This article is the first in on-going series at Beams and Struts over the next month and a half. Beams & Struts is engaged in an ongoing dialogue around the question of human community, in preparation for the upcoming Next Step Integral sponsored Community Seminar (August 9-14). Full Disclosure: Beams & Struts is a sponsor of the upcoming Next Step Seminar. A number of us will be there live blogging the event in. Miriam Martineau, one of the co-leaders of Next Step, has published a piece on parenting on the site.
I recently saw the film X-Men First Class. It’s an excellent film—highly recommended.
I had gone into the movie expecting to write a rather straightforward movie review but as the film unfolded it occurred to me that it might be an interesting way to approach the topic of community. One of the key (perhaps the key) theme running through the plot of the film is the question of inclusion—who is considered worthy of care and rights and who is outside our bounds and therefore a threat.
[For those not as familiar with the X-Men Universe, a primer here.]
The film tells the story of the ‘first class’ of mutants; it is the prequel to the previous trilogy of X-Men movies.
Early into the film, the young Charles Xavier (later Prof. X) is busy finishing his Ph.D thesis. In that thesis he claims to have scientific proof that mutants exist (Xavier is himself a powerful mutant but for now leaving out this key piece of information to the general public).
The foil (really frenemy) to Xavier is Eric Lensherr (later Magneto). Lensherr is a Polish Jew who as a boy saw his mother murdered in a Nazi concentration camp.
The film shows a grown up Lensherr on a Nazi hunting expedition (in the same vein though not as gruesome as Inglourious Bastards). He is after a mutant named Sebastian Shaw, the man who killed his mother.
Shaw uses the political regimes of his day (first the Nazis and later the Cold War era Soviets and Americans) to seek to fulfill his dream of destroying non-mutant humans, leading to an age of mutant domination. Shaw is aided by the telepath Emma Frost.
In the process of trying to kill Shaw, Eric Lensherr meets the young Charles Xavier. Xavier’s telepathic skills (enhanced by a machine created by another mutant Hank McCoy) allow Xavier to locate other mutants. Xavier and Lensherr form a team of mutants, originally under the auspices of the CIA, to stop Shaw.
The main storyline of the film is set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis—which according to this story is a part of a masterfully orchestrated plot by Sebastian Shaw, attempting to start a nuclear war between the Soviets and the Americans, which would allow the mutants to rise up and rule.
X-Men’s Postmodern Conscious Community
As I mentioned earlier, the theme of inclusion is very strong in this film. (This theme is also present in the earlier X Men films, but it’s most pronounced in this one.) I’m certainly not the only one to pick up on this connection. e.g. The film has already been hailed as a great gay rights parable (a clearly intended one as acknowledged by one of the screenwriters).
Also, Alyssa Rosenberg from Think Progress writes:
Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy as Magneto and Professor X have more chemistry than any of the other sexualized pairings in the movie. Whether Magneto’s telling Xavier “I thought I was the only one” on their first meeting; Xavier’s gently touching the lost, tender parts of Magneto’s mind, unlocking his power and bringing them both to tears; or Magneto’s holding the man he’s crippled and is about to lose on a Cuban beach, I imagine this is an interpretation that will make a lot of shippers very happy. It’s also a nice little rehash of old-school gay rights debates, about whether the goal should be assimilation with straight society or the preservation of a separate, rich gay culture.
By being set in the early 1960s, the question of mutant inclusion is set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, allowing a clear (and intended) parallel between the Civil Rights movement for Black Americans in the 1960s and now gay and lesbian Americans in the 2000s.
This thread weaves its way through multiple characters in the film.
Take the character Mystique (Raven Darkholme). Mystique is a young orphaned girl who is taken in and adopted as a sister by Charles Xavier. Mystique’s mutation allows her to take on the appearance (including identity and temporarily powers) of others. Her normal appearance is as a blue-skinned being. Xavier preaches to his younger sister the value of fitting in, “not making a scene”, and “looking like everyone else.” Mystique blends into society by appearing as a blond haired, blue-eyed white girl.
Mystique meets the young Hank McCoy (later Beast). McCoy is the classic shy, nerdy, geek. The two quickly develop a budding crush. McCoy appears on the surface “normal” (however that is defined) except that his feet are extraordinarily large (via his mutation). McCoy works on a serum to mask the appearance of his mutation (while not masking the power of his mutation). He thinks Mystique should take the serum, thereby losing her blue color but retaining her shape shifting powers.
This comes as a crushing blow to Mystique, who feels totally rejected and betrayed by McCoy. She begins to connect more with Lensherr, who tells her that she should be proud of her mutation, rather than hide it. Mystique follows the path of political awakening and radicalization that occurred for many white kids during the 1960s. At the end of the film Mystique joins Magneto, with her fist raised in the air (Black Power style), yelling, “Mutant and Proud”, echoing the great James Brown refrain, “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Mystique refuses the serum, which McCoy takes. The serum however backfires, turning McCoy himself blue and exacerbating his own “beastly” qualities. The one who so desperately wanted to be accepted into mainstream society (“a closet mutant” as it were) is now the one most obviously set a part from the rest of society.
The two characters who stand as the most obvious incarnations of the various philosophical positions concerning the relationship between mutants and non-mutant humans are Xavier and Lensherr. The deep emotional tragedy running through the movie is that these two young men are such profound friends. It’s one of, if not the, most beautiful depictions of heterosexual male-male friendship I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. And yet the two are destined to become enemies while still holding their deep love and affection for one another.
Xavier was raised in patrician wealth in upstate New York (harkening to the childhood of that great New York idealist Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who Prof. X is clearly modeled on), while Lensherr survived the horrors of the concentration camps. For Lensherr all humanity are either Nazis or cowards who refuse to stand up to them. For Xavier, this was a flawed moment in humanity, but one from which they have learned (echoing the views of most American liberal internationalists of the 1950s/60s).
The two (as Rosenberg notes) rehash classic debates within minority communities seeking to gain legitimacy in society: WEB DuBois versus Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. versus Malcolm X. In this analogy Xavier is clearly the MLK Jr figure and Lensherr/Magneto is Malcolm X (it’s Lensherr that coins the phrase, “Mutant and Proud”).
In this dimension, the film speaks to the rise of strength of the postmodern current of life. This postmodern worldview has strong resonance in particular in the US. The postmodern value of plurality works by undercutting previous hierarchies. If we take say the hierarchy of male over female, predominant in traditional patriarchal societies, the postmodernist points out (correctly) that men come from women—as all males originally start out as genetically physiologically females. Also, of course all males are born from females.
Echoing this sentiment, Mystique attempts to persuade Hank not to take the anti-mutant serum, saying:
Hank, don't! You're beautiful, Hank. Everything you are, you're perfect. Look at all of us? Look at all we've achieved this week? All we will achieve? We are different. But we shouldn't be trying to fit into society. Society should aspire to be more like us. Mutant and proud.
This statement articulates the postmodern values of inclusion, acceptance, inherent perfection, and the celebration of difference. An intention towards a post-postmodern community needs to embrace and live out the best of theses values—creating space for the “freaks”, allowing them to create their own community and thereby stand as a sign to mainstream society of its own unexamined evils (a comic book mutant version of queering).
A post-postmodern community will however I think need to add elements not found within the postmodern world by itself. What are those and does this movie showcase any of them?
To answer those questions we need to return to one fundamental truth in the film: Xavier sees the light and Lensherr the evil.
The most powerful moment of the film (in my mind) occurs during a sequence in which the new mutant collective is training for the final showdown with Sebastian Shaw. Lensherr and Xavier are out training, with Xavier pushing Lensherr’s own limits. Lensherr finally trusts Xavier enough to allow Xavier to temporarily take control of his mind. Xavier reveals a suppressed memory of Lensherr’s (now dead) mother lighting the menorah candle at Sabbath when Lensherr was very young. This memory brings tears to the otherwise completely toughened and cynical Lensherr. Xavier tells him that he believes true focus and power comes at a point in between rage and serenity (really a third way, transcending and including both). Lensherr has been filled with rage the entire film (justifiably so), but Xavier unlocks for a brief moment a state of serenity. This paradoxical combination of rage and serenity allows Lensherr to magnetically move a giant satellite dish (and later a submarine from the beneath the water).*
Lensherr’s power is found through the combination of his strength and his vulnerability. Xavier is never shown embracing his own rage side—he is always so serene and accepting. Xavier intriguingly says to Lensherr that if he learns to abide in this space transcending and including (my words, not his) serenity and rage, he will be the most powerful mutant of them all—more powerful than even Xavier (who seems aware of his own incapacity or unwillingness to embrace his rage).
Only for this brief moment of Lensherr’s awakening (the space of which he is unable to hold for the rest of the film) is there a glimpse of a creative new potential.
To me this notion of the space that envelops (greater than but including) rage and serenity speaks to a potent practice for the rise of post-postmodern community. The rest of the film falls into a fairly conventional portrait, with characters taking up various one-sided positions: e.g. mutant liberation at the cost of human destruction (postmodernist), mutant assimilation to mainstream human society (modernist), or human exclusionary prejudice against mutants (traditionalist).
The postmodern social and political activist community has deeply connected to the energy of rage, but generally without serenity. Rage minus serenity typically leads to cynicism, despair, bitterness, and burn out.
The integral world (an attempt to move into post-postmodernism) has too often leaned only towards serenity, losing a critical edge of rage. My sense is this is a consequence of the pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction. The integral world has seen the negativities of the postmodern world and rightly does not want that for itself, but has lost some of the enduring truths of the postmodern (esp. the critical edge). This over-reaction shows up as retreating into the serenity of modernist notions of progress (self-help, naïve market ideology) or premodern traditionalist spirituality (“All is One, Everything is at Peace, There are No Problems.”).
[A great counterexample to this trend is Terry Patten’s emphasis on evolutionary activism.]
I think at the core of a truly post-postmodern culture would be this ability of focused power.
I invite the reader now to take a few moments and see if you can locate this space within your own being—incorporating rage (without cynicism or desire for revenge) and serenity (without failing into a lazy acceptance of all). Perhaps even practice with one or two other people. Take turns locating this space within your beings and be open to feedback from the other person. See if they can tell when you are in that space and when not. Notice the quality of such a space and the bodily resonances from being in or out of that space of being.
When Lensherr is able to harness the power of both his rage and his serenity, his breakthrough brings hope. It releases the hold of unconscious patterns on his being (if only for a moment) and reveals a new set of possibilities, a new creative potential of healing, transformative power.
* For true fantasy fans, this is a clear allusion to the scene in which Master Yoda (here Xavier) tries to get Luke (Lensherr) to bring his X-Wing out of the Degobah swamps with the power of the force. Where Skywalker fails and Yoda must intervene, Lensherr succeeds.
TJ adds: not that it needs mentioning, but this could also be a reference to an incident in the X-Men comics in which Magneto sank a Soviet sub that was coming to get him, killing everyone on board. This got mentioned numerous times when Magneto was a good guy in the 80s, by other superheroes and governments who want to bring him to justice.
One glaring flaw in the film that I neglected to mention is while the postmodern themes of liberation are clearly articulated (particularly around racial and ethnic diversity), the actual embodiment of that diversity (in terms of skin tone and actual gay characters) is sadly missing. See Ta Nehisi Coates on this point.