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X Marks the Spot: Taking the X-Men Back to Relevance…

I am quite looking forward to Matthew Vaughan’s upcoming X-Men: First Class, which looks to be the first “retro” superhero film. You could, of course, make the claim that the accolade belongs to Watchmen, which was set in the eighties, but it was an alternate eighties at that – where Nixon was President and big blue men wandered around with their glowing privates on display. However, it’s fascinating that the X-Men are the film franchise to really do that, to actually construct a period piece set amidst the Cuban Missile Crisis while John F. Kennedy was squaring off against the Soviet Union. Perhaps it’s ideal, because the sixties and seventies were undoubtedly the time at which the mutant metaphor was at its most potent.

Click to enlarge...

I’ve written before about how Vaughan’s piece seems to violate one of the key rules of superhero comic books by anchoring itself in a specific place or time. After all, superheroes are eternal. Batman and Superman are still only in their thirties, despite fighting crime for seventy years, after all. However, if you were going to take a superhero franchise back to the point where it was most relevent, there’s no denying that you’d move the X-Men back to the nineteen sixties.

The Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded in November 1962. It was a time when the world seemed on the bring of nuclear war. Stan Lee would first write the X-Men in 1963. Originally planning to call the series “the Merry Mutants” and coming up with the idea of mutation as a means of avoiding having to come up with six different origins for six different characters, Lee originally branded the mutants “the children of the atom”, and implied that exposure to radiation had granted them their power. Of course, this doesn’t make sense if Wolverine is over 100 years old, and this explanation was later quietly discarded, but it creates a link between the X-Men and the atomic age. They are still occasionally called the children of the atom even today.

Has some of the shine come off?

However, there is, of course, another reason why the time period suits the characters perfectly. In 1955, a black woman refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. This stand seemed to shake the United States, and sparked an explosive debate on the civil rights of African Americans which burned well into the sixties. In October 1962, there were race riots in Mississippi over the admission of a black student to the University of Mississippi. John and Bobby Kennedy would make massive strides in civil rights over the course of Kennedy’s presidency, but they did meet resistance.

This is a world where the X-Men are relevant. As a team of people who are inherently different, they faced prejudice on a daily basis, fighting for their civil rights as often as they fought to save the planet. Interestingly enough, the Uncanny X-Men, the team launched by Chris Claremont in the 1970s, would include one of the most diverse line-ups in comic book history, including Japanese, African, Native American, German, Irish, Russian and Canadian members. Under Claremont, the book was famous for featuring a wide variety of characters from all sorts of backgrounds. The book took the concept of a group under constant threat of oppression and just ran with it.

A Beast of a series...

These concepts are ones that we always associate with the X-Men. They are firmly engrained in the public consciousness. We all know the blurb that reminds us the X-Men are “sworn to protect a world that fears and hates them.” It’s just part of what they do, and it defines the franchise, providing them with a distinct philosophy when compared to The Fantastic Four or The Avengers. It’s easy to see why this concept works so well in the sixties, the period when the Civil Rights movement was first finding its feet. Indeed, the X-Men were one of the best selling properties at Marvel from the late seventies through to the nineties, when it seemed that every other week they were having some sort of gigantic crossover.

However, Marvel soon found itself facing a problem of relevance. The X-Men spoke to a nation dealing with the issues of racism. By the late nineties, most of the overt racism was gone from American society. I don’t mean to imply that every institutional and social barrier has been removed, merely that things like segregation on buses and in schools and work places were long gone. Even apartheid South Africa had fallen. As I’ve written elsewhere, in the twenty-first century, Marvel found that “mutant registration acts” and explicit persecution no longer had the same resonance with the comic-buying public. Quite simply, the world had moved on.

Have the X-Men lost some of their magnetic appeal?

I remember reading Mark Millar’s Ultimate X-Men, which was an attempt to update the franchise a few years back. In the first few pages, a young boy is attacked by killer robots sent by the government, because he has the mutant gene. My immediate thoughts weren’t “oh, what must it be like to live in constant fear?”, they were “no way that a kid, no matter how different, has to worry about being hunted down and killed by the US government or any liberal democratic government.” Oh, I know there are small-minded people about, but I couldn’t accept the idea of the US government sanctioning that sort of kill order.

Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run suggested that the mutant experience could be expanded as a metaphor for that of any minority within the United States, with white kids coopting the culture in an attempt to seem cool, and institutional racism hiding behind a cool, liberal veneer. It was a smart idea, one which dealt with that fact that the most severe prejudice that minorities face these days aren’t necessarily explicit rights issues, but ones concerning identity and integration. Mutant tattoos, mutant music, mutant fashion – they were all up for grabs, as upper-class kids started pretending to be mutants to raise their “street cred.” It was a great approach. However, this never caught on.

Has the game changed?

In the time since, the X-Men have tried any number of different positions and roles in an attempt to reclaim their social relevance. Marvel wiped out all but 200 in an attempt to make the metaphor potent again, with the characters living on a government-protected reservation like Native Americans. Alternatively, writer Matt Fraction has pitched the X-Men as something akin to the Jewish state of Israel, raising questions about when it is appropriate for a nation to define itself by its ethnicity.

These approaches haven’t worked. The X-Men haven’t found a consistent foot to stand on, their hold on social relevance weakening with each passing year. Being honest, I can see why. Taking a metaphor for the Civil Rights movements, one that always believed in an optimistic and open-minded society that could be created, and using it as a stand-in for an antagonistic and heavily militarised police state isn’t going to strike the same chord. I’m all for geo-political discussions in comic books, but the X-Men don’t work as an analogy for Israel, because they’re too simple. I love them, but you can’t handle a philosophy like that in an action superhero comic book. On the other hand, you can deal with a relatively straight-forward theme like equality within the same framework.

This always gets me all fired up...

In this case, it’s easy to see why Vaughan felt so tempted to bring the series back to the sixties. It was the time at which the X-Men felt the most relevant. It’s interesting that the movie is set a year before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby produced their first issue of the series – it perhaps implies that even when the franchise was at its most relevant, it was already behind the times. I’m very sad that the modern X-Men franchise is struggling to find a voice, but perhaps moving this film back to the sixties will help make it seem even more relevant (although, to be honest, I doubt it will be especially heavy-handed).

So, what do you think? Are the X-Men dated as a concept?

4 Responses

  1. Can’t say I’m too thrilled or excited about this movie. Unless there is overwhelming positive response from critics, I doubt I will be seeing this in theater.

    • Ah, but we all kinda liked Kick-Ass, right?

      To be hoenst, I think I’m going just for Kevin Bacon’s sideburns and velvet jacket.

  2. I really wasn’t interested in seeing this film until the terrific trailer debuted. Let’s hope Matthew Vaughn can erase the bad taste of X-Men: Last Stand.

    • Yep. Have you seen the international one? It’s even slightly better, because there’s more Magneto.

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