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The best stories have always had social impact. Whether you're talking about comic books or movies, novels or TV shows, fiction has the power to challenge our beliefs about the world. The X-Men are a classic example; Marvel's merry mutants truly stand for something, and successive writers have carefully aligned them with powerful messages that frankly seem more relevant today than ever before. In the wake of the American Presidential election, now is the time for the X-Men to stand tall.
Bring on the X-Men.
At their best, the X-Men have always stood for one powerful theme: tolerance. Cast your eyes to the classic X-Men graphic novel, "God Loves, Man Kills", and you see the idea of 'mutant' deliberately turned into a parallel for 'race', and used to debate the topic of racism. The 1990s X-Men Animated Series kicked off with a plot in which the Beast stood trial. Defending his right to exist, he argued from Shakespeare:
"He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason?
I am a Jew.
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?"
Into the 1990s, the comics extended this metaphor, deliberately tying the X-Men into wider themes of prejudice, tolerance and equality. The "X-Cutioner's Song" arc kicked off with a speech from Charles Xavier in which he tied the battles for racial and sexual equality to his attempt to bring about peace between man and mutant. Into the 2000s, X2 was heavily inspired by "God Loves, Man Kills", and was fairly faithful to the comics' original themes. In one famous scene, Iceman's parents asked him if he'd ever tried... not being a mutant. It was a deliberate parallel with the experience of many members of the LGBT community.
Why does this matter?
Popular culture has a political power all of its own. Scientists have found that, as we read the experiences of those who are unlike us, we learn to empathize; to walk a mile in their shoes, and understand their experiences. The X-Men in particular have this social value; at their best, the franchise teaches people to look beyond the color of skin, beyond sexual orientation, beyond ethnicity or gender.
Right now, a lot of liberals are looking at the world in shock. They believed the battles for tolerance and equality were over, but to them the election of Donald Trump is a symbolic rejection of everything they believe in. One tweet that's going viral is this:
The irony is that, believing the battles to be over, the comics have long since moved away from this major theme. In the early 2000s, Grant Morrison's run in the comics set the mutant and human races against one another, like the Neanderthals and Cro Magnon. In treating mutants as a completely different species, he violated the theme of commonality between man and mutant; although this was only a subtle change, the comics have never really recovered since. The last decade of X-Men comics has basically featured the mutant race running from one extinction plot to another, and it's frankly gotten rather tired.
Meanwhile, over in the films, Fox has shown little understanding of the themes that drive the X-Men franchise. X-Men: Days of Future Past touched on these to justify the Sentinel program, but by X-Men: Apocalypse the mutant race had largely been accepted, and the battle for equality had been won. One deleted scene featured Nightcrawler walking through a Mall, delighted at how little people react to him. While entertaining, it highlights that the X-Men films had completely dropped the central theme of battling for equality.
Both companies had probably moved away from those core ideas precisely because the battle for equality and tolerance seemed to be won; because the march of 'progress' seemed to be so very visible. This election has proved, however, that no social direction is set; it must continually be chosen. In abandoning the themes of the X-Men, both Marvel and Fox lost out on an opportunity to speak into the cultural issues that rage inside the USA.
Time for a Fresh Start
Marvel plan to relaunch the X-Men in early 2017, after they've finally resolved the latest extinction plotline. My hope is that they won't miss this opportunity, a chance to use comics to speak into culture and raise those nagging questions of tolerance and diversity. Likewise, with Fox reportedly considering a reboot of their X-Men franchise, this is an opportunity for the studio to use the X-Men as more than just your staple superheroes. This is a chance for Fox to speak to the American culture, through a ragtag group of mutant superheroes whose voices have been quietened for too long.
Whatever your political persuasions, the reality is that in the USA right now — and indeed, across the world — there are people who are afraid. People who need a voice, even one that speaks within the avenue of popular culture. If Marvel and Fox are wise, they will realize that the X-Men can help give those people a voice.