With the seventh X-Men feature releasing tomorrow, I’ve been reviewing the previously-released elements of the cinematic mythology. It’s hard not to draw from the various comic books, television shows, etc. but I’ve tried to keep it limited to what the films have actually shown us of the elite force of mutants who defend the world from tyranny and various “isms.” There’s still plenty here to reflect on thanks to the vision of directors like Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughn, as well as the original creation by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Chris Claremont, and Joss Whedon.
The Back Story
In the first film in the series, we watch as Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) draw up battle lines (and teams) to reckon with the growing discontent between humans and mutants (human beings with special powers). There’s a grand culmination at the Tower of Liberty, and we’re wowed by the special effects and elaborate cast (Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, Anna Paquin), but ultimately, we enter into some territory that’s a bit too hokey.
By X2: X-Men United and X-men: The Stand, we’re dealing with prejudice that is palpable hate in the form of William Stryker (Brian Cox, NOT Daddy Warbucks) and then, the absolute clash of Xavier and Magneto, revolving around Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) who must contend with the Dark Phoenix. Unfortunately, the storyline is a bit muddled because they try for the stories of Claremont, Whedon, and some old school Kirby/Lee all mashed together. It almost begs for a reboot…
Which is what we get after the sideways step to X-Men Origins: Wolverine that does nearly nothing for the development of the X-Men mythos, but makes Jackman even more front and center as Wolverine. Somehow, we’ve lost the sense of the X-Men battling humanity and other, more violent mutants, instead sending Wolvie on a revenge adventure (that’s akin to the comics) with way too much cheesiness mixed in thanks to comic-killing Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool (not to be confused with Arrow’s Deadshot). [Origins is bad enough that some people swear off of Wolverine (2013) but that film proves to be more true to Wolverine in another adaptation of a Claremont storyline.]
It Gets Better…
X-Men: First Class finally provides us with a solid story that gives us the motivations and ‘theology’ of Xavier (Jams McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). We watch the first school Xavier tries to set up with Magneto, training a younger crowd of mutants like Mystique, Beast, Alex “Havok” Summers (Cyclop’s brother) played by younger actors (Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Lucas Till, Caleb Landry Jones). But the other piece, besides younger, is that the story takes us back to the early 1960s, and finds us recognizing why those two stanchions in all of the stories are the way they are, how they lost the friendship they once had.
I find the stories relating to Nazis to be gripping, whether it’s real like The Diary of Anne Frank or fictional like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. These animals, these possessed power-coveting annihilists serve up the drive that causes Magneto to be angry, that cause Mystique (Lawrence) to question her place in a society that doesn’t accept mutants and especially ones that look like Smurfs. But Xavier experiences the ‘racism’ and ostracization and doesn’t allow his anger to get the best of him.
In one of the best theological scenes, X challenges Magneto to get past the anger to do something better. That just stopping bullets from hitting his brain isn’t enough but that he needs to control his powers to use them intentionally, focused. That there are two natures within all of us and that we need to figure out what we should control and what we should embrace. Good versus evil, self versus community, power versus servanthood. It’s a series of decisions that aren’t just Xavier’s and Magneto’s but every single one of the mutants in X-Men: First Class, like Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw.
For me, the power-hungry violence of the Hellfire Club makes the latest X-Men film until tomorrow more gritty and realistic in the fight between the X-Men and the other mutants. Sure, it’s a coming-of-age story, a love story (between Beast and Mystique), and a recognition that what may seem like a two-sided battle later on between Xavier and Magneto, is really not. It’s various shades of gray, of decision-making, of freeing oneself up for the community or binding ourselves to a narrow, self-focused vision of how the world works.
Here, it’s not just “with great power comes responsibility,” but rather a series of questions about whether or not we use our powers to benefit ourselves or we share them so that we can be a blessing to everyone. Violence, greed, revenge, hate, etc. are all options for the mutants, and for us, but determining who we follow and how we combat things, violently or non-violently, are incredibly important in how we’re defined and remembered. Recognizing our own Godgiven gifts or hiding them because of others’ attention, scorn, or fear doesn’t help us make good choices on the larger level. There are plenty of other sociological perspectives that the films offer, but the choices we make and how they impact others are sure to rise again in Singer’s adaption of Claremont’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Can we change the future by making the right decisions?