If you made it out to any superhero cinema fare this summer, you became well acquainted with a large part of Marvel’s top hero tier. Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, and the X-Men all made silver screen appearances, and next year’s The Amazing Spider-Man and The Avengers also debuted in trailer form. X-Men: First Class brought us back to the beginning of the super mutant team, and the issue that ultimately drove Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr apart. How does mutantkind respond to a world that hates and fears them? What place does this minority, one that by all means has the power to take whatever they want by force, hold in the brave new future unraveling before them, and the world at large? First Class does a great job posing this question, and I’m sure X-Men: Second Class: The Classening will do an even better job answering it.
Thinking on this question brings up another one. In the time period of First Class, the mutants are only beginning to become a publicly known minority, albeit a loud, flashy, and extremely powerful one. With the exception of Captain America and a few science experiments gone awry in the 1920s, the public isn’t even aware of the existence of superpowered beings in general. The question lingers once the credits roll: How will this world react to people more extra than ordinary?
Fast forward to the modern Marvel universe, and we see that the public has overwhelmingly accepted the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, and the Avengers, yet mutant hero groups like the X-Men are still looked down upon and distrusted. Why does the world hate and fear the X-Men, and mutants at large, yet accept so many other similarly powered superbeings, like Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four?
That question is at the very heart of the mutant issue, and even the entire mythos of the X-Men to date. To understand the mutant issue in the Marvel universe, one has to look at its real world parallel. Stan Lee created the X-Men in the 1960s as a way to comment on the black civil rights issue of the time. Professor X believed mutants and humans could coexist peacefully and respectfully as citizens with equal rights. Magento believed humans would never accept mutants, so mutants should use all means, including force, to demand their rights. Sound familiar? Since then, the X-Men have become an analogy for the rights of any oppressed minorities. Then, the big-button topic was black civil rights. Today, it's LGBT rights and Muslim acceptance. Tomorrow, who knows?
Boiled down and stripped of superhero specifics, the question becomes, "Why does the public accept so many other super-powered beings, but oppresses this one group that is only different in how they received their abilities?" The answer to that question is the point the X-Men story makes in the real world. Ethnic and racial groups, gay people, women, immigrants, or whatever other minority this question is applied to are different from everyone else (usually) in only one way or another: skin color, faith, sexual identity or preference, etc. Why does society oppress one group (or in some cases, several) that only slightly differs from the norm? And taking that one step further- in a world as diverse as this one (and especially as diverse as Marvel's), what is the "norm"? Is there one? Can there be one?
There is some primal part of human nature that needs something to be afraid of to make one feel more secure. Humans are afraid of not being right, and even more afraid of that which they do not know, so they latch on to smaller, easily-recognized differences and inflate them into giant, terrifying threats in order to satiate this part of the psyche. In reality, that difference could be as minor as how it is two people have come into their nearly identical positions in life. People rise above their base instincts and natures when they realize this and choose to be better people, and that's the message the X-Men bring: Recognize your fears and bigotries and choose to be better than them.
Apply this to the Marvel universe, one far stranger and more complex than our own, and the answer to the initial question becomes more clear. When it comes to other superhumans' acceptance in society versus the X-Men's, it has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. Some heroes and teams are more accepted than others. There are various reasons for this, but it usually comes down to that hero's or team's openness with society. But even then, small-mindedness can get in the way of reason and inclusiveness.
First, there’s this author’s long time favorite hero, Spider-Man. Spider-Man is an interesting case to look at alongside the X-Men, because frankly, he's not accepted by society at large. Most of the superhumans respect him and know he's 100% good guy, but to the public -- especially in New York City -- he's mostly thought of as Public Enemy #1. While Spidey’s level of public acceptance varies depending on each story arc’s author and demands, his status quo is generally distrust. This is due in no small part to J Jonah Jameson's crusade against him first as the editor and owner of New York's biggest daily newspaper, The Daily Bugle, and as its current mayor.
Spider-Man also contributes in his own way by wearing a full-body suit and mask. No one even knows what race he is, and his sex is only known by the name he gives them coupled with quick glimpses of his body as he swings by high-rise apartments and offices. He does this to protect his identity and the the people he cares about, but the trade off is that the public rarely trusts him, no matter how many bank robberies he stops or lives he saves. His current status as an Avenger (twice-over, even) has helped improve his image somewhat, but he's still widely distrusted and viewed as more menace than hero. However, he's not known as a mutant, so the public probably trusts him (slightly) more than the X-Men.
Secondly, there are high-profile heroes like Captain America, Iron Man, and the Fantastic Four. These heroes are more or less unanimously trusted and beloved, due mostly to their openness with the public. Everyone knows who they are, their civilian identities, and their exploits. They've got official, licensed merchandising, they've got game shows, they've got movies. They heartily support this brand and/or product.
Also, outside of Captain America, those characters have serious money. Tony Stark, through Stark Industries, and Reed Richards, through the Fantastic Four (now the Future Foundation), bring in a calculated bajillion dollars per quarter through ridiculous inventions and formulas and sciencey whathaveyous. They benefit the public sector greatly. And though Captain America doesn't have the money they have, he's still Captain America. He punched Hitler in the face. You can't not trust him.
Going off from there, there are the Avengers in all their flavors- original, New, Secret, Academy, Young, Mighty, Dark, Pet, West Coast, Great Lakes. The Avengers are a brand in that universe at this point, and attaching "Avengers" to something makes it nearly instantly like-able. Everyone knows and loves the Avengers, because everyone has seen them beat up Galactus, or fight the robot dinosaurs, or quell the tide of invading time conquerors, or whatever world-ending catastrophe is on the menu this week. It’s on every network and front page.
In fact, Norman Osborne exploited this brand-recognition during the Dark Reign storyline by replacing all the current, state-sanctioned and public-approved Avengers with his own team, and adding a few darker heavy hitters to round it out. He brought in Venom for Spider-Man, Bullseye for Hawkeye, Daken for Wolverine, and Moonstone for Ms. Marvel, and he stood in as the Iron Patriot for both Iron Man and Captain America. He completed his team with Ares, the Greek god of war, the Sentry, an immensely powerful being with an extremely evil and out of control split personality, and Captain Marvel, a Kree alien with a general distaste for humans and an overwhelming appetite for ego-stroking. In our world, they were known as the Dark Avengers, but in theirs, they were simply the Avengers, and the name alone was enough to make the public trust them.
Finally, there are the X-Men and mutants in general, a group of people who have started calling themselves a new species entirely separate from homo-sapien. Hell, they've got supposed "elitism" right in their biological name: homo-superior. It makes sense that people would distrust them; think of the way Fox News and other right wing ideologues look down on the "educated elite" or the “Washington elite”. People don't like people better than them, no matter how open or benevolent they might be, which the X-Men have been from the start. And doing all they can to quell any hope of acceptance are mutants like Magneto (seriously, he originally called his outfit the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Hello, PR?), Cassandra Nova, the Hellfire Club and every other mutant and mutant group people actually should fear, because they want to kill everyone who disagrees with them.
In comics it seems, as in real life, the loudest members of a group are usually the biggest assholes. Everyone notices when Magneto holds a major city hostage, but few people have heard of Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. So presumed elitism, loud terrorist contingents, and general misunderstanding has garnered the mutant population of the Marvel universe a large amount of distrust. It’s no wonder there's so much distrust and hate of Islam in America today.
The X-Men storyline today continues to tell the struggle of the overwhelmed, underrepresented minority fighting a desperate campaign for acceptance, through theirs seems to involve a lot more spandex, lasers, and aliens than traditional ones. Their aggressors come from all sides, countries, creeds, ages, and even time periods, highlighting that this isn’t simply a comic book problem, or an American problem, or a white problem: it’s a human problem. The ugly side of human nature will always look for a scapegoat, will always look for someone to blame, will always look for someone to fear. It is our job to recognize it when we do, and remain determined to look past it at the actual people on the other side, and to see that who they are is nearly identical to who we are.
(Image courtesy of Adam Dello Buono)