I have come in contact with quite a few born-again X-Men fans recently. Some of them were once like Saul, persecuting the gangly kids who sat in the front of the bus reading the comic books in middle school. Even the Fox cartoon didn’t win them over. The first movie left them lukewarm. But then came X2, like a blinding light on the road to Damascus. “This one is so much cooler than the first,” they tell me. “The first was just setup.”
I have to admit, I remained skeptical at first. I mean, yeah, superheroes. I get it. They symbolize the massive, repressed identity crises each of us developed as a reaction to modern alienation. It feels good to watch them assert their unlikely identities in the face of a hegemonic society. This is not news to those of us who were reading The Maxx while you guys were still watching TaleSpin. But I’m not totally inhuman. I still get a twinkle in my eye when I experience that old, familiar feeling of Righteousness and Justice seeping into my blood as if by IV drip. Marvel Morality.
The film opens with a trench-coated figure slipping into the White House at the tail end of a presidential history tour. He makes his way to the Oval Office and—in a truly beautiful teleporting scene that is the film’s pièce de résistance—eludes a gaggle of bungling Secret Service agents and almost succeeds in assassinating a cowering Commander-in-Chief.
As I’m watching this I’m thinking: This is a 20th Century Fox picture? TM and © Fox and its related entities? Like, “We report, you decide” Fox? The president, from the threat to his life at the film’s onset to his forced enlightenment at its conclusion, is portrayed as a malleable Gumby version of the head of state. A shape-shifting mutant, Mystique, has assumed the form of the late Kennedyesque Senator Robert Kelly and pleads with the president against a proposed mutant registration plan (championed, in the first film, by the real Senator Kelly). Whispering in the president’s other ear is William Stryker, a hawkish military figure of undefined rank and position who urges the president to take decisive action against the mutant population, beginning with Professor Xavier’s mutant school.
Crazed war hawk on one side. Serpent-tongued phony on the other. Spineless prez in between. X2 doesn’t paint a very pretty picture of our two-party system.
The Archimedes’ point of Marvel Morality is that it completely rejects all the polemics that make up our modern lives, from the political to the social to the genetic. In a museum scene near the start of the film, Storm explains to a group of students how scientists no longer believe that the ancestors of modern humans drove Neanderthals to extinction, but that Cro-Magnons instead mated with Neanderthals to produce us.
The implication is that humans and mutants will eventually attain a similar compromise and usher humanity into a new evolutionary era. Both Stryker, who wants to kill all mutants because he views them as corrupted life forms, and Magneto, who would eliminate all humans because they cannot accept those different from themselves, fail to understand this evolutionary point. The X-Men do (or at least Professor Xavier does), and their very name contains the symbol of this intersection.
Part of the X-Men’s popularity lies in the fact that viewers are welcome, even invited, to interpret the mutants as symbolizing any given substratum of modern society. The mutants = X. Are you gay? Then X = gay. Are you a nerd? Then let X = nerd. The film itself hints at this possibility in the scene when Bobby “Iceman” Drake’s parents learn their son is a mutant. “Have you ever tried not being a mutant?” his mom asks hopefully. No, Mrs. Drake, “it’s genetic,” Pyro quips. X = every oppressed minority. X = every special interest group. Against the current political backdrop, X = Muslim.
Ultimately, X = John Stuart Mill’s eccentrics, those for whom we must secure all liberty in self-regarding matters so that they can effect the evolution of society by means of bold “experiments in living.”
Might we not identify with the humans? Please. There are two kinds of humans in the Marvel universe: politicians and unsuspecting victims, each about as unique as Ritz crackers. You are definitely a mutant: oppressed, misunderstood, unloved, unpredictable, and ultimately essential to the progress of mankind. Humans are the theoretical mass of whoever is oppressing you.
The X-Men stories, like all post WWII morality tales, must address the possibility of mass destruction implied by the atom bomb. In X2, a machine called Cerebro combines atomic-age power with surgical precision by allowing its wielder to kill all mutants or all humans. If it is unclear why anyone as intelligent and as presumably benevolent as Professor Xavier would create a machine like Cerebro when it could so obviously be used for evil, think of the United States government and Oppenheimer. This is our predicament.
The underlying question of the films and of the earlier comic books is: If, by surgically eliminating a small group of people, the majority thought it could achieve world peace, would the elimination be justified? The X-Men answer with a resounding “no,” and their position is not as Pollyannaish as it might at first appear. Despite the films’ repeated acknowledgment that humanity is evolving and that there is a degree of inevitability in this evolution, there is also the implication that evolution will not solve any of our real problems—just as it did not solve the problems of Cro-Magnon man.
In X2, evolution confers the advantage of superior force, and there is nothing new about force being used to gather the world together . . . and then contributing to its collapse. T. H. White’s classic, The Once and Future King, appears twice in the film, once when Magneto reads it in his plastic prison and again when it is taught by Professor Xavier to his class in the dénouement. White’s reworking of the Arthurian legend shows how Arthur uses the might of the crown to knit medieval England into a place governed by justice rather than brute force. The irony is that the king must use brute force in the very creation of a kingdom to be governed by reason in justice. Force limits force.
The fact that both Magneto and his ideological rival, Xavier, are familiar with this text is no coincidence, since the myth of Arthur can have two dueling interpretations. The Once and Future King ends in tragedy as treachery, lust, and deceit cause Arthur’s kingdom to be eaten away from within. The very power used to organize civilization causes it to return to a Dionysian state, and the decline begins with those who wield that power.
Magneto interprets this to mean that there is no ultimate order: the best the powerful can hope for is to prolong the supremacy of themselves and their friends before the inevitable corruption destroys all. Arthur would have been better off had he killed Lancelot and Mordred and every other corrupt element in his court when he had the chance. Xavier, on the other hand, appears to see order as at least a potential reality: He thinks he can keep power in check by allowing rival forces to coexist, and thus will not utterly eliminate his enemies. He views the establishment of such order as Arthur’s (and, by proxy, Merlin’s) noble achievement, their tragic collapse notwithstanding.
Xavier’s philosophy is embodied in the X-Men, who succeed not by conforming to Xavier’s will out of fear but by clashing against one another, exploring their own pasts, falling in love, and living out all the other dramas of life. For instance, the atheist Storm frequently clashes with the pious Nightcrawler (whose incessant whining in the second film reduces him to a blue, German Jar-Jar Binks) over the issue of faith. Eventually Nightcrawler, who will only teleport to locations he can see with his own eyes, is urged to be more faithful by the doubting Storm in order to gain access to Cerebro. (This is actually one of the more “Hollywood” moments in the film—dramatic yet too ambiguous to really move us. Is Storm merely using Nightcrawler’s notion of faith to motivate him or have they come to understand one another on some meta-level? As someone interested in seeing how a Catholic hero would play out in a mainstream action film, I was disappointed by the lack of relevance Nightcrawler’s beliefs had to the plot at large.)
In the Marvel Universe®, personal drama, such as the love triangle between Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine—love parallelogram if we include Mystique’s infatuation with Logan—is always given a high place in the plot, on a level equaling clashes of politics and military might. This is the key to the X-Men narrative as sweeping cultural phenomena.
Picture yourself as a teenager in the fifties and sixties, crouching beneath your desk in your geeky, hand-me-down school uniform; stealing glances at the pompadoured daddy-o or beehived babe you’ve been harboring a secret crush on since the beginning of the term. The air-raid siren wails, reminding you that two enormous empires, together spanning the globe like a too-tight girdle, are locked in an ideological and physical battle to the death (possibly your death.) Hormones, manifestos, satellites, and warheads swirl together in an unholy cocktail too potent for your young mind. Something in you is breaking. How can you connect the quotidian struggles of your Anywhereville, USA, adolescence with the urgent information the media is spoon-feeding you night after night, information that has already swept up your parents, uncles, aunts, teachers . . . everyone you know into a raging ideological polemic?
Ta-da! The X-men recreate this struggle in archetypal terms, assure you that hormonal little freaks like yourself are on the right side of the struggle, and show you that your personal life not only matters but ultimately connects with the grand scheme of the world. Whew! Life is whole again. Better ride your scooter to the comic shop, pronto.
Now imagine that forty years have passed. From being confused little freaks, you and your peers have ascended to the helm of America’s megalithic media and advertising machine. The Cold War is over and things are going better than anyone could have predicted when . . . whammo . . . that machine takes a direct hit from a gang of shadowy non-entities with pointy facial hair plotting in caves at the far-flung edges of modern civilization. Once again the world is a polarized place. Safety has become an issue, but so has freedom. A new Gumby is in office with new angels and devils pulling on each ear. Your kids are coming of age not with air-raids but with orange alert. Bring on the remakes! Spider-man, The Hulk, X-Men: Where are you? America is engaged in world affairs again. Get those corny, self-absorbed DC Comics heroes out of here.
“Power is of the individual mind, but the mind’s power is not enough. Power of the body decides everything in the end, and only Might is Right.” Thus spoke the Great Pike, ruler of Sir Ector’s moat, explaining his political philosophy to a young Arthur.
It might as well have been Magneto chastising his rival, Professor Xavier. There has always been something dark swimming beneath the surface of Marvel’s optimism, a truth permanently repressed but never fully denied. It was this sinister truth that gave Marvel’s X-Men an evolutionary advantage over DC’s Doom Patrol, the coincidentally similar gang of anti-heroes under the governance of a wheelchair-bound “Chief” that came out in the same year. DC never quite got it, but Marvel tapped into the power of the leviathan lurking in the lake of modern history.
Erik Lensherr, a Polish Jew, suffered at the hands of modernity’s two most brutal empires, Nazi Germany and the USSR (during the last, most terrifying, years of Stalin’s reign), before emigrating to Israel under the name “Magnus,” and finally to the United States, where he assumed the identity of Magneto. Lensherr twice witnessed the collapse of order into a chilling, power-driven chaos, where each time his ethnicity placed him on the wrong side. He thus shows not the slightest surprise over the persecution of mutants at the hands of those in power.
The evolution of his thought (and to some degree his physical migration) parallels that of the late Leo Strauss, the German-born political philosopher and witness of both Russian and German oppression of Jews who has recently surfaced in the media as the man who may have mentored many of those behind America’s current aggressive strategy abroad.
Magneto and the real-life Strauss share a game-like view of history in which whoever wields power creates good and evil to his advantage. Both draw on (as well as fuel) the deeply embedded suspicion that some nihilistic seed survived the European near-Gotterdammerung and is now quietly growing in White House’s Rose Garden.
It is this New World fear that makes the crippled Xavier a more American hero than DC’s Nietzschean Superman. He comes with his own built-in balance of power: frailty. Yet Erik Lensherr knows a terrifying secret . . . shhhhh: Checks and balances will not always be enough. He saw the leviathan face to face in Germany; he experienced the havoc wreaked by its tail under Stalin. He sees no reason it cannot surface here.
Would you trust your planet to this man?
There is, at the heart of Magneto’s worldview, the idea that people like Professor Xavier and Arthur before him cannot ultimately wield Excalibur for “good.” There is no good but the sword. The idea of a good inherent in the universe is an illusion that will only quicken the dethroning of those who believe it and the destruction of the people closest to them. Magneto realizes that neither he nor Stryker constitute the most serious threat to life on earth. Charles Xavier does—the man who would consolidate all power under his own kingship and further delude himself by calling this sovereignty “good.” In the taut climax of X2, Xavier sits on his throne, Cerebro, having given all authority over the lives of men and mutants to himself . . . yet Xavier in his turn is governed by the voice of a man who is barely a human—a man without a soul, a slave (in a graphic critique of determinism) to the fluid secreted by his own brain. “The mind’s power is not enough.”
It wasn’t enough for Xavier, nor Arthur, who eventually cast Excalibur back to the Lady of the Lake. It wasn’t enough for Caesar or Marcus Aurelius or Nebuchadnezzar or Pharaoh or Alexander. Humanity will continue to evolve—technologically, politically, perhaps biologically—but evolution can only confer power and never bring justice. For that we would need a king who is just in and of himself; whose mind is complete and whose body is impervious to the corrupting influence of the world. It seems nobody has loosed the sword from its stone yet. Or if so, history has failed to take notice.