Race, Discrimination, and Sexuality in the X-Men Cinematic Universe
The X-Men film franchise begins at a rain-soaked Nazi concentration camp during World War II. In the midst of a large crowd walks a young Jewish boy. His dark coat bears the Star of David, the badge’s yellow color contrasting against the dreary hues of the compound. As the boy is torn from his parents, he mysteriously emits a powerful magnetic force, bending the camp gate. The chaotic moment reaches a breaking point when the child, later known as Magneto, is knocked unconscious.
This introductory scene—expanded in X-Men: First Class—encapsulates the thematic mood of the entire franchise. At its core, the X-Men cinematic universe is more than a slab of blockbuster meat to a slew of hungry consumers. It’s a probing commentary on social subjugation, equality, and discrimination. In many ways, the yellow badge worn by Magneto represents the stigma that all mutants—a strand of evolved humans—would come to carry.
The gospel is the world’s greatest cure for racism, discrimination, and the social divide. In many ways, X-Men teaches us to take seriously Jesus’ command to love our neighbors.Birthed in the sixties, the X-Men comics were steeped in deep political and social themes, particularly the civil rights movement. It’s no coincidence that, ironically, Professor X is modeled after Martin Luther King Jr., while the series’ chief antagonist, Magneto, has much in common with the controversial Malcolm X.
As the franchise progressed, X-Men stretched past the geopolitical climate of mid-century America and morphed (or mutated) into something much larger. The series came to represent an overarching allegory for discrimination as a whole and specifically, anti-Semitism, racism, and gay rights. These issues all weave their way into the X-Men movies, creating a provoking mosaic of conflict and symbolism.
A governing motif of the films is the suspicion and fear mutants face from the outside world. The first movie introduces this struggle by highlighting the Mutant Registration Act, a piece of legislation championed by Senator Robert Kelly. “I think the American people deserve the right to decide whether they want their children to be in school with mutants, to be taught by mutants,” says Kelly. He even goes as far as brandishing a condensed list of mutants, a veiled reference to McCarthyism and the “Red Scare” of the fifties.
Thematically, Mutants are also seen as expendable assets to be used and then discarded at will. In the disappointing X-Men Origins: Wolverine (and flashback scenes from X2), Logan is the subject of a military experiment designed to transform him into a weapon of mass destruction. If our clawed hero isn’t being exploited for his adamantium claws, his regenerative powers are coveted for selfish gain (see The Wolverine). The use of mutants as devalued commodities bears a striking resemblance to the African slave trade of America’s past. Symbolism of which is displayed at the beginning of X2: X-Men United as the opening shot slowly pans to a White House painting of Abraham Lincoln. An image coupled with a tour guide’s commentary on the abolition of slavery.
As mentioned earlier, there are also specific references to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. X-Men: First Class sees a young Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) searching for his mother’s murderer. At the end of the film, the American government turns against the mutants, pushing the future villain to believe that unless drastic measures are taken, the fate of the evolved will be no different from the Jewish population in WWII Europe. “I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders,” he says. “Never again.” His fears are realized when, decades later, a government official by the name of William Stryker attempts to commit mass genocide against the mutant community in X2.
Likewise, it’s also been argued that the X-Men films make for a rather poignant allegory for the gay rights movement. Mutants, such as the shape-shifting Mystique, often struggle with shame over their appearance. They wrestle with the fear of “coming out.” During one scene in X2, Bobby Drake (Iceman) tells his family about his superpowers, to which his mother replies, “Have you ever tried not being a mutant?”
Then there’s the entire “cure” storyline in the third X-Men film, The Last Stand. Making a clear reference to the idea of a supposed “gay gene,” the plot details a pharmaceutical company advertising their remedy to the mutant controversy. “There’s nothing to cure” is one character’s reply.
William Ernest in his piece, Making Gay Sense of the X-Men, argues that, “the premise of ‘mutation’ is best understood as a metaphor for non-mainstream sexualities.” While Ernest does make a point, his argument isn’t rock-solid. There are certainly numerous allusions to the plight of the LGBT community (backed by X-Men and X2 director Bryan Singer). Yet, the film franchise makes best sense when interpreted as a parable for bigotry as a whole, rather than one specific group.
Whether one disagrees with this point or not, there is still much to learn from the X-Men films as we prepare for the release of Days of Future Past. As human beings, we have the propensity to devalue what we do not understand. We all have our own definition of “mutant.” This attitude shouldn’t sit well with Christians. Whether it’s someone with varying political views or a foreign immigrant, we have the duty to offer empathy. And while followers of Jesus might not agree with how the issue of homosexuality is treated in the series, the X-Men films push us to understand that those within the LGBT community are not second-class citizens. They deserve our wholehearted love and respect.
The gospel is the world’s greatest cure for racism, discrimination, and the social divide. In many ways, X-Men teaches us to take seriously Jesus’ command to love our neighbors. Sure, Christians might not be fond of how evolution is depicted in the films or even feel comfortable with the slight jabs made toward biblical sexuality, but we can all agree on the inherent dignity of every human being.
While operating under the guise of leather-clad superheroes, X-Men warns of the dangers that come with placing a yellow badge on those who are different. When instead, we should take opportunities to view every individual as intrinsically valuable and unequivocally loved.
Did this even need to be articulated? Thou dost protest too much.
I started reading comics in the mid-1970’s. I had a subscription to the Uncanny X-men during the late 70’s and early 80’s. The John Byrne, Dave Cockrum, and Terry Austin period. It was empathy with feeling alienated and misunderstood like an X-man that drew me to the series. Nightcrawler was my favorite.
Also, patrick. I feel your comment needs more explanation. What does the author protest too much? His blog is not a protest but instead an observation.
What is the appropriate balance between fearing what mutants are capable of and keeping their abilities in check, and not discriminating against them? How can the average person protect himself/herself from the person with superpowers without going too far in his/her attempts to protect himself/herself. Also, what is the appropriate balance between recognizing homosexuality as a sin, and loving the homosexual? I understand that everyone sins, but is there a difference between someone being a liar but not claiming a liar lifestyle, and someone being a homosexual and claiming a homosexual lifestyle? When is it established that we have truly repented of our sins? How can the church try to reach homosexuals without going too far in either direction: condemning them, or permitting their actions? Should their even be any balance, or do we just need to go all-in on grace no matter how it hurts us?
Jesus taught us to love our neighbors, not to agree with sin. If one is a rapist, a murderer, an adulterer, a homosexual, a gossip, a liar, or any other sinner – they are not different, they are as we all are – sinners.
It’s true, we are not different. In fact, in this emerging post-Christian society, we are seen as the mutants.
I’m awestruck at the parallel in this x – men series to the way of life. I must admit I hen not known this even after I’ve watched all the series. For me it was just another film towards pleasure fulfilment. I’ve learnt a great deal from this post. It’s very odd to be given a label and still try to leave as you are without hurting someone.
Having understood the supposed concept behind the x – men film after reading this blog I guess it will alter my views the next time I watched it.
But the central theme is loving people regardless of their orientation. But like many have written in the comments one needs to be careful to draw a distinction between living them and not subsuming such acts into the church. It is the little foxes that ruin the vineyard * (SONGS OF SOLOMON 2:15)
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