I have heard some commenters refer to Stan Lee’s “X-Men” as a treatment of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. I have never taken to the comparison of black people to “mutants.” While I acknowledge that Mr Lee may have had a noble cause in starting a discussion on equality, diversity, and the inclusion of different cultures, ethnicities, and creeds into the American melting pot, but to be likened to a plant or animal with inheritable characteristics that differ from those of the parents, leads to questions such as, “Did Mr Lee and the good people at Marvel take a look at the definition?” “Who exactly are the parents that blacks differ from?” “Should we get rid of our inherited and unique characteristics in order to be equal?”
I won’t harp on the above questions too much because for the average movie goer the bandwidth may not be available for considering such social questions beyond the need just to get away and watch an exciting movie for a couple hours. On the other hand, anyone who has read the comics as a kid or has delved deeply into the Marvel Cinematic Universe tends not to be too put off by the social observations. Besides, lasting imagery and coming away from each viewing having observed different angles on the characters or the message are characteristics that push a movie toward the classic realm.
I hadn’t seen “X-Men: Days of Future Past in a couple years so revisiting it tonight on the FX channel gave me a chance to go a little deeper into the messaging. The story was set in two time periods: in 1973 with the central event being the Paris peace talks to bring the Vietnam war to an end; and fifty years later where mutants are brought to the brink of extinction by an army of mechanical sentinels. The X-Men must reach back telepathically to the past to stop an event that that, if left unchecked, will contribute to the start of the global war on mutants.
Three principal characters stood out such that they caused me to unpack the possible civil rights connection. “Charles Xavier”, played by Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy; “Erik Lensherr”, played by Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender; and “Raven Darkholme”, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr are trying to prevent Raven Darkholme from killing the man who would eventually create the sentinels responsible for near annihilation of mutants. Raven represented to me the militant arm of the civil rights movement, an arm led by leaders such as Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale. Raven, at one point during the story, expresses to Charles her anger and disappointment stemming from his apparent abandonment of his fellow mutants particularly during the period of crisis where mutants were facing an existential threat. This anger and disappointment was also expressed by the more militant arm of the civil rights movement where they saw the non-violent, peace first approach of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King as ineffective.
I saw Charles as representing the more moderate arm of the civil rights movement. He did not see violence as the way to forge any peace with non-mutants but did not display to me any naivete of kumbaya and hand holding with non-mutants. Charles’ preferable approach was to connect all mutants and teach them how to see themselves as great individuals. While it could be easy to liken him to a Dr. King, Charles’ realism kept him slightly to the right of Dr. King.
Erik was the separatist. And yes, the civil rights movement did have separatists most notably Malcolm X. Erik’s degree of pragmatism altered with changes in the facts on the ground. He would have gladly took up arms against non-mutants, but if Raven’s assassination attempt today meant extinction of mutants tomorrow, then neutralizing Raven in the short term in order to secure a separate but strong mutant nation in the long run was the logical play.
This to me has always been the beauty of the science fiction/fantasy genre. It provides an alternative backdrop for taking a look at ourselves. The “X-Men” movie franchise has been able to paint that canvas by using the time machine and taking us back to the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, using events from those decades to provide us with teachable insights. Using mutants as an analogy for race is not perfect. As I discussed earlier I don’t particularly care for it and I would digress a bit and say I don’t care for the term “race” either, but in this specific space it works.