X-Men and the MCU: The Possibilities and Pitfalls
In his popular, investigative book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe claims, “The X-Men was probably the most explicitly political of the 1960s Marvel comics.” With Issue Number One premiering in the fall of 1963, it is hard to miss the X-Men’s ties to the Civil Rights Movement. Written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, themes of otherness, bigotry, chosen family, and violence are pervasive throughout many of the early issues. The X-Men continually faced discrimination for their naturally developed powers and were treated with distain at a far higher frequency than their non-mutant counterparts. One problem: the original five X-Men (Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Iceman, Beast, and Angel) were all seemingly straight, cis, white kids standing in as a metaphor for very real and very marginalized populations. With Disney’s purchase of Twentieth Century Fox and the accompanying rights to the X-Men, it is clear that Marvel’s mutants will be lighting up our screens for years to come. With those rights, Kevin Feige and whole Marvel Studios crew have inherited not only a responsibility to X-Men fans but to the ideas and themes this property so fully embodies. And with today’s current political climate, it would certainly be a shame to waste such relevant source material and not use the popularity and success of the MCU to illuminate many real-world issues.
I have hope. Marvel Studios’ track record with adapting comic book stories for the screen has been fairly well-received due to its deep exploration of its thematic material. I believe that the success of The Avengers films – and the popularity of Iron Man and Captain America, in particular – is hinged upon the Avengers’ varying relationships to government control, especially as it pertains to American society. Perhaps the most obvious example is the choice to position Steve and Tony on either side of the political divide laid out for our heroes in Captain America: Civil War. That movie serves as the pivot point for both Steve and Tony as they seemingly transition to a new, more nuanced relationship with and understanding of their government; Steve, once America’s Golden Boy, disobeys orders after his idealistic view of America is shattered when realizing that HYDRA has infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. Tony, once characterized by his selfishness and war profiteering, transitions to a man eager for the government to step in and take charge after his own mistakes and personal shortcomings have led to catastrophe. With post-Snap governments not really explored in Avengers: Endgame, the external pressures placed on the Avengers all but evaporate and our heroes are forced to look within and decide what is right for themselves. It is therefore telling that the ultimate fates of these characters, as witnessed in Endgame, tie so neatly into this narrative shift and role reversals stemming from their self-discoveries in Civil War. A less rule-abiding Steve breaks the laws of time and space to finally get a well-earned happy ending. Tony selflessly gives his life to the cause and atones for his mistakes; mistakes which often revolved around his attempts to circumvent the rules and laws laid out for him. In short, both Steve and Tony come to realize that in times of great crisis, it is sometimes necessary to deviate from set rules, look within, and do what is best for their own self-preservation and for the safety of others, respectively. Sometimes government does isn’t the solution, it’s the obstacle.
For a saga beginning in 2008, an era defined largely by the Bush Administration, the shadow 9/11, and a country in the thick of its entanglements in the Middle East, perhaps it is not so surprising that for its 11-year existence, the MCU has been preoccupied with plots involving troubled government entities, domestic terror, and the devastation of war. What begins as a story where the various Avengers attempt to twist themselves into the parameters formed by governmental structures (Tony’s tech is coveted by the U.S. Government and SHIELD, Steve is initially used in the 1940’s as a piece of wartime propaganda), we slowly transition to the characters’ collective belief in themselves. This belief and unwillingness to conform to flawed governmental systems is nearly humanistic in nature. There is a sense that the laws and traditions established by governments simply have not caught up with the changing landscape where superheroes and space aliens pop up more and more frequently.
While governing bodies in the MCU often do their best they to create one-size-fits-all procedures and punishments, they often lack the nuance that comes with the Avengers’ more intimate interactions with the issues. Interestingly, many story beats in the series can be likened to the collective awakening to several real-world problems that have been brought to light in the last decade. Bucky, despite being brainwashed, is unfairly pursued and arrested for crimes he wasn’t fully responsible for; a storyline reflective of double standards and unfairness in our justice systems. Wanda’s story as a dislocated refugee - who has lost all connections to her former life - can be paralleled to the injustice in our immigration system (“She’s not a U.S. citizen. They don’t offer visas to weapons of mass destruction,” says Tony, shortly before we see Wanda imprisoned at the RAFT, wearing a straight-jacket and shock collar). With the formation of the Socovia Accords, we see governments around the world uniting to keep people perceived as “dangerous” in check. In our own country, laws are often crafted to do just that – look at the U.S. prison system. Prescient as these story-beats may be, they simply aren’t allowed room to breathe with the weight of Endgame’s intergalactic finale. And, of course, primarily white characters stand in for the people of color who are so often the victims of such governmental abuse. It seems as though the MCU has set the stage for an exploration of the intersectionality of these issues; intersectionality between the MCU and our own world in 2020. And in order to explore this intersectionality, a wider breadth of representation is required in the coming phases of the MCU.
With the mutants’ arrival to the universe, the choices made in choosing characters and developing storylines must do more than simply pay lip-service X-Men/Civil Rights connection or they run the risk of ringing hollow and lacking the appropriate perspectives. Looking back to the Twentieth Century Fox X-Men franchise, more recent installments like X-Men Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix simply skirt around the Civil Rights metaphor - despite the increase of real-world, parallel events. In Apocalypse, we see that Mystique is celebrated as a hero and in Dark Phoenix, Charles has a direct line to the President of the United States, mostly doing away with the previous decade’s exploration of the mutant metaphor. Both films seem to suddenly embrace more bombastic, MCU-like storylines, thus disregarding the series’ own previously established mission statement and perspective.
The Fox X-Men franchise’s recent unwillingness to fully embrace the Civil Rights connection (and the modernized updating of the themes which surround it) is perhaps best embodied with its predominately white cast. Similar to Bucky, Wanda, and others in the MCU, white mutants have also been used as avatars for people of color. Here is a list of the top twelve character screen times from the first X-Men film through Dark Phoenix:
Xavier 2 hours 3 mins Magneto 2 hours Wolverine 1 hour 7 mins Jean 1 hour 4 mins Mystique 1 hour 3 mins Beast 59 mins Storm 42 mins Cyclops 41 mins Rogue 29 mins Moira Mactaggert 24 mins Nightcrawler 22 mins Iceman 19 mins Quicksilver 17 mins
While there manages to be three blue characters on this list, there are no Asian, Native American, Latinx, or Middle Eastern characters at all. Strom, in fact, is the only character of color to make the list. Yet, her entire identity as a strong black woman with her own set of unique challenges and experiences are never given the same room to breathe as her white and male counterparts. By comparison, Wolverine (who is the lead in a majority of the films) has his own origin movie giving us details of a backstory we already knew from X2. Magneto has not one but three trips to Auschwitz to explore his traumatic backstory. Even Cyclops has two different flashbacks to the origins of his powers (one in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and again in Days of Future Past).
Yet in the source material, Storm also has deals with a dark past she is forced to grapple with – her parents are killed in a freak accident in Harlem, she moves to Egypt and lives on the street before she is mind-controlled by the Shadow King, she escapes, and she finds the strength to live in Kenya as a powerful weather goddess, discovering the potential of her power. Jubilee, an Asian-American mutant made popular in the 90’s animated series, is given very little to do in the few times she appears during the franchise (several scenes featuring her were cut in Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix). Bishop, another popular black mutant from the 90’s, is featured in Days of Future Past but exists with no real character development and only a few generic lines, as is James Proudstar, a Native American character and Blink, another Asian American character. In X-Men First Class, Darwin is needlessly killed before the final battle (didn’t his powers make him indestructible?), his death spurring white-presenting characters like Mystique and Beast to action. The lack of real representation and screen-time for characters of color not only limits much-need perspectives as we tackle such specific themes, but also has the unfortunate consequence of erasing and undermining experience and trauma relating to people of color – which, of course, flies in the face of what the mutant metaphor is really all about.
Brian Singer’s original films attempted to re-purpose the mutant metaphor as a stand-in for the struggle of the LGBTQ community, which certainly could be seen as another valid interpretation. However, the existing X-Men films depict no openly LGBTQ characters. Worse still, canonically queer characters are simply portrayed as straight despite the contradictions in the comics. For example, Mystique, featured so heavily in the films with both the original and the First Class trilogies, never had her romance with the precognitive Destiny explored but was instead used generically in recent films– an object of affection for Charles and Erik in First Class, a McGuffin in Days of Future Past, and a victim of fridging in Dark Phoenix. Indeed, the depiction is nearly unrecognizable from her comic-book counterpart. Of course, perhaps studio executives were hesitant to allow a queer character featured so prominently in the films, but an actor of Jennifer Lawrence’s caliber certainly would have been given more interesting and far less reductive material to work with.
Disney, for its part, has made attempts at slowing introducing queer representation into its films in recent years, albeit in some very small ways. LGBTQ fans have even criticized Disney’s attempts at queer representation to be fairly hollow in their execution i.e. Lefou in Beauty and the Beast (great, gay people can only be buffoonish villains), Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (those two kissing lesbians have no names and little screen time), and Avengers: Endgame (while the speech at Cap’s survivor meeting delivered beautifully by Joe Russo makes mention of same-sex dating, this minor character remains nameless). With the X-Men now firmly under Disney’s control, they have inherited a slew of canonically queer characters including Mystique, Destiny, Deadpool, Iceman, Rictor, Nightveil, Northstar, Anole, and Karma, as well as a handful of unconfirmed LGBTQ characters like Kitty Pryde, Magik, and Rachel Summers, all of whom have been thought of by many as queer during decades of publication. If Disney is truly interested in achieving more diversity in terms of queerness, an X-Men franchise would be a wonderful place to start since the themes lend themselves to beautifully to the exploration an identity thrust upon oneself at birth and the resulting discrimination which comes from being who you are. Disney can introduce queer X-Men with a wide breadth of experiences, capturing the more nuanced elements of the diverse spectrum that is sexuality. In addition, Disney could introduce new trans characters, as trans characters in Marvel’s comic book universe is also woefully light.
Superhero stories have continued to captivate audiences around the world with their epic plots, colorful costumes, and large explosions. But I also would like to think that so many people come back to these stories because they illuminate very real issues in our own world and provide solutions only achievable with the banding together of extraordinary people. Under the Disney umbrella, the first decade and change of the MCU has grown with a quickly changing America. These films serve largely as a time capsule for a very specific era in American society. But today, we deal with different issues; issues which weigh on a new generation of Americans. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought to light the horrific and systemic racial disparity in our country and our world. The unfair treatment of LGBTQ people is still an issue for many. Immigrants looking for a better life are being imprisoned and cruelly separated from their families. While it might be easier to simply to replace the victims of these issues with mutants, a braver and more progressive approach would be to allow both to exist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With source material like Chris Claremont’s God Loves, Man Kills and X-tinction Agenda, both of which explore bigotry and weaponization of religion and government, respectively and Tom Taylor’s recent X-Men Red, which examines the dangers of spreading hate and misinformation in a digital age, the possibilities of more closely examining these intersections are nearly endless. However, to lean too far into the metaphor is to cause the erasure of real-world problems, which feels counterproductive to the themes so prevalent in the pages of the X-Men comics. Therefore, if the intersectionality of the MCU and our own world is to be fully examined, we must begin with more deliberate attempts at responsible and inclusive representation with the characters chosen to include and the actors hired to play them. With Disney’s purchase of Twentieth Century Fox and the accompanying X-Men intellectual property, they have been handed a truly awesome power; the power to inform audiences and the power to provide meaningful examination of the world in which we live and our current societal challenges. If they get it right, Disney may just create another time-capsule of the moment in which we live and craft another decade of fresh, sophisticated, and timely super-heroics.