Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Power of X

"We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery." - Malcolm X

There once was a pharaoh (c. 1350 BC) by the name of Amenhotep IV. For the first five years of his reign, he was much like any ruler before him. He managed a growing nation and an evolving government, lived in relative luxury, and considered himself divine (or, at the least, allowed all of Egypt to do so). After five years on the throne, however, it appears that Amenhotep IV had some sort of epiphany. He declared that Egypt should turn away from polytheism and instead worship only (one) God, which he called Aten. He penned a revolutionary hymn that declared the universe was created by one sole god, and denying his own claim to divinity, declared himself a mere servant of Aten (officially changing his name to Akhenaten).

The nation of Egypt was less than receptive. When Akhenaten died twelve years later, his edicts and religious beliefs died with him. Egypt returned rather quickly to its traditional mythology, and Akhenaten's son Tutankhamun (better known as "King Tut") abandoned the temple built by his father. I would submit that this return to traditional mythology, however, was more a matter of cultural identity than any matter of religious conviction. While Akhenaten desired a discussion about the nature of God, the focus of Egyptian mythology was earthly: explanations of seasons, justification of the ruling class, and most importantly, narrative explorations of human nature through a host of superhuman characters. These characters, though called "gods", were merely projections of humanity: they had human desires and weaknesses, they had limited abilities, they fought amongst themselves, and could be punished or even killed.

In many other times and places, a similar mythology would repeat in Greece, Rome, Scandinavia, and Japan. Though names and specifics would change, the myths would continue to vicariously explore the human condition and provide cautionary tales about love and hate, grace and greed, honor and treachery, life and death. Today, our mythology - no less powerful - does not require a specific religion or even ethnic identity. We consider them fictional, but enjoy the stories no less; we get them from people like George Lucas and Stan Lee.

While I will have to wait another year and a half for the new Star Wars movie, I did have the chance to check out the latest Marvel flick, X-Men: Days of Future Past, yesterday afternoon. Like the gods of ancient mythology, the X-Men are many. They have various abilities and limitations. They know pain, loss, love, and hope. They hunger for justice and yet argue about how best to obtain it. In other words, their struggles are our struggles.

The X-Men were created in the early sixties, and as such, the stories reflected much of what was going on in the United States at that time, primarily the American Civil Rights Movement. In an August 2000 interview with The Guardian, Stan Lee explained:

"I couldn't have everybody bitten by a radioactive spider or zapped with gamma rays, and it occurred to me that if I just said that they were mutants, it would make it easy. Then it occurred to me that instead of them 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."
Specifically, Professor Charles Xavier represented the idealism of Martin Luther King, Jr., while the character of Magneto in many ways parallels the life of Malcolm X: terrorized as a youth, he harbors "the hate that hate produced", willing to fight for his own people by any means necessary. They are not sworn enemies, as was prevalent in comic books of the time, but friends who are brought into conflict by opposing methods toward a common cause.

Beyond the Civil Rights Movement, parallels have been made to many other "us v them" conflicts, with mutants being equated with foreigners, homosexuals, religious minorities, or even political idealists. The characters themselves are quite diverse: Archangel is a privileged "pretty boy", Nightcrawler is a devout Catholic from Germany, and Storm is a reformed childhood pickpocket later worshipped as a goddess in Africa. The diversity of ideas among these characters has allowed for many a dialogue by proxy, sadly lacking in the public arena.

As a long-time X-Men fan and comic book collector, I had many issues with all of the X-Men movies (Wolverine is not six feet tall), but I was pleased with this latest movie. Specifics aside, the film did a great job of staying with the message of the X-Men, which I hope will not be lost on those who see it. As "Stan the Man" said, "the whole underlying principle of the X-Men was to try to be an anti-bigotry story, to show there's good in every person." It may sound idealistic, but none of us need mutant powers to take a stand against ignorance.
The whole underlying principal of the X-Men was to try to be an anti-bigotry story to show there’s good in every person.”
The whole underlying principal of the X-Men was to try to be an anti-bigotry story to show there’s good in every person


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