The history lesson of ‘X-Men’

Updated
Michael Fassbender as Magneto in "X-Men: First Class."
Michael Fassbender as Magneto in "X-Men: First Class."
Marvel

Celebrated by many (including Rachel) is Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates’ guest column for the New York Times. He wrote about taking his son to see the Marvel mutant superhero film “X-Men: First Class,” and noted that the film (set in 1962) was a piece of American historical fiction:

Here is a period piece for our postracial times — in the era of Ella Baker and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the most powerful adversaries of spectacular apartheid are a team of enlightened white dudes…

“First Class” is not blind to societal evils, so much as it works to hold evil at an ocean’s length. The film is rooted in its opposition to the comfortably foreign abomination of Nazism. This is all about knowing your audience.

That audience, of course, is largely what Kent Jones and I witnessed in the theater when we enjoyed the film yesterday: grade-school kids, comic-book aficionados and action-film buffs. But history plays a much bigger role, particularly in a film for which the Cuban Missile Crisis is a central stage.

The very American racial allegory of the X-Men is a somewhat obvious one: a oppressed minority group (mutants) is discriminated against by the dominant, majority group (humans) because they are different and they engender fear because of that difference. Professor X has most often been likened to Martin Luther King, Jr.; his friend and rival Magneto, to Malcolm X. Whether or not the allegory holds up under closer inspection, that’s what the story presents.

But how can a film purport to show the mutants’ struggle for acceptance (and in some cases, dominance) without honestly depicting the racial and societal realities of the time in which it’s set? I’d agree with Ta-Nehisi that the X-Men, more than any comic-book heroes, owe a particular allegiance to the times in which their stories take place. They can never be “just a movie.”

Ta-Nehisi expanded (and clarified) his argument in a follow-up post on his Atlantic blog (contains film spoilers):

 

I wasn’t really interested in how X-Men comports with the liberal dream of America, so much as I was interested in the fact that the X-Men were conceived during the same year as the March on Washington, the same year Malcolm X gave his “Message To The Grassroots” speech, the same year Medgar Evers was shot, the same year white supremacists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church…

I’m not arguing that X-Men should have been “about” the Civil Rights Movement, or that black characters should be immortal. The appropriate comparison for me is “Mad Men.” The show is about an exclusively white world, but it is never blind to race. I can’t think of only one “racial” story-line, and I am fine with that. But race is always there, in the subtext, in the side comments, in the jobs which black people work.

Another spolier-filled piece Ta-Nehisi links to examines the film’s whitewashing of racism and sexism at greater length. It’s also worth a read.

The history lesson of 'X-Men'

Updated