Anyone who looks for even an inkling of deeper meaning in film is likely familiar with the great X-Men analogy. X-Men are just like us they were just born the way they are and we can’t try and change them. Although we have tried.
It’s a massive analogy for the queer community. The struggle through abusive testing, legislation, segregation, etc. The first film opens with grandiose speeches about human evolution, Nazi-level intolerance, and a presentation to the US Senate about the dangers of forcing mutants to be public and registered with their identities.
There are plenty of details that solidify this analogy. The senator advocating for mutant registration asks, “do we want our children being taught by them?” Logan was experimented on because of his mutation; which while done for the opposite purpose sounds similar to gay reformation efforts. Rogue hurts anyone she touches, starting with a kiss; a clear parallel to AIDS and the sexual disease aspect of anti-gay intollerance.
This is the primary conflict of themes in Bryan Singer’s X-Men, half of the film is commenting on the rights movement for LGBTQ people and the other half is commenting on broader post-human themes. The narrative about mutation is at many times in conflict with its thematic analogy.
This is probably the film’s greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness. By connecting the struggle of LGBTQ people into the films narrative it is able to make some particularly strong commentary, particularly about the impact that intolerance has on children. And this connection is made stronger by the disconnect between the mutant/queer struggles. At least these mutant children have a place to go thanks to Dr Xavier. When gay or trans kids are forced out of there homes for whatever reason, they go to poorly funded and unsustainable youth shelters. By injecting the two themes together into the story, the real world implications of this kind of intolerance become clear by juxtaposition.
The film also brings other aspects of this analogy to light through its use of language. One of the more interesting would be Magneto’s use of “my brothers” as a greeting for other mutants. There is certainly an aspect of the queer discourse of a hierarchy of identities and the power that lies therein. The most common example of this is in how the identities of trans folk and the pronouns and names they prefer are not respected. Magneto calling Jean Grey and Storm “brothers” rings true to that experience. His ideology trumps his solidarity.
Those are the positives at work in the film’s analogy: now for the more problematic angle.
There has actually been a fair amount written about the other side of the X-Men analogy. I want to make clear before we continue though that for the purposes of the analysis here, we are only focusing on the first X-Men film. This analogy becomes deeper and more complicated through each of the other 5 films (not to mention the history in the comics) and we’ll tackle those films on their own.
So, as the links above describe, there is a comparison to be made between Professor X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Irving Greenberg while Magneto is compared to Malcolm X and Rabbi Meir Kahane. This is something Stan Lee himself has confirmed. King and X in particular were the inspiration for Xavier and Magneto at the point of their creation.
Now considering the change from a racial politics analogy to a sexual politics analogy, it might seem that for Bryan Singer’s X-Men this might have softened a little to acknowledge the problematic nature of comparing Malcolm X to a supervillain.
Unfortunately, the last line that Magneto utters in the film confirms that he is indeed supposed to be the Malcolm X figure. As Charles is visiting him in prison, Magneto reminds that there will still be a war between the humans and the mutants, and that he intends to fight it…
It is remarkably unfortunate that this line was included. For those unfamiliar with Malcolm X, arguably his most famous speech ended with this sentence.
“We declare our right on this earth to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”
And so this film cannot escape the connection between Magneto and Malcolm X that has existed since Magneto’s creation. The X-Men are Professor Xavier’s assimilationist forces combating the revolutionary forces of Magneto’s Brotherhood of (Evil) Mutants. This problem has existed in white America since the time of the civil rights movement: describing Martin Luther King Jr as an angelic figure while Malcolm X is the evil radical activist bent on destroying white people.
This view (which is absurd if you have read the other works of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr) is totally confirmed in the film. Magneto’s plan is to turn all of the world leaders considering the question of Mutant registration into Mutants themselves. Its like taking the worst parts of how straight America sees gay people – wanting to make everyone gay – and the worst parts of how white America sees radical black activists – wanting to destroy their way of life – and putting it all together in this super misrepresentation.
X-Men is a conflicted film in its attempt at progressive politics. It gets the effect of intolerance on youth but it creates a seriously problematic portrayal of any activists that choose to be anything but non-violent. As we go through the rest of the series with this lens I do hope that I find more inspiring portrayals than exist in the latter half of this first film.