There's no denying the massive influence the X-Men — Marvel's premiere mutant team — have had upon the superhero genre, not just in the comics but breaking through into live action over the past decade and a half.
It was 2000's X-Men which finally showed studios that mainstream superhero live-action movies could be profitable and audiences that they could be fun. Without it we probably wouldn't have the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe or the Fox-Marvel Cinematic Universe we have today.
The X-Men have another special attribute in that, as a team, they've traditionally been used as a metaphor for social struggles. But did you know that the ideologies they represent have evolved to match contemporary issues as they made the leap from page to screen? Let's take a look.
The Birth Of The X-Men
The X-Men of the comic books were originally conceived by Stan "The Man" Lee back in 1963. And according to a 2000 interview with The Guardian, Lee purposefully crafted the team to reflect the civil rights race movement of the 60s:
"It occurred to me that instead of [the X-Men] just being heroes that everybody admired, what if I made other people fear and suspect and actually hate them because they were different? I loved that idea; it not only made them different, but it was a good metaphor for what was happening with the civil rights movement in the country at that time."
Even if you've only taken a cursory glance at the movies or comic books, you'll probably know that much of the X-Men's backstory involves struggling against sociopolitical anti-mutant attitudes. Typically there's some faction of the government trying to bring in legislation against them — such as the Mutant Registration Act — or capturing and experimenting upon them, as in the case of Colonel William Stryker and the Weapon X program.
Indeed that is why Professor X/Charles Xavier created the School for Gifted Youngsters in the first place — in order to create a haven for young mutants where they could learn to control their emerging powers away from the prejudice of the outside world.
You also have the likes of Genosha: The fictional country which provided a safe haven for mutant-kind until it was destroyed and the inhabitants decimated by anti-mutant Sentinels, reflecting cultural genocides which have taken place over the years. Magneto/Max Eisenhardt/Erik Lehnsherr is a freaking holocaust survivor — enough said.
But what about the movies? Surely they're also designed to reflect the civil rights movement? Well, yes and no. Specifically the X-Men Fox-Marvel franchise was crafted to reflect a very specific social rights issue, one which is still being fought today — even more-so around the time X-Men came out.
The X-Men Movies Represent...
Gay and LGBT rights.
You think we're reaching? Ready to scroll to the bottom to leave a scathing comment? Hold your horses buddy, because multiple people involved with the X-Men movies have explicitly stated that they were supposed to represent LGBT rights issues. These people include:
X-Men, X2: X-Men United, Days of Future Past and Apocalypse director Bryan Singer, who identifies openly as queer and bisexual.
- Magneto actor Ian McKellen, who identifies openly as gay, and told Buzzfeed in 2014: "I was sold [X-Men] by Bryan who said, 'Mutants are like gays. They’re cast out by society for no good reason.'"
X2 screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, both of whom identify openly as gay.
- X-Men: First Class writer Zack Stentz.
Zack Stentz even took to Facebook following the release of X2: X-Men United to correct a commenter who suggested that those gleaning gay rights commentary from the movies were reaching too hard.
It's all very well and good saying that the X-Men movies are meant to be representative of LGBT rights, but how exactly do they do this? Let's break down the main points.
The Changes Start At Puberty
As sexual desires tend to manifest around the time of puberty, so does mutation in the X-Men movies. Whilst it's shown that some mutants receive their powers whilst still in childhood — such as Angel/Warren Worthington Jr. in X-Men: The Last Stand — the central characters tend to have their powers "manifest in adolescence". Looking at the average ages of those at the school, the vast majority of the children are in their teens.
A good example is Rogue/Marie, one of the central characters of X-Men. Her powers manifest for the first time whilst kissing a boy — her first kiss, as she later tells Wolverine. She realises she's a mutant the first time she kisses a boy, not far removed from the process of realizing one's own sexuality.
And if you want to really read into the Rogue analogy, you could suggest that her struggles with her powers are directly linked to the fact that they manifest the first time she's kissing someone of the opposite sex. This could be read as a rejection of normality (homosexual relationships) because of her inherent mutation (homosexuality).
Rogue later dates Iceman/Bobby Drake, but they are unable to touch skin to skin because her mutation would kill him. Again her mutation stops her from fulfilling a normal relationship, and she later fears he will leave her for Kitty, who he can have sexual relations with.
Rogue is perhaps the only character apart from Angel we see really struggling with her mutation throughout the movies, and she does eventually "cure" herself in X-Men: The Last Stand in order to live a more normal life.
Speaking of the "cure"...
There's A Very Specific Representation Of Social Attitudes
As Zack Stentz pointed out earlier, many aspects of Joss Whedon's "Cure" / "Gifted" storyline have been adapted into the films. Especially in X-Men: The Last Stand, which deals with the ramifications of a cure for the mutant gene being created and distributed — sometimes against the will of the mutants themselves.
In the same manner that some people have historically viewed homosexuality as something which is chosen and can be "cured" — remember that 'Pray Away The Gay' camps are still a thing — so is mutation treated like an aberration which can be done away with.
Both the fictional mutant and very real LGBT community are also used as scapegoats in socio-political conversations, often under the guise of "protecting children". Remember the interaction between Cyclops and a worried mother during the train station scene in X-Men?
The double meaning is everywhere in the movies — here are but a few choice quotes from the movies that can be applied to either mutant-kind, or the LGBT+ community:
Magneto: "You see, I think what you really fear is me. Me and my kind. The Brotherhood of Mutants. Oh, it’s not so surprising really. Mankind has always feared what it doesn't understand." [X-Men]
Magneto: "Does it ever wake you in the middle of the night? The feeling that one day they will pass that foolish law or one just like it, and come for you? And your children?" [X-Men, and referenced again in X-Men: Apocalypse]
- Mystique: "You know, people like you are the reason I was afraid to go to school as a child." [X-Men]
Madeline Drake: "Have you tried... not being a mutant?" [X2: X-Men United]
Professor X: "Since the discovery of their existence they have been regarded with fear, suspicion, often hatred." [X2: X-Men United]
Storm: "They can't cure us. You want to know why? Because there's nothin' to cure. Nothing's wrong with you. Or any of us, for that matter." [X-Men: The Last Stand]
- Beast: "You didn't ask, so I didn't tell." [X-Men: First Class]
Beast/Hank McCoy's comment is an especially pertinent one, as it echoes "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) — the official United States policy on gays and lesbians in the military, which prohibited harassment again closeted LGBT service members whilst barring openly LGBT persons. DADT was in effect from 1994 – 2011, and was a very controversial law as it only protected people who kept their sexuality secret.
The Invisibility Of Mutation
Leading on from "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is the way the X-Men movies portray visibility. Perhaps represented best by the character arc of the young Mystique/Raven from X-Men: First Class, Days of Future Past and Apocalypse is the idea of whether or not mutants should hide her powers if they are able to do so. Apart from in rare cases the mutant gene — like sexual preference and unlike skin color — is typically an invisible facet of someone's personality.
This is where the whole concept of "coming out" comes from, as we generally don't know a person's sexual preference (or indeed that they have one at all) until they tell us. And there are always outliers who will say "I don't care what sexual preference somebody has, as long as I/my children don't have to see it."
Visibility — or the lack thereof — is just as much a facet of LGBT rights as it is for the fictional X-Men. Consider this exchange between Nightcrawler/Kurt Wagner and Mystique from X2: X-Men United:
Nightcrawler: "Why not stay in disguise all the time? You know, look like everyone else."
Mystique: "Because we shouldn't have to."
This is also a big part of Beast's character arc in First Class, as he works to find ways to hide his "true" mutant form in order to not be ostracised by society for something which is beyond his control, integral to his personality and not harmful to others.
William Stryker Represents Homophobia
Professor X: "William, you wanted me to cure your son. But mutation is not a disease."
Taking it back to X2: X-Men United again and the character of Colonel William Stryker: Logan's nemesis, the man who made him into Weapon X. Stryker first tried to oppress, control and use mutants for his own benefit — until his own son Jason turned out to be a mutant.
Stryker sent Jason to Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters not to help him better understand and control his powers, but because he thought Xavier could "cure" his son, bringing it back to the idea that sexualities other than heterosexuality are aberrations which can be cured.
Jason comes to resent his parents, knowing that they can't accept him for who he is, and ends up tormenting them until Stryker's wife kills herself. This in turn prompts Stryker to set out on his mission to eradicate all mutant-kind, fearing the effect they have upon others. He starts by having him freaking lobotomized, turning Jason into a mindless slave known only by the name "Mutant 143".
Stryker has managed to get Jason's mutation under "control" now, but without it he loses everything that made him human — the cost of stripping away central aspects of someone's personality into order to make them more affable and malleable to the overarching order.
But Where's The Representation?
It's hard to argue against the X-Men movies serving as a commentary on gay and LGBT rights, but it's also worth noting that — whilst many of the X-Men characters of the comics are gay or bisexual — there's not really any explicit representation of LGBT characters in the movies.
This is a curious thing, especially considering that so many people directly involved with making the movies have confirmed the gay rights thread running through them. Thus far there's not really any explanation for why there's no direct representation of LGBT characters despite the strong undertones, which is a little strange.
Perhaps studio intervention meant that the filmmakers weren't allowed to include representation which went against the grain — though honestly we'd rather have seen umpteen LGBT characters than have to sit through another Wolverine/Jean Grey stare-fest.
Following the recent reveal that long running X-Man Iceman had come out as homosexual in the comics, Shawn Ashmore — who portrays him in the movies and voices him in The Super Hero Squad Show — expressed a desire to portray him as gay in upcoming movies. But right now we don't even know if and when we'll see Iceman again, especially as the continuity reset of Days of Future Past has left us now in the pre-original movie time period, which currently does not include Bobby Drake.
It's been sixteen years since the first instalment in the Fox-Marvel Universe, and it wasn't until Deadpool this year that we got our first real LGBT character, even though Wade Wilson's pansexuality was only really hinted at in his self-titled movie. But as for the main series X-Men films, we're still waiting.
Who knows, maybe we'll see alternate universe Wolverine getting it on with Hercules at some point in the future. Hey, with the surprising success of Deadpool it could happen. Right?