It’s safe to assume that Bryan Singer’s superhero sequel will not only dominate the multiplexes for the next couple of months. This $100 million-plus blockbuster also comes with the full array of merchandise tie-ins–figurines, magazines and no doubt promotions at a fast food chain near you soon. But is there anything of artistic merit to be gleaned from a comic book adaptation about mutant superheroes (and villains) with such implausible names as Cyclops, Magneto and Lady Deathstrike?
Absolutely. ‘X-Men 2’ is an extraordinary spectacle. Singer, director of the modern classic ‘The Usual Suspects’, creates a stunning series of setpiece battles which will undoubtedly be the main draw to the film. But this is no exercise in big budget vacuity. Singer utilises 40 years of comic book background to create a believable nexus of characterisation built on a strong central theme.
Whereas the Nietzschean echoes in Superman are plain to see, the superheroes created by Marvel Comics in the 1960s were based on a more complex dynamic. Forged in the midst of turbulent civil rights struggles, their heroes were fallible products of oppression and resistance. Daredevil was a blind man whose other senses had been heightened. Spiderman was a photographer whose boss used his own pictures to demonise him. And the X-Men were ‘mutants’, humans born with myriad skills ranging from telepathy to the ability to control the weather. But these superhuman attributes made them the subject of fear and discrimination. In the first ‘X-Men’ film the attempt to impose a Mutant Registration Act (with obvious reference to anti-immigration laws) is narrowly averted. In ‘X-Men 2’ William Stryker, a hawkish politician with more than a hint of Donald Rumsfeld, attempts to start a human-mutant war–complete with a brutal assault on the X-Men’s ‘school for gifted youngsters’. Given the current climate of patriotic obsequiousness in Hollywood, this is pretty brave stuff.
Which is one of many reasons why socialists shouldn’t be snobbish about the source material. True, many comic books objectify women and wallow in gratuitous violence. But porn and snuff movies do not invalidate the entire medium of film-making. Likewise the graphic novels of Joe Sacco, Brian Talbot and Grant Morrison are a world away from their more reactionary relations. The X-Men comics are not in this league, but they do provide Singer with a remarkably versatile metaphor which he uses to great effect to explore issues of discrimination.
The mutants’ oppression is most clearly allegorical to the civil rights struggle. Ian McKellen, who plays Magneto, has likened his character’s separatist solution to that of Malcolm X, and that of his integrationist rival, Professor X, to Martin Luther King. This is rather a liberal spin on the dilemmas that faced, and continue to face, those fighting racism. But it’s a damn sight better than having another Hollywood Wasp shooting up faceless Arabs.
The discrimination facing the X-Men could equally be viewed as a metaphor for anti-Semitism, gay oppression, or even the disorientating effect of going through puberty. In one excellent scene a mutant teenager, Ice Man, goes home and is forced to ‘come out’ about his powers to his painfully liberal parents, who ludicrously ask if he’d tried ‘not being one’. By deftly making the ignorant discomfort of his parents the butt of the joke, this is definitely one of the best ‘coming out’ scenes committed to celluloid.
This is just one answer to those who assume that science fiction must be intellectually inferior because of the free rein it gives to the imagination. Drama is based on the suspension of disbelief–the willingness to accept that a stage is a palace or a field, that a soliloquy is a character’s authentic inner voice–to assert that this is only acceptable within realist cinema is akin to rejecting anything other than photorealistic painting. The measure of science fiction should surely be the internal consistency of the universe it creates, and the extent to which this speaks to our experience of the real world. ‘X-Men 2’ succeeds on both of these fronts. The only example of an apparent inconsistency, which occurs at the film’s climax, nonetheless appears on reflection to be laying the groundwork for the surely inevitable further sequel.
So you can sit down to watch it with your ‘X-Men 2’ coke and popcorn safe in the knowledge that this is more than just chewing gum for the eyes. You’ll have to let an inaccurate assertion about the permanence of conflict in human history wash over you, though. That and the utter implausibility of someone being born with the ability to control the weather, obviously.
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