the wrong analogy: thoughts on the x-men franchise

It’s largely held that the X-Men franchise is narratively rooted in identity politics and civil rights, with mutants serving as analogues to ethnicities, sexual orientation, and other minorities relative to white heterosexual Christian males. Throw in some Nazis, Jews, and the Holocaust and the X-Men’s structural analogy is firmly set in place. That is, a specific interpretation of the X-Men stories – what they signify – is accepted as the “correct” reading.

Yet despite decades of comics and a growing catalogue of variable-quality movies, all charting the conflict between intolerant humans and people who are “different,” the xenophobia analogy continues to ring false. And for a simple reason: unlike homosexuality or the colour of one’s skin, which are not morally harmful despite what bigots believe, mutant superpowers can, and often are, extremely dangerous both to the mutants themselves and everyone around them. Why is it, then, that the franchise views with exaggerated suspicion human attempts to implement some sort of control schema? Why is it so surprising that ordinary humans would be wary, if not outright afraid, of people who wield incredibly destructive powers without, in some cases, suffering from ordinary human vulnerabilities? Consider that in the generally entertaining and well-produced film, X-Men: First Class, Sebastian Shaw and his hellfire club unilaterally conspire to destroy humanity, and rule over the surviving remnants, before the world can even acknowledge the existence of mutants let alone articulate a response to that knowledge. This worldview is uncritically shared, and later perpetuated, by Magneto, who has more reason to be cynical about human tolerance than the megalomaniacal Shaw. (Somehow, it never occurs to anybody, let alone Lensherr, that people also fought against the Nazis and their genocidal ideology.)

While the science-fantasy of the franchise, along with its misunderstanding of evolution, can be overlooked, it is harder to dismiss the X-Men’s equivocation of dangerous mutations with homosexuality or ethnicity. It’s an analogy that strikes me as objectionable and exploitative in-and-of-itself, let alone philosophically suspect. I’m not alone in finding a reason to balk at the interpretation common applied to X-Men’s premise: the always-thoughtful Abigail Nussbaum critiques First Class for explicitly drawing a comparison between Jews and mutants and, in her essay, deftly demonstrates why the xenophobia analogy leads to problematic interpretations. However, she stops short of questioning why we accept the analogy at all; a film’s characters and events are not necessarily symbolic of anything. (Erik Lensherr, for example, isn’t a stand-in for all Jews just because he is Jewish.)

So I ask: why accept the xenophobia analogy when it so clearly doesn’t work as a unifying concept for stories and characters? With the very premise and characters forced to fit into an unworkable analogy, events are scripted to bear a meaning they can’t ultimately support. Even dialogue can often emotionally dishonest in the film’s drama – is it really so bad to want to be a normal human if you’re mutation is dangerous? – because the characters are not really talking about what’s going on, only what the writers thing is going on. It’s rather like a bad subtitle job in which the text doesn’t match what the actors are actually saying.

What if, instead, the X-Men franchise in general, and First Class in particular, was reconsidered in terms of gun control politics?

On one side are the 2nd Amendment literalists, who believe in the unregulated use of power – represented in First Class first by Sebastian Shaw, and later by Magneto, and their mutant allies. On another are the gun control advocates, who vary in degree between absolutists who would ban all guns (and overreact in the pursuit of their goal), typically represented in the films by the US Government, and moderates represented by Professor X and his team who argue in favour of balance between two extremes. Under this analogy, the X-Men operate as a kind of police force, equipped with the right tools and skills to face-off against a criminal element, or least individuals acting outside the law, with superpowers. Simultaneously, they try to restrain government and societal forces who, out of fear/hate (whether justified and irrationally extreme), make no distinction between responsible and irresponsible mutants – that is, mutants who use their gifts for the benefit of others, or not at all, rather than to cause harm. The actual philosophical disagreement between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, then, is over when and how to use force, with the Professor favouring a law & order approach, Magneto preferring unchecked vigilantism, and everyone else falling at different points within the political spectrum.

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