Everyone at some point in their lives has experienced the stinging feeling of being different. Sometimes it can be as innocuous as being the new person at work or school but many others have felt the pain of realizing that they are different from others based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, nationality or body type. Historically, humanity has been better at oppressing one another best on these difference than embracing each other in spite of them. As with all societal problems, our best hope for overcoming this unfortunate tendency is through our children. But how do we teach the next generation to evolve as a society and overcome the petty prejudices that have divided humankind for millennium? Take them to see the new X-Men movie this summer. For the past 50 years the venerable X-Men franchise has been known in comics, television and film for its fantastical tales of science fiction, superpowers and spandex-clad heroics. But beneath the bombastic pageantry of a series that began at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement has always been an underlying theme of embracing those who are different as extraordinary and learning not to fear those who we do not understand. Science fiction has always been a great way to subtly deal with complex social issues and societal anxieties in manner that is accessible to a broad audience. The original Godzilla slyly chastised the United States for the nuclear horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Planet of the Apes addressed issues of racism in America and Star Trek boldly preached for a better tomorrow where the planet finally overcomes war, greed and intolerance. But perhaps more than these or any others, the X-Men series has always tackled these issues with unmatched humor, humanity and energy. X-Men portrays a world in which “mutants”, individuals who have evolved to possess superhuman abilities are scorned, oppressed and misunderstood by a society that fears and hates them for being different. Replace the world mutant with “black”, “gay” or “Muslim” and the parallels are impossible to ignore.
By the third film, a scientist whose son is a winged mutant named Angel announces he has developed a “cure” to being a mutant, much like the many pastors and priests who claim they can help people control and contain their homosexual tendencies. Young Rogue lines up to receive the cure so that she can finally hook up with Bobby. But Angel defies his father and flies shirtless above the streets of San Francisco, known worldwide as the most gay-friendly city on the planet, inspiring his fellow mutants to reject this cure and remain proud of themselves. The scene may sound cheesy (it is) but for anyone who has ever felt pressured to change who they are to please others, it is a powerful message: You are beautiful, no matter what they say. In X-Men First Class, the characters adopt the catchphrase “Mutant and Proud” which mirrors both the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the 1960s as well as the current day Gay Pride movement. In one scene, two white males in black suits ridicule the titular first class of mutants, prompting a discussion among the characters of the pain caused by the way they are viewed by mainstream society. By the end of the film, the “Mutant Pride” movement diverts into two distinct paths, with some of the characters following the militaristic Magneto and others following the more pacifistic Charles Xavier. This distinction subtly parallels the philosophical divide between the militant Malcolm X and the peace loving Martin Luther King Jr., two figures of the Civil Rights movement who would come to embody their respective perspectives on how to combat racial inequality.
Most Americans are ignorant of the fact that Malcolm X would later come to embrace the belief that the races could in fact coexist together peacefully. It is moral complication that history chooses to ignore because it blurs the binary nature of our society’s historical narrative. Days of Future Past for its part, shows Magneto following a similar path as Malcolm X. Born Malcolm Little, the legendary leader adopted the stark moniker “X” as to represent the lost tribal name that was lost when his forebears were take from Africa in chains. The characters in X-Men similarly forsake their “slave names” in favor of Mutant alter egos. Magneto’s disciple Mystique refuses to respond to her human name of Raven, and when introduced to the troubled young mutant John Allerdyce, Magneto asks for the boy’s “real name”. John responds “Pyro”. For generations, the “others” in society have been framed as weak, ugly and inferior. The X-Men series shows young audiences and readers that the others are strong, beautiful and just as good as anyone else. In fact, sometimes they might even be more evolved. Magneto, for his part, considers he and his mutant brothers to be something of God’s chosen people, another parallel to his Jewish heritage. At one point in the second film he turns to Pyro and lets him know “You are a god among insects. Never let anyone tell you different.” The actor portraying Magneto, Ian McKellen, is himself not Jewish, but he is openly gay. In fact, he originated a role in the play Bent, which tells of how homosexuals were treated even worse than Jews in the Holocaust. It is a beautiful and poetic moment indeed to see a gay actor born 30 years before the Stonewall riots turn to a young man and remind him that he should be proud of who he is no matter what anyone says. Magneto began the series as its “villain” but in Days of Future past he finally redeems himself. It takes him two Holocausts to realize it, but he eventually comes to understand that all life is precious and beautiful and that no man or woman is better or worse than any other. And if a hardened old man who has experienced so much suffering and intolerance can finally overcome his own prejudices then none of us have any excuse not to follow his example. So teach your kids to embrace their classmates no matter what they look like, who they pray to and who they love. And for god’s sake, take them to see Days of Future Past, it’s freaking fantastic.