THIS MUTANT LIFE #19: How The 'X-Men' Avoided Doom And Gloom


Bear with me for a paragraph as I talk about something completely unrelated to X-Men... but was anyone else a little bummed out by the first lengthy trailer released for “Man of Steel”?

Excessive slo-mo, platitude-stuffed voiceover, a color palette ripped from a goth portfolio, very obvious aspirations to be Serious. We should all blame Christopher Nolan, it seems, because the success he had with creating a dark, insular vision for Batman has so obviously influenced where DC wants to go with Superman, and not simply because he’s an executive producer on the film. In their search for a filmmaker to adapt one of the most beloved American icons, Warner Bros. went with Zack Snyder, who once scored a slo-motion sex scene to Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah.” Yeah, this is going to turn out great!

It got me thinking: Why, for the most part, have the Marvel movies been able to avoid the pressure of such tonal dourness?

Off the top of my head, the only two Marvel movies to really lay on the emotional gravitas have been “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which I actually didn’t see out of misplaced devotion to the Raimi films, and the underrated “Hulk,” which was derided by nearly everyone for not featuring enough punching. (Oh, I’ll argue about the merits of “Hulk” until Ang Lee himself rings me up and says to cut it out.) Apart from the heroes leased to other studios that they can’t control on screen, Marvel Studios itself seems to have made a concerted effort to infuse movies like “Thor” and “The Avengers” with a more general, big picture blockbuster tone rather than tackling any kind of protracted inner struggle (though “Iron Man 3” may change that up).

The X-Men, too, haven’t really seen a load of darkness in their films. That isn’t to say there hasn’t been a fair share of angst, whether it’s Rogue emoting over the impossibility of ever touching another person, Bobby struggling with telling his parents that he’s a mutant, Mystique accepting her mutant image or Hank realizing he turned himself into a big blue, fuzzy monster. But they’ve been micro moments incorporated into the larger films, rather than being plot points unto themselves. Think about how “Hulk” is largely about Bruce Banner coming to grips with his childhood, and how the entire Nolan Batman trilogy was sort of about Bruce Wayne learning to acknowledge how screwed up he was. The X-films, being ensemble creations, aren’t really allowed that much time for any one character to dominate the screen with his or her troubles. Image-wise, the switch from colored spandex to tight, black leather costumes is probably as grim as they’ll ever get.

But it’s more than that. Because at their heart, the X-Men are essentially a parable for modern discrimination, and the necessary steps that must be taken in order to overcome such oppression. While it’s a facile comparison to make at face value, there are parallels to the might vs. right argument between Magneto and Professor X that can be found in so many civil rights battles over American history. The common tie between the debating parties, though, is that they all agreed that action was necessary in order to transcend their current reality and create a better world. There’s room for introspection to guide one’s action, but assertive agency doesn’t typically go hand-in-hand with the kind of pathological self-loathing found in the Bruces and Parkers of the comic world.

One on one, there could be plenty of space for the individual X-Men to get lonely; I’m sure we’ll see some of that in “The Wolverine,” which should feature eight or nine dozen of Hugh Jackman’s best winces. But together, they’ve got a common objective to achieve, and there’s no wallowing in the breakdown when there’s laws to be challenged, plots to be foiled, and Sentinels to smash. Recently, Hillary Clinton said something kind of beautiful about taking control of one’s life: “God, I can’t stand whining. I can’t stand the kind of paralysis that some people fall into because they are not happy with choices they made.” If they spent too much time whining, they’d end up in government-controlled concentration camps. Which is sort of where “X-Men: Days of Future Past” might begin, with those locked up mutants hatching a plot to get out of their current jam and make things right because what’s the point in laying down? Truly, you can never stop fighting the power if you want anything to get done.

This Mutant Life explores all corners of the cinematic X-verse, from the kids of "First Class" to the berserker rage of "The Wolverine." Suggest topics for future columns in the comments or on Twitter!

Previously on This Mutant Life:

» Looking Into Patrick Stewart And Ian McKellen's "Future Past"

» "The Wolverine" Claws Into "Days Of Future Past"

» Bringing "All-New X-Men" Together For "Days Of Future Past"

» The Return Of Bryan Singer

» Sentinels? Yes Please!

» "Wolverine" Gets Modern

» Mark Millar Rights the Ship

» Can Mutants and Marvel Heroes Coexist?

» Is Phoenix Rising?

» Wolverine's Film History In Photos

» Should Patrick Stewart Return as Charles Xavier?

» How Much Does Continuity Matter?

» The Value of Bryan Singer

» Talking "Wolverine" With Chris Claremont

» Claremont Looks Back on "Days of Future Past"

» Why "Wolverine" Should Stick To His Own World

» Hopes For A "First Class" Sequel

» The Status Of "X-Men" On Film