X-Men

Lessons from blue dudes with tails and girls who can walk through walls


One of my most cherished experiences of 2014 was a design dinner at one of the companies I was working for. At some point in the evening, someone put forth:

“I feel like everyone has that one game, movie or novel that has stuck with them their whole life and unconsciously tinted everything they’ve done.”

He then proceeded to cite a Huang household favorite, Shining Force II, as the source of his love for building teams and learning what makes people tick.

Being the story-obsessed Netflix kween I am, I was paralyzed when I didn’t have an immediate answer. Pokemon? Sabrina the Teenage Witch? The Princess Bride? X-Files? Welcome to Good Burger, home of the Good Burger?

I loved all of these franchises, but something deeper is missing when I think of them. Beyond the funny quotes or addictive gameplay, there was something missing. When I look at myself, I don’t imagine being able to melt into any of those universes.

This question has plagued me for almost a year. I believe I finally have my answer.

One of my earliest memories is reading X-Men with my brother. He and I would read them for hours, over and over. We had several rules:

  1. If we were reading together, each sibling would have to wait for the other sibling to finish before turning the page.
  2. You could only touch the very corners and NEVER the inked portions. Pro-move was to catch the edge of the page and turn so oily grubby fingers never hit the surface of the paper.
  3. No outsider could borrow any of the issues, because we absolutely could not trust other children to respect rules 1 and 2.

I’m sure I was drawn to X-Men comics because of their flashy colors and because my older brother told me they were cool. But whirring in our young little minds was the secret universe of weirdos just trying to get along.

If you’ve managed to make your home under the proverbial rock, I’ll explain. In the X-Men’s parallel universe, DNA mutations have caused special powers in human beings. The series centers around Professor Charles Xavier (Professor X), a powerful telepath who has created a special haven for mutants called the School for the Gifted. Some of these so called ‘mutants’ can call storms out of nothing, some can drain the life out of you with a touch. Others have to wear special sunglasses to keep their laser eyes from slicing their fellow humans in twain.

However, the interesting piece of X-Men is not necessarily the superhuman crime fighting, though superpowers are awesome. The comics and subsequent movies are an examination of what it is to be different in America.

On the fringe, together

by Erik Von Lehmann
“Scott’s mutant power first erupted from his eyes as an uncontrollable blast of optic force. The blast demolished a crane, causing it to drop its payload toward a terrified crowd. Scott saved lives by obliterating the object with another blast, but the bystanders believed that he had tried to kill them and rallied into an angry mob. Scott fled, escaping on a freight train.”

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Born the daughter of prosperous Chinese immigrants, young Jubilation “Jubilee” Lee was sent to an exclusive Beverly Hills school, where her talent for gymnastics was discovered. Jubilee spent much of her time rollerblading with friends at the local mall, but ultimately ran afoul of mall security. Facing juvenile detention if caught, Jubilee panicked and first manifested her mutant ability to generate explosive energy…She survived as a petty thief and street performer, but mall security eventually tired of her eluding capture and called in a team of novice mutant hunters, the M-Squad.

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X-Men often begin with something to hide. Their powers can manifest in disastrous ways and yank them from the normal life they’ve been living. These are perfect fables for unpopular adolescents who may be high performing, but can’t seem to adjust into their new selves and wiggle back into genpop.

My brother and I were attracted to the X-Men because of our otherness. We grew up as token Asian-Americans and were far from popular. We were morbid little creatures attracted to darkness: our favorite games were murderous survival epochs like 11th Hour and Clive Barker’s Undying.

We’ve been fortunate to find success in our lives, but we will always be outsiders to some extent. My brother is a statistician who works for the NIH, a pianist and a marathon runner. He also happens to be an Asian-American man who likes men. Meanwhile, I’m proud to have worked at some very popular companies. Yet, I’m a tiny Asian woman working in a techbro’s world. I dye my hair purple, roadtrip alone for weeks, won’t take a full-time job and almost always root for the underdog.

Everyone looks good in spandex

The X-Men are a diverse bunch. All types are accepted. Big blue furry beasts, svelte red-head telepaths, black ladies who can actually Thor-lightning your ass, old bald guys in wheelchairs. From a reader’s point of view, there’s a refreshing suspension of judgment. Understanding a character is deeper than the normality of their appearance. Any time a new mutant shows up, you get excited — the weirder looking, the better. You immediately want to know what their superpower is and how they got it.

I wish we would look at all people like this, with an optimism towards their gifts. A person might look strange and lumpy and misshapen. Or, they might spend the morning curling their hair and throwing on lipstick. We should look at another and ask, “what’s this person’s power? How did they get it? How does it hinder them from fulfillment and how does it help them do awesome things? How has it shaped their experience?” This is a vital mindset for young people to learn, before they are exposed to the realities of ingrained discrimination.

The X-Men franchise addresses larger social issues head on as well as personal ones, particularly the hate of ‘Otherness’ in America. Zak Penn, a screenwriter for X-Men: The Last Stand said, “…Bobby coming out to his parents in the second movie was an obvious parallel to someone coming out of the closet.”

Though her past is a bit of a mystery in the comics, Mystique’s story as it’s explored in the movies is a solid metaphor for being a woman today. In her natural form, she has blue skin, yellow eyes and orange-red hair. However, her powers allow her to take the form of any other person she desires. She can blend in or stand out by changing how she looks. If she so desired, she could live as a beautiful woman, showered in attention, but must live with the fact that the vast majority of people will never accept her real mutant form.

The thin line

The X-Men universe has top notch villains. Not because of their crazy powers or evil plans, but because they are complex and changeable. Alliances are made and broken all the time. To have a powerful gift is to walk a fine line: It’s as easy to be a hero as it is to be a monster.

Magneto is particularly fascinating. His superpower is the ability to control metal. He can yank the spoon out of your hand or stop bullets mid-air. He causes a lot of trouble for the X-Men, mostly by conspiring to kill all of us uncool powerless basics.

After witnessing the brutal murder of his family by the Nazis, Max Eisenhardt, was sent to the Auschwitz death camp where he served in the Sonderkommando, the squad of Jewish men forced to helped their Nazi masters operate the gas chambers, ovens, and fire pits of the camp…Max first consciously used his mutant powers when his family was trapped in a burning house. Unable to rescue his daughter from the blaze due to his inexperience, coupled with interference from a hostile mob, he angrily unleashed his powers to vengefully slaughter the humans.

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Even though he often wants to kill us all, Magneto is not simply an evil man. He’s a character who’s had the bad fortune of being at the center of some of the worst evil in human history. Like any other person, his harmful actions are driven by fear and a streak of nobility. He sees himself as Professor X sees himself: a protector of his people.

Professor X has manifested his fears of otherness as peaceful coexistence and caring for others. He’s built a machine called Cerebro to amplify his powers and find mutants. He surrounds himself with a team of powerful allies to keep both mutants and humans safe. Magneto, on the other hand, tends to blow things up and kill people.

Professor X on the left, Magneto on the right, Cyclops/Scott Summers shooting a warm old beam o’ destruction in the middle
“…Max realized that his and Xavier’s views on mutant/human relations were incompatible…Fearing another Holocaust, he took an aggressive and lethal stance against humanity. Max has often expressed the belief that mutants, whom he calls Homo sapiens superior, will eventually be the dominant life form on the planet, and has wavered between wanting to exist in harmony with humans, wanting a separate homeland for mutants, and wanting to enforce his superiority over all humanity. — Marvel.
In a 2008 interview, Stan Lee [a creator of the X-Men] said he “did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He just wanted to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist… he was trying to defend the mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly he was going to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course… but I never thought of him as a villain.” — Wikipedia

The most powerful and sad lesson to be taken from Magneto or any of the mutants who wish to destroy us is that many people are forever haunted their otherness, inside and out. While Professor X and many of the other X-Men find purpose in trying to live in co-existence with humans, others like Magneto can never drop their fear. It begs the interesting question of, ‘should they?’ Putting aside any selfish desires to remain uncooked by mutant rays, there are times where I can’t help but agree with Magneto and Mystique on the futility of preaching peace. History is easily told as a long sad story of jerks in power stomping out the rights of those who are different to them.

But there is hope in moving past the otherness, in believing in a just world where we can treat everyone with respect despite differences. We still have some personal power and a choice to make: will we choose unity? or will we stay divided? It all depends on our collective ability to pass over fear and demons in favor of a dream of a better future.

At heart, the X-Men is a compelling allegory about both the light and the dark sides of struggling with one’s own otherness. With the right guidance and the right company, X-Men grow into their powers. Rogue accidentally put someone in a coma and ran away from home. Jean Grey, on the other hand, was taught to control her destructive telepathy in phases through an early intervention by Professor X.

When I think of the X-Men today, it does not feel like a cute little story my brother and I read alone. It’s a deeper story about the America we live in and the things we do. Though criticized as trivial, our generation seeks genuine connection with people who feel like home to us. We throw Tweets and statuses into the universe, as if we have our own Cerebros to seek out those who feel the pain we feel. We put on our sad lonely mutant beacons with the hope that someone will help haul our asses to our very own versions of Professor X’s mutant Hogwarts.


Thanks to Dan and Dave for reading drafts of this, and thanks to Soleio for inspiring this post with a simple question over dinner.