The Story, Mutated:
A group of people born with powers band together to stop a group of people with similar powers from destroying humanity.
Review and Analysis:
First, I should start by saying that I’m growing weary of the so-called “superhero” genre. It seems to occupied by violent vigilantes, rich men looking for an outlet, or beings whose actions fail to stand up to any real scrutiny. And ones idea of fun is usually limited to destruction of property or beating up someone who has no powers whatsoever.
That being said, X-Men fails not only as a superhero movie, but also fails at it so-called social commentary. On several different levels.
Racial Allegory Sidebar:
Originally, supposedly, the X-Men comic book series was supposed to be an allegory to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States during the 1950s-1970s. Where Professor X and Magneto could be read to act as stand-ins for Dr. King and Malcolm X, respectively.
The Problem with reading this kind of allegory is that reading the X-Men, especially in popular media beyond the comics, fails to address any actual allegory of the Civil Rights Movement for African-Americans (and other People of Color). In this movie, the plight of Mutants seems to parallel more with the stories of (White) Gays and Lesbians who struggle with their sexuality – and the response by (White, Christian) society to said sexuality.
The bigger problem with the Racial Allegory is one that almost jumps out when you consider just how offensive X-Men ends up being in this regard. While taking into account that allegories attempt to remove direct confrontation and assuage the viewer into a more sympathetic view, using so-called genetic abnormalities, giving them a “plight,” and using this plight to highlight the struggle of Black People, is not really a good idea.
If Magneto’s philosophy is supposed to be a reflection of Malik El-Shabazz (better known as Malcolm X), then what are we to make of Magneto’s plans to mutate and/or kill humanity in this movie? Just as X-Men (and just about every single media production one can think of) deliberately misinterprets Dr. King’s message, so to is Malcolm X’s own philosophy is misused.
Secondly, the allegory of Civil Rights Movements of the 1950s & 1960s is too far removed in the story of X-Men. Part of the reason why the X-Men movie seems more like allegory of (White) Gay & Lesbian life as opposed to a struggle of Blacks in America is because Whiteness is allowed to Stand-in.
Since Whiteness is allowed to stand-in for Blackness, the story and the struggle for Black people (since it stands against White Privilege and White Supremacy) is erased. And because you are using such a stand-in, the actual story does not – and cannot – get told. And it never will.
If you really want to understand how X-Men fails as an allegory to the Civil Rights Movement, it is here at this scene. Take note of the rally for Kelly: You see a few signs in which people have a dislike for “mutants.” You also have Kelly making a few arguments over the cell phone with a constituent about the “dangers of mutants,” which was supposed to indicate his own reticence.
But Kelly actually makes a cogent point, and that is one of Faceless Victims. In this kind of instance, you have instant power dynamics at work here. The funny thing is that Mystique’s rant to Kelly after she “transforms” in front of him actually proves his point. How are those who don’t have powers and abilities (far beyond those of mortal men) supposed to react when powered beings display their powers, and non-powered are harmed, maybe irreparably? While people spill lots of ink about Rogue’s power kicking in making her despondent about the boy she liked being made comatose by her power, what about the boy himself? Who speaks for him? And why are the parents of Normals who have been victimized by powered being made out to be bad guys here?
This movie is missing something very important: The visceral hatred of mutants themselves. Whether this hatred is born of fear or ignorance is irrelevant. If you want to get a sense of what the rally scene should have been like, reference the rallies held by politicians like Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential elections. The thing to remember is that this fear has to be shown as being completely irrational on the surface. X-Men fails to do this on any level, as we see mutants using their powers to kill and maim people, destroy property, and make the lives of non-mutants that much more dangerous.
Also on Mystique’s Rant:
When she made mention that people like Kelly made her afraid to go to school, it was as if the screenwriter added the footsmacking to distract the attention of the audience from asking the flipside question:
What about the people who were scared of her – and those like her? It’s hard to make common cause with those who use their powers to act as the Princes of the Universe over the lowly humans almost exclusively. Because what this movie wants us all to believe is that ALL mutants are just simple and peace-loving people until (racist) humans ostracized them or worse. But what this movie fails to address is who would hold powered beings accountable for their actions, especially if those beings are more powerful than any facility that could hold them.
And it is here, not even 10 minutes into the movie, where any point that the movie wanted to make about mutants having the same concerns as normal humans do is completely lost. Because where Dr. Jean Grey wanted to make the plight of mutants one that parallels that of American minorities (while using Coming Subtext and Symbolism of LGBTQ peoples), Senator Kelly undercuts that by showing what happens when you’re dealing with
cheat codes mutant powers.
And it is here that the Civil Rights subtext has to be stretched. When you have a (bad) mutant that creates a device that mutates and kills humans, but the good mutant has a device that has surveillance capabilities that belong more to Total Information Awareness, you prove the point that Super-Humanity has some serious issues that have to be worked on.
The script attempts to blunt Kelly’s criticism by having him highlight a mutant who can “walk through walls” (reference to Kitty Pryde, maybe?), as if this is supposed to be a “harmless power.” Although Kelly’s turn of phrase is supposed to be considered antagonistic and beyond-the-pale, he still raises a question that no one ever answers in the negative.
What it All Comes Down To:
The reason that X-Men fails as a movie?
Watch the final battle at the Statue of Liberty. Always bear in mind that Storm is supposed to be one of the most powerful members of the X-Men.
And yet, what does she do when it is all on the line?
The same thing Morpheus does in The Matrix when it is all on the line.
Storm’s crowning moment in battle?
That. Really. She does nothing else of note.
And finally – There seems to be a trend going on here. I noted in Catwoman that Halle Berry takes a lot of flack for her acting, much of it unnecessarily. It rears its ugly head in X-Men once again. It seems that it is easier to blame the Woman of Color as the actress as opposed to Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer for godawful lines that she and the rest of the cast had to spew. But this is par for the course in comic book movie land.
Oh, and like most people of color in movies, she is not allowed to have any romantic/relationship connections at all. Even as everyone else does, except for Professor X (his conflict is with Magneto, and the undertones are hinted at in later films).
I don’t call myself a big fan of the X-Men comic books. However, I like to consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about the more popular X Characters and their powers – and how they work. Take Rogue, for instance. In the movie, they de-aged Rogue to be a young teenage girl. In doing so, however, they also shifted her backstory somewhat: She was ostracized from her family when her power kicked in (the ability to absorb the memory, personality, and powers & abilities of any person she touches). She comes into contact with the X-Men at a much earlier age than she did in the comics. While this means that she no longer has the Supergirl-like powers she stole from Ms. Marvel, it also means that she doesn’t have the problematic backstory that comes with them.
It is her power that is central to the plot of this film; Magneto planned to use a machine to Mutate/KILL ALL HUMANS that he secreted away in the torch of the Statue of Liberty.
Except that it would need his power of magnetism in order to run the machine. So he finds a convenient Escape Hatch with Rogue: He could use power of absorption to absorb his magnetic powers – which would power the machine AND allow him to escape the damage.
Thus, when the machine starts, Rogue would be reduced to typical “Woman in Spiderworld” status and simply scream and whimper as the machine does its work to [DESTROY ALL HUMANS]. Up until this movie (and outside of the movie franchise), it had been established that Rogue would have some level of control over whatever power she absorbed from her victims, so to show this Rogue giving no active resistance to the scheme is saddening.
I would also call this par, but this is more Birdie for the Hole.
The Rugged Hero:
It is also here that X-Men: The Movie loses its way. The movie spends lots of time around Wolverine, because he is supposed to be the “cool” hero in the film. Like the Batman movies, we are not supposed to question his motives, since he is such a bad@$$ that it never matters, and those who question him have some “other” reason why that “hate” him.
We aren’t supposed to side with Cyclops when he mentions to Wolverine that, while at a haven for mutants like himself, he does this:
We are also supposed to cheer for Wolverine when, in another moment of compulsive behavior, he steals Cyclops’ bike.
But, most importantly, he is there to do what Movie Tough Guys do in most movies, and that is to make the (White) Women swoon for him. Rogue hangs around him the most despite the stabbing (a real coming together experience, apparently). The movie establishes the Jean Grey/Wolverine ‘sexual tension’ plot early, if only to add the Marvel trope of “Heroes Fighting Heroes” between Cyclops and Wolverine – when they “square off” as they do in the film (all without throwing a punch, of course).
The movie also makes it clear that Wolverine is the hero that is to be followed. He gets the most attention, the longest and most pivotal fight scenes, and the most justifications of all the characters. He also is the one who believes the most in “Action!” when confronting everyone.
The Evil Woman:
I made note in Superman 2 that “Evil” Women are only added to add ‘sexy’ to the movie; as such, evil women are casted to leave as little to the (Male) imagination as possible. It is not very different here in X-Men, in which the only evil woman is draped in blue paint and every movement she makes (when she is not shapeshifting) is supposed to have a sexual undercurrent to it.
Of course, her “empowering” moment in the movie is the 3-minute fight scene she gets with…Wolverine. That is, of course, if your definition of “empowerment” is simply “Beat up people, mostly men.”
A “Superhero” Movie:
If the story of X-Men were about “Mutants” attempting to fit in to American Society, then there needed to be more interaction of said mutants with “normal” Humans. If the story is supposed to be an allegory to the Civil Rights Movement, showing (White) Parents abandoning their children – after said children ‘exposed their mutant abilities to the world,’ is not the way to do it. That is more in line with Gay & Lesbian tropes in TV. If this was supposed to be a parallel to CRM, shuffling the “pretty” mutants off to the Superhero Training Academy, while sending the “ugly & deformed” mutants off to Magneto’s
Sardaukar Band of Mutants that Kill Humans (for Sport) doesn’t do much good either.
For the allegory to work, there needed to be more of “Humanity’s Ugly Side” on display, without the sprinkling of People of Color in a silly attempt to play the “Black/Latino/Asian (although it’s mostly Black here) are just as racist” card as often Hollywood does. During the struggles for People of Color to have their rights recognized (that were already enshrined in the Constitution), Blacks (as well as some of their allies) had their homes destroyed, their schools and churches bombed, their lives taken with impunity. Protests over these conditions (a right enshrined in the First Amendment) were met with “Law Enforcement Officers” looking to uphold the status quo of Jim Crow. And to do so by using Guns, Brass Knuckles, Billy Clubs, Attack Dogs, Tear Gas, High-Powered Water Cannons, and the like. Many of these same Officials were members of local chapters of the Ku Klux Klan and other affiliated White Supremacist Organizations, so the extra-legal terror was allowed to continue.
Even more to the point, you really don’t see how Magneto’s Mutate/Kill All Humans is considered valid onscreen because you don’t see the humans killing or severely injuring mutants in this film. There are hints that some of humanity does not like mutants – all in a single rally scene. The problem, however, is that this is glossed over and undercut by Kelly being kidnapped by Magneto – so that Magneto can menace Kelly for sport (like every other megalomaniac) and show the audience the Mutate/KILL ALL HUMANS device (developed by Goldfinger, No, and Drax).
Lost in the Sauce:
Magneto makes a second reference to humans hating mutants during the Mutantican Standoff, but he invokes Nazi Final Solution imagery to make his point.
This here is actually a clear example of how the movie gets its theme all wrong. Although it is an attempt to paint Magneto’s own hatred of humanity as being just, it chooses exactly the wrong venue to do so. The Nazis were not corralling a young Erik Lencher because he was a mutant; in fact, his plight at the time had nothing to do with his mutant powers. The fact that his powers kick in when his parents are taken from him has nothing to do with the story, except to clue us in that he is the young Magneto. The Movie Nazis simply believed that Erik was stronger than they first assumed, buoyed by the fact that the soldiers could not gain any footing in the mud. Magneto does not go into what happened to him after that. Instead, we as an audience are supposed to make the leap that Lencher goes from grieving son to Mutate/KILL ALL HUMANS because the Nazis killed his parents at a Concentration Camp (this is implied, btw).
Magneto’s device was one that was supposed to introduce or “activate” the mutant genetic potential within those who have no mutations or powers, while having no effect on those whose powers/mutations are already active. Thus, if the X-Men do not stop his machinations, everyone would become a mutant after being exposed to the energy wave.
This plot does not make much sense in the end. In fact, it shows the sheer stupidity of the foundation of said plot: The belief that you can’t hate what you are, lest you find yourself being called a hypocrite. Thus, turning all those who “hate” mutants into mutants themselves would…do what exactly?
For this reason, more than others, any connection to the Civil Rights Movement is lost – for good.
What exactly changes with humans who are now Mutants? What exactly would Magneto’s endgame be in this case? Does humanity now end up like Senator Kelly?
Are the powers random? Are the mutations? To what degree does it matter? Since Senator Kelly dies from the process, does this now mean that all non-mutants who are mutated will die at some point?
Instead, it seems like Magneto never got the point that was made in Gundam Wing Endless Waltz: Hatred only brings about more Hatred. The reason why this is relevant is because while he might “kill” several billion humans (most of whom had nothing to do with his plights shown previously in the film), the result will still be a destructive mess in which no one learns a thing. There does not seem to be any obvious endgame with Magneto’s plan.
Was he trying to make everyone else feel his “pain” by making them what some humans hate? And what about the people who have no say in what their so-called leaders do? Or how about people removed half of a world away who are being oppressed by fellow humans? What of their self-determination that Magneto has now removed?
X-Men is a movie that has no real direction concerning itself. If you attempt to examine the world in which X-Men inhabits, you find that there is not much to this world. That all of the “good” mutants still look “fully human” (and not just the full-fledged X-Men) and all of the ugly and deformed mutants are considered evil undercuts the theme in a big way. That Whiteness is allowed to stand in for everything else makes X-Men a story about something other than “Civil Rights.” That Magneto’s plan and endgame fail to stand up to scrutiny is to be expected. And that Humanity, which Magneto hates, is allowed to skirt away unscathed in criticism is a sight to behold. And that Wolverine’s bad@$$ery moments are supposed to excuse his behavior throughout the film…leave me bored in the end.
X-Men does not make its allegorical point because mutant powers are still an advantage over “normal” humans. Conversely, the Civil Rights movements are about removing the “Sub-Human” tags from people of color, namely Blacks. The movie does not address the fear of sub-human tags because it cannot.
As a Superhero movie, X-Men is not that good. Its social message isn’t all that nice, and Magneto’s counter-argument makes little sense. Women in this movie don’t do much to distinguish themselves, although they are all tied up in the same romantic and tension tropes found in non-superhero films…except for the token woman of color, that is – just like in non-superhero films.
But remember, you, as an audience member, are supposed to relate to these films.
I do not.