TCS Daily

Malcolm X-Men

By James Pinkerton - May 31, 2006 12:00 AM

Any enduringly popular work of fiction will always "work" on two levels. First, it will have to be entertaining, but second, it will also have to be about something substantive. That is, it should be thrilling or chilling, and yet at the same time, thoughtful, perhaps providing some sort of social commentary. In today's popular culture, "X" -- first the comic strip, and now the movie -- marks that spot. The film is called "X-Men: The Last Stand," although don't let that "last" fool you; this filmic franchise has many more lives yet to come.

The comic series, dating back to 1963, never failed to deliver its quotient of BLAMS! and SPLATS!, and yet, too, it was a parable about contemporary life, specifically the civil rights movement. In the real world of the 60s of course, the country seemed divided, black and white, and so, similarly, in the comic, the X-Men were mutants, divided from the rest of society. Sometimes the X-Men could "pass," but usually they were identified, oftentimes because they were more virtuous, or otherwise superior, to normal non-mutants.

But then X-Men creator Stan Lee added another twist, again ripped right from the headlines: The mutants were themselves divided, between the "good," organized under the cover of Dr. Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, and the "bad," led by Magneto, organized into the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. And, of course, the two groups fought it out, using their various and diverse superpowers. Dr. Xavier, for example, had the power of telepathy, while his arch-rival Magneto had the power to move metal -- why, he could even pull the iron out of a man's blood to fashion a flying carpet for himself. So with some poetic license, Xavier and Magneto recapitulated, with comic-bombast, the struggle inside the civil rights movement between the pacifistic and integrationist forces of Martin Luther King Jr. and the militant and separatist forces of Malcolm X.

But of course, 10-year-olds could be oblivious to all such heavy-messaging, even as they picked up messages targeted to their own youthful sensibility. Kids could thrill to spectacular struggles, featuring characters named Cyclops, Iceman, or Pyro -- some 100 characters in all, worldwide. In the case of most comics, one either identifies with, say, Superman or Batman, or one doesn't, but given the X-multiplicity, kids and the companion audience of young adults could find at least one personality or power to connect to. So for every youngster who has ever felt alone and unwanted -- which is to say, every youngster -- there was room in the X-universe, for genuine diversity.

And that diversity included a goodly helping of teen angst. In the new film, the third in a series that began back in 2000, the character Angel (first played by Cayden Boyd, then Ben Foster) is seen as so tormented by his white, feathery wings that he tries to hack them off in the bathroom, even as his alarmed father bangs on the door. Are the fairy-like wings a metaphor for homosexuality, or just for a general Otherness? That's for the movie to know and ticket-buyers to find out. And Rogue (Anna Paquin) has it even worse. She's a healthy teenager, with healthy desires, but there's a catch: She is unhealthy for others -- anyone who touches her dies immediately. Once again, apply that "power" to a high school setting; when Rogue talks to her boyfriend, she eyes him knowingly and sorrowfully: "You're a guy, Bobby. Your mind's only on one thing." But of course, any physical follow-through is lethal. An allegory for AIDS? Or just a way of expressing less medically specific feelings of mortification and self-mortification?

Meanwhile, the new "X-Men" updates the racial politics, too. The good (MLK Jr.) mutants are still good, but the bad mutants (MX) aren't actually so bad. Or maybe one could say that the baddies are b-a-a-a-d -- which is to say, kinda good. One of the bad mutants, Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), is, of course, the prettiest woman in the film; yes, she is painted blue, but that blue paint glows sexily right on her lithe body. When she is captured by the authorities, an interrogator addresses her as "Raven." To which she hisses in response, "I don't answer to my slave name."

The film ultimately sides with the integrationists, but only after giving the separatists their Byronic star turns. As we all know, the romantic villain always grabs the best lines, and gets the best exit, the last we see of Callisto (Dania Ramirez), the metal stud in her chin is glowing -- talk about it being better to burn out than fade away.

Torquing up the civil-rights angle to new peak of poignancy, the film imagines that science has developed a "cure" for the mutants. One injection and you're just a regular human. That possibility puts a new twist on identity politics, because the identity is now voluntary. Give up mutancy for normalcy? Some do, some don't. To Magneto (Ian McKellen), those who do are "traitors to their own cause."

And such is the prideful power of identity that even the good mutants see the prospect of a cure as threatening: "Since when did we become a disease?" asks Storm (Halle Berry). Such concerns aren't so far out; in the real world, subcultures reflexively seek to defend themselves, against friend and foe alike. To give another example, the students at Gallaudet University, an institution for the deaf, have become so mobilized on behalf of deafness that they rose up to protest the hiring of a president who "wasn't deaf enough."

So amidst cries of "genocide," the bad mutants get ready to rumble. But first, they must "own" their mutations, in the same way that some Gallaudet kids wish to own their deafness, in the way that some blacks wish to own the "n" word. Indeed, the "X" mutants seek to double-down on their differences; not only will they fight the power, but they will mobilize an army to destroy the source of the cure, which has been locked away at the always-photogenic Alcatraz Island.

That's where the movie reaches its climax, as two rainbow coalitions -- good mutants vs. bad mutants -- go to war in San Francisco Bay. The preview audience in Washington DC, itself pretty mixed, loved every minute of it. They knew they were supposed to root for the good guys, and they did, but they also rooted for the bad guys -- now that's a box-office-savvy form of fairness and balance! And in the end, because "X" is still more comic than cosmic, the fans were just cheering for the coolest cat. One surprise favorite: Dr. Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammer). But don't let the humdrum name fool you, this Dr. McCoy is big and blue, a cousin to "Beast" from the Disney musical, only bluer. He is cool, cool as a sapphire in a gin on the rocks -- even as he pummels red-hot mutants.

If this movie brings in all the money that I suspect it will, there will be more "X"s in the future. And while the filmmakers will be well advised to stay close to their fan base among special-effects-crazed kids, the storyline has continuing potential among older audiences, too.

How so? Forty years ago, the notion of mutations among humans was mere speculation, confined to sci-fi. But today, human speciation, driven by rapid advances in biotech -- bionics, gene therapy, stem cell -- is a clear and present danger. Or is it an opportunity?

So speciation and mutation; our friends or our foes? Scribblers will be seeking to answer such questions in wonky publications such as this for a long time to come. But filmmakers will be offering their own answer, too -- for a lot more money.

Not that I'm jealous or anything.

James Pinkerton is TCS Daily's media critic.



No Subject
Dear Mr. Pinkerton,

You are innocently falling for the slick propaganda put out by the administration of Gallaudet and the new President-elect.

Where is your evidence that the protesters think that (the tentatively appointed) President-elect Fernandes is "not deaf enough"?

I've been with the protesters and I've stayed at "Tent City." There was nothing there that resembles what you're talking about.

The facts are this: She is "not good enough." The issue of the protest has nothing to do with her hearing status or subcultural identity.

Please see our latest press release for a fuller explanation:

Brian Riley

“But today, human speciation, driven by rapid advances in biotech -- bionics, gene therapy, stem cell -- is a clear and present danger. Or is it an opportunity?”

The engineering of “better humans”, a 5th type of speciation, will be a major growth industry in this century. Speciation technologies, like nuclear technologies, are both an opportunity for human advancement and destruction. The X-Men movie series only begins to touch the surface of possibilities. What about a human who didn’t need to breath, or consume organic sustenance…a human that sustained itself by direct absorption and processing of EM energy… a human that could thrive in space or on Venus? X-Men suggests possible futures where humans are either “masters of the universe” or extinct. So yes, it does have something for all audiences.

why stop there?
Wouldn't it be wondrous if all the girls could be made fabulously beautiful and the boys handsome? We now know that we are biologically programed to see certain faces and body shapes as attractive. Why we would we want anyone to be born average in appearance, intellect, morality, or mental health?

No doubt Aldous Huxley will beturning over in his grave, remember "Brave New World?" But who cares?

Thanks for thie report and cv services

who has ever felt alone and unwanted -- which is to say, every youngster -- there was room in the X-universe, for genuine diversity. uk seo

James Pinkerton - I enjoyed reading your report. Thanks for that. Will come back when I have more time.

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