Tuesday, June 28, 2011

X-Men and Foreign Policy

There is little doubt in my mind that the X-Men series of movies is far and away the best of the comic book movie adaptions.

Not because mutants are awesome, although they are.

No, the reason is that the X-Men is the only series where everybody, heroes and villains, has a believable motivation. And this is because it is ultimately a study in foreign policy.

Think about it. In nearly every comic movie, the plotline relies on some sort of villain who just loves evil for the sake of evil. Sometimes, this can be done in a very compelling way, like the Joker in the new Batman movies. More often it's not, like the Green Goblin in the Spiderman movie. But either way, the characters are never quite plausible, because the bad guys usually relish their nasty actions without any covering narrative. In real life, however, nobody is the villain in their own tale.

X-Men works very well, however, because the groups closely resemble the different attitudes of foreign policy groups, and end up capturing competing and incompatible views that are still internally reasonable.

The audience is positioned to sympathise with Professor X, who is the foreign policy dove. He is pro-mutant, but sympathetic to humans. He believes that humans and mutants can get along, and is always working to defuse conflict between the two groups. The recent movie explores this idea well - Charles Xavier is the liberal son of privilege, the deserving aristocrat working towards the betterment of human/mutant relations. He believes that people can get along because he himself is such a genial and reasonable character - if the world were filled with more people like Charles Xavier, they would all get along! By the end of the movie, he recognises the need for mutants to stay mostly hidden, but always maintains an optimism that by setting a better example, mutants and humans can coexist.

Magneto, on the other hand, is the foreign policy hawk. He, too, is pro-mutant, but believes that mutants and humans will inevitably be in existential conflict - humans will never accept mutants, and battle between them can only be delayed (to the advantage of humans) but not avoided. In the movie, Magneto is a Polish Jew captured by the Nazis during the Holocaust. This is his introduction to the dark side of human nature, and the willingness of humans to be xenophobic and cruel, or to simply go along with leaders who think this way.

But where the movies actually get interesting is the interplay with the third group, namely the humans. In the movies, humans are usually portrayed quite negatively. There are some who are willing to co-exist with mutants, but a deep undercurrent of suspicion and mistrust characterises the general attitude towards mutants. And even when the humans are co-operating, there is always a group with a tendency to view the wholesale killing of all mutants as the most expedient solution to make the whole problem go away.

And this is the real genius of the series. The audience is drawn to sympathise with the dove viewpoint and mutants in general (and interestingly, not with the humans in the movie). And so while watching it, you want the doves to be right. You keep thinking 'But I like the mutants! Why can't everybody get along? If only the humans understood the doves better! If only the hawks could be made into doves'.

But the ways the humans are portrayed, there is lots of evidence that perhaps the hawks are right - the average person won't ever really accept mutants, and will eventually want to kill them all, or round them up and keep them in prisons. In other words, the Holocaust. This problem, of course, gets exacerbated by the hawks, who attack the humans, thereby increasing the dislike of mutants, and making it harder for an uninformed human to make a 'good mutants / bad mutants' distinction.

And this is why you get the most interesting interplay of all, between Professor X and Magneto. They both want to help mutants, but have irreconcilable views on how this should be done. As a result, they find themselves drawn into conflict with each other, but reluctantly so, and always with an eye towards their mutual need to protect themselves from human anger.  And ultimately, Professor X and Magneto are genuinely old friends who understand each other's position.

The fact that this is done so successfully is far more impressive writing feat than Marvel is normally given credit for. But doubt not that this interplay is deliberate and very cleverly thought out.

I recommend the new X-Men movie highly.

No comments:

Post a Comment