, but all different from run-of-the-mill men and women)--lives among us, and uneasily at that.

Some humans and mutants seek to peacefully coexist, to build a realizable utopia in which mutual respect is the order of the day. Beyond peaceful coexistence, many of these humans and mutants also believe that the notion that humans and mutants are essentially different is misconceived— underneath the skin, be it blue or scaly, we're all the same. This stance, championed in the old days (the comic book series originated in the early 1960s) by Professor Charles Xavier and the X-Men, his doughty band of proteges, clearly parallels the liberal integrationist stance of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin, among others. By contrast, Xavier's adversaries, led by the brilliant and charismatic Magneto, master of magnetism, call for utter mutant supremacy or, failing that, mutant separation and sovereignty, a worldview best described as Black Power on steroids.

For most of the series' history, there was no moral ambiguity: Magneto's mutant militancy was depicted as a deranged, perverse, self-defeating response to the very real oppression suffered by mutants. Xavier's "dream" of harmonious human-mutant relations was, by comparison, as necessary an animating ideal as it was frustratingly difficult to achieve in a world rife with hatred and mistrust.

But as time wore on, this straightforward narrative of good and evil grew less compelling. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, just as the tide of multicultural politics was cresting in the real world, and as many left-leaning Americans came to see integrationism as little more than grist for bourgeois self-congratulation, the writers of the X-Men series began slowly rehabilitating Magneto's old vision. At first, it was a matter of nuance— yes, he was an awful man, but he had complex and not entirely ignoble motivations. He was, the writers eventually informed us, a Holocaust survivor, and so his hatred of humanity derived from a desire to protect his people from extermination. Like Malcolm X's Nation of Islam, Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants was "the hate that hate produced."

And who couldn't identify with this brand of hate, with its promise of baptismal revolutionary violence and the absolution that comes with it? With time, the rehabilitation of Magneto became something more than nuance and context— the X-Men's arch-nemesis became a romantic figure, figuratively and literally. (While traipsing about the pre-historic Savage Land, Magneto took X-Woman Rogue as his lover in the early 1990s.) At worst, his was a lost cause. Perhaps Magneto was tilting at windmills, but the comic book gave readers the distinct impression that his was the right cause, particularly when he turned from explicitly calling for the enslavement and annihilation of all humans to just wanting a place in the sun.

Eventually the United Nations, in its infinite wisdom, installed Magneto as ruler of Genosha, an island state that had previously used genetic engineering to turn mutants into servile zombies, on the condition that he promise not to wage war against humanity ever again. As with most real U.N. projects, this comic-book version ended disastrously. With clockwork precision, Magneto first made the humans of Genosha second-class citizens and, once he felt up to it, declared war against humanity.

The plan backfired— humanity won the war, and then, just when things calmed down, Xavier's long-lost mutant twin dispatched a convoy of massive robots to wipe out the island's entire population, including Magneto (for the umpteenth time). But the real loser was Xavier's integrationist dream. Rather than reaffirm the X-Men's belief in coexistence, the destruction of Genosha has caused a crisis of confidence in X-Men-land. Even Professor X has adopted a more confrontational stance, which is not unlike Gandhi donning bandoliers and gleefully firing rounds from a Kalashnikov. Under his auspices, mutants have formed menacing Kahane Chai-style paramilitary groups. If the dream isn't dead, it's on its last legs.

As separatist enclaves spring up across the country and the world, the school where Xavier has long trained his X-Men has reinvented itself as just another gated community, with humans kept at arms length. In a recent issue of New X-Men, a riot broke out at the school as students conspired to seize control in the name of Magneto-style separatism. But now that Xavier has lost faith in his original vision, such theatrics hardly seem necessary. These days, it is no longer uncommon to hear the X-Men casually refer to humans as a species headed for extinction. (In part, this is because, according to one subplot, humans are headed for extinction, but that's another matter.) It is increasingly clear that they no longer see themselves as humans with a twist; instead, they are separate, unequal, and— with just a single leap of logic— destined to rule.

In part, this shift from cautious reformism to ennui to Magneto-esque millenarianism reflects a desire by Marvel Comics to make their flagship title more daring and risque. That's to be expected. And yet it also reflects a shift in the broader culture. Integrationism just isn't in. As we flee to our own "Mutant Towns," our miniature Bohemias, our "Valhallas" and "Nerdistans," it might be worthwhile to stop and reflect on the damage that's already been done. Even our superheroes aren't immune to the forces that pull us apart. Can't we all just get along?

Reihan Salam is a former TNR reporter-researcher.