I am Marvelian. Or at least Bi-Marvelian. What does that mean? I am a Marvel stan (stalker fan). I argue with my husband weekly about why the X-Men cartoon’s theme song is the best thing ever recorded. My first introduction to the X-Men was a Mystique trading card that my best friend gave me because he “didn’t collect girl Marvel cards.” Well, to hell with that. Mystique was badass. She could shape shift. And she was blue. Mystique made being different freakin’ amazing. Being an awkward and lanky pre-pubescent tween, I could appreciate that. Her card had a permanent home in my super secret box of awesome things.
With the onslaught of Marvel films hitting theatres this summer, I can’t help but think about the significance of displacement or “Othered” narratives being (re)produced during this moment in American popular culture. This era of cultural memory and expression is peculiar. Coupled with the initial purpose of the X-Men first introduced in 1963 as a portal to a marginalized narrative and the oddity of this current moment of social-cultural history, this wave of Otherness is not by accident. There is a niche, albeit a profitable one, that has allowed for an oppressed viewpoint to be brought before a mainstream and “normal” viewership.
Those once highly identifiable traits of Americanness -- race, gender, and class -- are firmly in place throughout X-Men: First Class. Films like this that invest in 'the fringe' or, dare I say, 'alien' narratives appropriate and trouble the taut and highly discomforting realization that American normalcy is shifting.
Because, as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in his recent New York Times Op-Ed Piece, audiences are willing to apply a “convenient suspension of disbelief,” X-Men: First Class draws us in using historicized, collective memory attached to the turbulence of the '60s. By grounding the plot in an era when markers of identity politics are easily discernible, the audience is situated and prepped to confront its own understanding of humanity, privilege, and power. There is room to interpret, dismantle, and collapse traditional viewpoints of acceptability because of the highly celebrated fall back: “It’s only entertainment.”
Looking at all this from the viewpoint of 2011, and through the lens of this film one wonders, what does 'normal' look like, these days? Does 'normal' even exist?
Initially, the most glaring conflict is cosmetic – how do mutants “pass” for human? This central question then branches out into various discourses about normalcy: Can women be normal? Human? What about nonwhite folks? This update to the passing narrative, rooted in marginalized communities, provides a space for the oppressed voice to retaliate against and discuss the peculiarity of white supremacist discourse.
The mutant narrative is pitted against a normalized standard of humanity: white, powerful men. This is blatantly clear in the characterization of Sebastian Shaw, the antagonistic leader of the HellFire Club. Initially a doctor for the Nazi Army, Shaw represents one of the most horrific and recognized manifestations of white power in history. His power is both patriarchal and supremacist, ironically embodied in his mutant ability to absorb and retract energy.
Darwin and Angel’s narratives, however, are antithetical to those like Shaw. Their narratives bridge post-slavery and the Civil Rights Movement to a generation nearly twice removed from that era. Although there was not an extended focus on the turbulence of the Black Liberation Era, especially in regard to discussions aligning Charles Xavier and Magneto to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, respectively, the insinuations were strong. As a slight aside, perhaps the reason behind the lack of attention towards the Civil Rights Movement included time constraints – that would make for one hell of a long movie – and the propagated significance of the Cold War as a marker of shifting notions of Americanness and power on an international stage. But Darwin and Angel more than make up for the direct correlations between blackness and non-normalcy.
Darwin’s character is especially perplexing, subtly playing upon notions of evolution and black masculinity within a context of white power and privilege. Darwin’s powers boast the ability to “adapt” to his environment. The lack or withholding of a “proper” government name alludes to turn of the century African American displacement narratives teased out by anonymous protagonists in works like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. As an invisible man, Darwin is only visible through his ‘performance’ of black masculinity. He adapts to preconceived expectations of how black men should act.
Once he removes himself from that framework, Darwin suffers a graphic death at the hands of Sebastian Shaw. Darwin’s death is equally as perplexing as it is troublesome. He dies from an energy explosion while trying to rescue Angel from joining Shaw’s Hellfire Club. This scene resonates within (post) slavery discourse in numerous ways. Darwin’s inability to protect Angel from Shaw (even though it was her decision to join his side) alludes to slave men’s inability to defend slave women from white masters. And then, of course, there’s the much talked about scene where Shaw gives his speech about joining his cause or being enslaved and the camera zooms in on Darwin’s confused looking face. Darwin’s inability to adapt to a normal white environment is embodied in his violent demise, an acknowledgement of the marginalization and abuse of the Othered black masculine body.
Where Darwin’s body was physically burned and destroyed (a little too similar to a lynching for me), Angel’s narrative filtered into the crowded corner reserved for black women’s hypersexuality and collective silence. Aside from her skin, Angel’s wings in rest form appear tattooed, an instant marker of difference parallel to Mystique’s blue skin. Sure, Angel said it irked her that the agents assigned to protect her sexually objectified her, a slight (very slight) nod towards feminist resistance, but from her perspective her mutation was not that she had wings or could spit fire. Her mutation was that she was a black woman. And her only “outlet” was as a sex worker. Angel’s narrative is shuffled through channels of sex and womanhood only to remain trapped within expectations of white patriarchic thoughts about the role and place of women of color.
Angel is removed, however, from a more piercing conversation about “the woman question” that plays out between Mystique, Emma Frost, and Moira Mactaggert. The three women represent layers of normal femininity. Mystique, instead of Angel, plays the “true” Othered woman, often engaged in an unspoken conflict with Moira’s literal normalcy (no powers) and Emma’s normal appearance. Their narratives trouble the coveted Cult of True Womanhood, a manifesto of traits that exuberate finer womanhood. Emma Frost particularly stands out in this struggle to update womanhood’s definition, both engaging in domestic acts and resisting them. Blonde haired, blue eyed, and draped out in all white everything, Emma’s characterization embodies the purest and celebrated form of white womanhood. A powerful telepath with the ability to morph into diamond form, Emma physically and, to an extent, socially exceeds white beauty aesthetics. To retain her “purity” in one scene, Emma makes her Russian counterpart believe he is engaging in sexual activity with her as she sits and watches. The subversion of the male gaze and spectatorship here is brilliant. Instead of the traditional roles of male voyeurism, Emma is the voyeur, a look of disgust and smug satisfaction on her face. There is a slight nod towards Victorian sexual conservatism that suggests women do not like sex. It is a tool for procreation. Because of her telepathic abilities, Emma is able to psychologically remove herself from sexual exploitation and the ill conceived patriarchal notions that women enjoy being groped by men.
Two scenes, however, re-situate Emma into the male gaze and patriarchal social landscape. The first is Emma’s awkward and forced domestication by Shaw to refresh his drink by forcing her to shave ice off an iceberg using her powers. The other is the same scene with the Russian general. As Emma engages in combat with Magneto and Charles Xavier in her diamond form, Magneto cracks her throat and there is visible splintering of the diamond. Diamond, formed under pressure and nearly indestructible, is effortlessly cracked. By a man. Not only does this scene suggest the fragility of femininity in any form but the suppression of a woman’s voice by male subjectification.
X-men First Class provides a rich medium for teasing out the implications of normalcy and Otherness in an unstable 21st century social-cultural-racial landscape. This aim does not stray too far from Marvel’s initial purposes of creating Othered beings with non-normal superpowers. By tagging these much needed conversations to a culturally recognizable and celebrated Marvel iconography, room is made to discuss and remodel identity politics and normative discourse for the 21st century.