The stories of the X-Men franchise are fables of oppression and resistance, and 2014’s X-Men: Days of the Future Past (DOFP) is no exception. Co-created by two young working-class Jews, Stanley Lieber and Jack Kurtzberg, the comic book series chronicles the adventures of super-powered ‘mutants’ and the oppression they face from regular humans. Though initially conceived as an allegory for anti-Black racism, the franchise has since proven to be a highly-adaptable template capable of addressing a myriad of oppressions, including queerphobia, sexism, and anti-semitism.
However, at its core, X-Men cannot be dislodged from the social context of its inception: its release in September 1963 was preceded by Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech in August and pre-empted Malcolm X’s “Message to The Grassroots” in November – during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
Despite their best intentions, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s interpretation of black resistance was, and continues to be, grossly out of step with the realities of the movement. These inaccuracies have only been amplified over time. The most egregious of these is the mythological binary created between the “violent” Malcolm X and the “non-violent” Doctor King. Though the franchise is fictional, its allegorical politics could not be clearer: there is a “good” and respectful way to protest one’s lot in life, and a “bad” and antagonistic form of resistance.
Magneto, the at-times anti-hero, at-times antagonist of the X-Men film franchise, is the ideological prosecutor for the case of mutant supremacy. The chief inspiration for the character’s tactics and ideology draws from Civil Rights activist Malcolm X.
Comparisons between Magneto and Malcolm X are rife within the series, often implied and sometimes explicit. Biographical minutiae reveal traumatic and violent childhoods.
In 1926, a year after his birth, Malcolm X’s family fled Omaha, Nebraska under threat from the Klu Klux Klan. Early scenes of Magneto in X-Men (2000) and X-Men: First Class (2011) depict a childhood as a Jewish test subject in a Nazi concentration camp. Both men, too, renounced their birth names: in 1952 Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, rejected his slave name, just as Magneto, born Erik Lensherr, repudiates his birth name for a mutant handle at the end of First Class.
Though these characteristics are common enough tropes within the genre – harrowing upbringings and gaudy pseudonyms – Magneto makes clear the connection by lifting one of Malcolm X’s most famous lines in the franchise’s first film, gravely telling Xavier over a game of chess: “The war is still coming, Charles. And I intend to fight it, by any means necessary.”
“We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary.” These words, first uttered by Malcolm X in 1964, have since become a manifesto for radical separatist resistance: a position that has, at best, been misunderstood, and at worst, willfully distorted to transform the minister and human rights activist into a terrorist and strawman.
In one of the few sympathetic scenes afforded to him, Magneto justifies his actions against humankind, by bellowing the names of fallen mutants: “Angel. Azazel. Emma. Banshee. We were supposed to protect them! Where were you Charles? You abandoned us all!” Any logic or legitimacy in Magneto’s actions begin and end with this scene. Past this point, Magneto’s agenda is depicted as contradictory (attempting to assassinate fellow mutant and lover, Mystique) and downright absurd (dropping a football stadium on the White House).
In a 1965 radio interview, Malcolm X articulated his stance on violence: “We are nonviolent only with nonviolent people. I’m nonviolent as long as somebody else is nonviolent – as soon as they get violent they nullify my nonviolence.” It echoes earlier statements, which establish the role he perceives violence must play in resistance: where government is “either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property of our people… our people are within our rights to protect themselves by whatever means necessary.”
On politics, Malcolm agitated against supporting either the Democrats or the Republicans, arguing: “Both of them have sold us out; both parties have sold us out. Both parties are racist.” On education, he said: “If you’re surrounded by schools, go to that school.” On economics, he advocated for an autonomous market: “[The Black Community] should own and operate and control the economy of our community.” On the issue of autonomy itself, Malcolm once stated: “I, for one, will join in with anyone – I don’t care what colour you are – as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.” Conspicuously absent from Magneto – and white-liberal revisions of Malcolm – is this nuance. By writing Magneto as myopically vengeful the X-Men’s Civil Rights allegory renders Malcolm’s radical black politics into a lazy J. Edgar Hoover-esque revision.
Charles Xavier is the pacifist protagonist of the X-Men franchise – its moral crux. As King’s fictional stand-in, Xavier espouses a familiar political praxis: integration through nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. In the comic book canon, Xavier’s goal of harmonious integration is referred to as ‘Xavier’s Dream’, an obvious nod to King’s iconic ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.
Xavier’s privileged childhood on a Mansion estate parallels King’s own life of relative economic privilege, growing up in a middle-class neighbourhood in Atlanta with access to tertiary education. Despite his Oxford Tory upbringing Xavier channels his resources to found Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters – an autonomous shelter and educational centre with an emphasis on self-defence and self-love. The plot device recalls King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and its involvement with ‘Citizenship Schools’, a program for adult literacy that covertly educated its students in social issues and political organisation. Like Xavier – whose original team consisted of inexperienced teenagers – King was criticised for putting the lives of young students at risk in the struggle for equality.
The mandate of Xavier’s mutants is frequently stated to be “to protect a world that fears and hates them”, ostensibly in the hopes that defending the oppressor will relieve their oppression. This neutering of King’s radicalism is a blatant advocacy for the politics of respectability: a praxis, which requires members of a marginalised group to demonstrate their consistency and compatibility with the status quo, rather than challenging the status quo to accept difference.
Throughout much of the X-Men film franchise, we see Xavier’s students do woefully little in terms of direct action towards the betterment of mutants. Instead, their efforts are directed towards suppressing the more radical within their community.
The plot of DOFP hinges upon the X-Men preventing the assassination of Bolivar Trask, a bigoted military industrialist who advocates mutant genocide through Sentinels – robotic drones equipped with genetic profiling technology and powers derived from inhumane experimentation on mutants. Suffice it to say Trask is an unsavoury fellow, yet the film contrives to convince its audience that the eradication of Trask through an act of armed resistance would only serve to exacerbate the oppression of mutants worldwide. In the climactic scene, as Mystique points a gun at Trask, Xavier implores: “This will make us the enemy”, to which she, retorts, “look around you, we already are!” By Xavier’s terms, mutants must “prove themselves” to justify their right to an equitable life. Some would perhaps argue that Martin himself would agree.
In a 1965 interview with NBC, he said: “When one breaks the law that conscience tells him is unjust, he must do it openly, he must do it cheerfully, he must do it lovingly, he must do it civilly not uncivilly and he must do it with a willingness to accept the penalty.” This advocacy of “redemptive unearned suffering” has been criticised as being bourgeois and inconsiderate of the everyday violence subjected to Black women and working class Black men. However in the same interview King asserts: “where there is injustice and frustration, the potentialities for violence are greater… the more we find individuals facing conditions of frustration, conditions of disappointment and seething despair… the more it will be possible for violence to interfere”.
This is the King we do not see In Xavier. Contrary to popular depictions, Martin was not a starry-eyed idealist but a pragmatic man capable of tactically mobilising ideologies for the liberation of his people. Though remembered as a staunch proponent of integration, in his final days Martin was quoted saying: “I fear I may have integrated my people into a burning house”. The uncomfortable truth is that there is no neat line that separates Martin from the so-called ‘extremism’ of Malcolm.
So why do we – a pair of middle-class, brown students at Sydney University – care about these ideological anachronisms in a franchise we otherwise adore and will undoubtedly continue to consume?
Well, as geeky young men of colour, the X-Men are touchstones of our childhood. Arguably one of the most diverse superhero franchises in existence, and one of the few to tackle immense themes such as structural oppression and genocide, the X-Men influenced our politics from an early age. However, for all its good intentions we cannot remain silent on its countless misreadings of black history and resistance, which, at this point, should either be taken as deliberate conservative revisionism or worse, ‘post-race’ white liberalism.
Representations of the Civil Rights movement, which portray “good” and “bad” modes of resistance, have a lasting impact on how society reacts to anti-racist resistance at the fault lines. If mutants are an analogue for people of colour, the lesson to be learnt is that we must be vigilant in policing our communities and deferential to those who hold power.
The hard binary of peaceful and violent protest is regularly dispatched to delegitimise displays of resistance. Ten years ago in Redfern, T.J. Hickey, a 17-year-old Indigenous boy, was impaled on a fence, and died, as a result of a police pursuit. The ensuing community protests, dubbed the Redfern Riots by the mainstream press, called for nonviolence from Indigenous residents. However, no masthead sought to condemn the violence – literal or structural – committed by the police and the state. Indeed, media critic John Budarick criticised both the Daily Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald for focussing on “events rather than processes”.
Similar failings emerged in the reportage of Ferguson, Missouri. “Chaos in Ferguson…”, “Out of Control” and “Hell Breaks Loose” were some of the more sensational headlines deployed against the Black community’s response to the killing of Michael Brown. As in Redfern, these headlines indicate a gross expectation for black people to sit tight and expect justice from the very system that kills their community. Moreover, the media’s focus on petty issues such as looting and property damage over the culture of impunity surrounding extra-judicial killings of people of colour reflects an inability to process the gravity of structural violence and oppression.
The hard binary of good and evil, of Xavier and Magneto, and Martin and Malcolm, paints a distorted image of black resistance. The contents of the film, though hermetically sealed in the 1960s, are not baubles of the past; in fact, they are just as much products of the present. Reactions to the protests in Ferguson, Missouri reveal the debate over black resistance remains a live issue for the United States – and the countless, global spectators who followed the rolling coverage. To be clear: any attempt to isolate Malcolm X’s “radical” politics from Martin Luther King’s “moderate” posturing is categorically false. We strongly refute this notion that there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to resist and any assertion that the oppressed must appease their oppressors and integrate into the dominant culture.
Of course, the franchise does not directly graft ideas of violence and nonviolence on to its audiences. Indeed, it’s unlikely reading X-Men comics and watching the films will transform you into a ‘race-blind’ bigot. Rather, it may deter a critical examination of race and power – and reduce police and protestors, in Ferguson and Redfern, into black-and-white heroes and villains.