Superheroes aren’t all light and carefree; sometimes, there are pretty deep images and metaphors behind the characters we know and love. This is particularly true of the X-Men – one of Marvel Comics’ sales giants, and the heart of Fox’s successful franchise. I’m going to cast my eye to three key figures in the X-Men comics, and show how their philosophy shapes everything they do…
Apocalypse was a mutant born in ancient Egypt, who – at least in the comics – became linked to tremendous power and advanced technology. But Apocalypse’s beliefs didn’t really crystallize until the Victorian era, as seen in a miniseries entitled The Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix.
This was an era of drastic change; Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution had turned religion, philosophy, and science upside-down. The Theory of Evolution speaks of ‘natural selection’ – the idea that, in the natural world, those whose genes are best-suited for their environment survive, and thus their genes become dominant. In the X-Men comics, some scientists – such as Nathaniel Essex, who became known as Mr. Sinister – went further, arguing that at times evolution is unlocked at speed, and so predicting the emergence of mutants.
Apocalypse saw a reflection of himself in this. He believed himself to be the first mutant, the harbinger of the emergence of the fittest; conflating ‘fittest’ with ‘best’, he thus believed in a world of struggle and pain, in which only the fittest survived. Furious at humanity’s resistance to this, he then claimed for himself a role in the process – the role of forcing this world to come to be.
Intellectually, Apocalypse is linked to the concepts of Social Darwinism. Sociologist Herbert Spencer in fact coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’ to refer to the competition between social groups. We may not remember Spencer now, but he was probably the most well-read philosopher of his age.
Of course, in the real world Social Darwinism found its ultimate fulfilment in the rise of the Nazi Party; they believed in a perfect Aryan Race, destined to rule. In the world of the X-Men, though, it is in Apocalypse that the ultimate fulfilment of Social Darwinism is found. Apocalypse sees mutants as the fittest, but even then pits mutant against mutant, always striving to advance his agenda.
It remains to be seen how much of this philosophy and backstory will be tapped into in [X-Men: Apocalypse](tag:1194267). Still, hopefully you can see straight away that Apocalypse is not merely a supervillain – he represents a twisted philosophy, one that the X-Men must oppose.
Magneto, too, is a philosophical villain. When Magneto was first created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, he was a one-note supervillain, given to megalomaniacal rants and calling his team ‘the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants’. From 1975, though, prolific X-Men writer Chris Claremont began to redefine the Master of Magnetism. He did this by giving him a rich history that explains his ideology.
Claremont tied Magneto's backstory to the Holocaust. As a Jew, Magneto had suffered terribly in the Holocaust, and he saw prejudice rear its ugly head against his people. As he learned of the emergence of the mutant race, Magneto became fearful; he believed that he was about to see history repeat itself. Just as the Nazis had attempted to destroy the Jews, so he believed the humans would attempt to destroy the mutants. Magneto feared a mutant genocide, and believed that the mutants had to make the first strike – had to take a position of power, so they could not be controlled or wiped out.
There’s a sense, then, in which Magneto is an isolationist. In the comics, he has almost always sought to find a place where mutants can live in safety; whether that be in the orbital satellite Asteroid M, or on the island nation of Genosha, which he once ruled.
The true villainy of Magneto is found in his belief that mutants need to be strong enough to protect themselves – as such, he has been in constant conflict with human authorities. In the Fatal Attractions arc, for example, Magneto and the United Nations played a dangerous game of one-upmanship, culminating in Magneto releasing an electromagnetic pulse that pretty much rendered technology across the planet unable to operate. Airplanes crashed, hospitals were powerless – the death toll was never disclosed in the comics, but it was clear that Magneto was moving the world towards the very genetic war that he most feared.
There are two twisted ironies to Magneto, though. The first is that, for fear of another Hitler, he so often skirts the edges of becoming a man of hatred – of becoming defined by the race he opposes. In other words, for fear of another Hitler rising against mutantkind, he risks becoming a Hitler towards the humans. Grant Morrison made this explicit when he had Magneto establish human concentration camps in New York City; Marvel swiftly retconned those events away, seeing more value in leaving Magneto ambiguous.
The second irony is the more disturbing. In the comics, it’s hard to avoid the nagging feeling that Magneto is right. After all, the act of genocide he most feared was indeed perpetrated upon mutants – when the Sentinels attacked Genosha, an entire island of mutants was slaughtered.
In the movies, the philosophical angle of Magneto has been played pretty well. X-Men and X-Men: First Class both established his views as being rooted in his experience of the Holocaust, and some of his conversations with Xavier have been particularly telling. The fulfilment of Magneto’s fears is found in X2, when Stryker launches the attack upon Xavier’s School. Unfortunately X-Men: The Last Stand pretty much slipped back to the Stan Lee-era presentation of the character – the cackling, power-hungry villain. But it’s pretty certain that Fox learned their lesson, as the Magneto they’ve portrayed ever since has been a very human, and very ambiguous, character.
In contrast to all these, we have Charles Xavier.
Xavier believes in striving for peace between man and mutant; he believes that differences should be embraced, and that tolerance is the ultimate virtue. In the X-Cutioner’s Song arc, Xavier made a speech in which Marvel had him explicitly tie the mutant agenda to the battle against racism and homophobia in the real world.
To Charles Xavier, there is no difference between a human and a mutant. In the X-Men Animated Series, his perspective is championed by Beast, who quotes Shakespeare: “If you prick us do we not bleed?” No doubt Xavier’s philosophy is shaped by his telepathic abilities, by the fact that he can sense the same cauldron of thoughts and emotions within man and mutant alike.
But let’s be honest about it; Xavier goes further than many groups in this. He believes that a world of equality is worth fighting for; from the outset, he trains young mutants in how to use their powers in battle conditions. Xavier doesn’t have the naiveté to believe he can achieve his goal without bloodshed. In fact, he deliberately positions both himself and those who follow him in the trenches of the war for equality.
The forces that Xavier chooses to fight are intellectual, philosophical, and emotional. He wars against the corrupt ideologies of men such as Apocalypse or those humans who would kill all mutants; he confronts the hatred and prejudice he senses within man and mutant alike. He sees himself as a buffer, a shield to defend the world and prevent it tipping to chaos.
All of this is in pursuit of Xavier’s Dream – a vision of a world of peace and equality, where no man or woman is defined by the colour of their skin, by their sexual orientation, or by their genetic code.
X-Men fans have been left dissatisfied by their comics over the last few years, and I think this is why; Marvel have forgotten the philosophy that underpins the X-Men. They pushed the mutant race to the brink of extinction – and are apparently about to do the same again. In so doing, though, they drew a sharp line between man and mutant, one that needs to be erased in order for the X-Men to fight for equality once again. In the movies, the X-Men have seldom seemed too confident of their philosophical base, often feeling as though they were just the anti-Magneto forces. [X-Men: Days Of Future Past](tag:203942) struck an odd note, speaking of hope, and yet giving young Xavier a nightmare to prevent rather than a dream to live for.
Those are only three of the philosophies underpinning the X-Men comics and movies; there are many others, all of which speak of similarity and difference, tolerance and prejudice. As such, the X-Men are perhaps the most philosophical of all superheroes.
Which leaves me with just one question: