11 Reasons Why I’ve Never Been as Big a Fan of the X-Men as Marvel Would Like Me to Be
1. Because their origin story was Stan Lee at his laziest.
Let me be clear: I don’t actively dislike the X-Men, and I don’t think anyone who considers themselves a fan of Marvel’s band of mutants is wrong for liking them. But I’d be lying if I said the X-Men were at the top of my list of favorite superhero teams, or that I could name more than a handful of X-Men stories that would make my list of Best Stories Ever. I think part of the reason I’m so indifferent to them is the whole concept of “born with powers” just seems so uninspired. Here’s how Stan Lee once described how he came up with the idea (with the obvious disclaimer that no one kept records back then about who came up with which concept, so allocate salt grains accordingly):
“What if they were just born that way? Everybody knows there are mutations in real life. There are frogs that are born with five legs and so forth. I can get these guys to have any power I want. I’ll just say, ‘Well, they’re mutants. They were born that way.’ Nobody can argue with that!”
Assuming that really is how the X-Men were first conceived, then sure, nobody could argue with that. But man, talk about lazy. Before the X-Men, Lee and other Silver Age writers used cosmic rays, gamma rays, irradiated spiders, lab accidents, alien artifacts and old-fashioned techno-wizardry to explain the source of their characters’ superhuman powers. But when they got to the X-Men, the best they could come up with was, “Aw hell, they’s just born that way. Now let’s rassle!” Yeah, it was a simple enough explanation that had the benefit of being something that could happen to literally anybody… but the downside was that it happened to literally anybody. Sure enough, that first team of spunky teenage mutants was soon joined by thousands of other characters, all of whom boasted origin stories that boiled down to “born with powers; joined a team.”
2. Because “they were born this way” raises a lot of questions about evolution and human biology.
It’s not just the monotony of having an entire subset of the Marvel universe check the “born this way” box when they explain how they got their powers. While the concept of mutation exists in biology, it usually refers to a sudden change in an organism’s genetic sequence that results in any number of non-inherited traits: extra digits, different skin coloring, cancerous growths, you name it. Mutations can be caused by something internal (like random errors in the code sequence when DNA is being repaired) or by outside factors (such as radiation or chemicals that have a mutagenic effect on DNA), but in either instance the potential for that mutation has to come from within the organism’s genetic code. Or to put it another way: what Marvel is telling us is that we all have the genetic potential within our cells to become telepaths, sprout wings, freeze things solid, control magnetic fields, sprout blue fur and fangs, shoot lasers from our eyes and much, much, much more. That… sounds extremely unlikely, and it seems like a lot of potential power packed inside one measly strand of DNA. Now that I think of it… if humans and chimps share 99% of the same DNA, then where are all the mutant chimps in the Marvel universe? Dammit, I want my monkey Cyclops now!
3. Because the science behind their powers is a little hard to swallow.
One of the rules governing mutants in the Marvel universe is that (for the most part) their powers don’t manifest until they reach puberty. Not only does this make the characters more appealing to teen readers (who would naturally be receptive to the whole “hated by a world that fears those who are different” vibe), it also answers the question of why parents in the Marvel universe don’t screen for mutant genes in utero, or why the government doesn’t collect mutant-positive babies at birth for observation. But here’s the thing: something has to be there inside the child’s body for the mutant power to turn “on” when the child hits a certain age. Take Cyclops: it’s very unlikely his eyes just one day decided to spontaneously grow whatever it is inside them that generates his force beams; something — an organ, a mass of cells, something — had to be present inside his head to make that power possible. (And don’t get me started on how the physics of his eye-beams never seem to obey Newton’s Third Law of Motion.) Sure, tell me a baby that rocketed here from a dying planet has powers that come from yellow sunbeams and I’ll suspend my disbelief just enough to enjoy the action… but the multitude of mutant powers, coupled with the multitude of biology- and physics-related questions that arise from the application of each one of them, makes it hard for a nitpicker like me to stop with the analyzing and just enjoy the show.
4. Because the average person’s reaction to mutants in the Marvel universe makes no sense.
Part of the X-Men’s enduring popularity comes from the fact they come in handy when a writer wants to make a point about prejudice and racism in our own world. In fact, many X-Men stories revolve around the irrational attitudes of normal people, who often react to mutants with fear and hatred because they’re so different. And who can blame them? I mean, I’d run screaming, too, if I ever met a guy who looked like a walking pile of rocks, or a human elastic band, or a dude who can cover himself in flames and throw lethal fireballs from his hands. Wait, no, my mistake — those are actually three members of the Fantastic Four, a team with a swanky midtown Manhattan skyscraper and worldwide fame as intrepid explorers of the unknown. So, let me try to understand this: a young girl who can phase through walls is an abomination who must be hunted by giant robots for the good of all humankind… but a woman who can turn invisible and create force fields is the toast of the town? How fair is that? Okay, I get it, “prejudice means you don’t have to make sense about who you choose to hate” — but if the “normal” people fear mutants because they possess something that sets them apart from other people, then why do the other Marvel heroes (almost always) get a free pass?
5. Because Senator Kelly and all the other “bad guys” who insist on mutant registration… they kind of have a point.
Remember in the first X-Men movie how that eeee-vil Senator Kelly was pushing to have mutants registered with the government? And how this was supposed to be a Very Bad Thing, because registration is the first step on a slippery slope towards arrests and internment camps and we all know what else? Trouble is, that analogy would work a little better if the people rounded up during some of history’s better-known genocides were able to, say, destroy a building with their deadly eye-lasers, or whip up a deadly hurricane by just crinkling their noses. To point out the obvious, there’s a huge difference between the helpless victims of a Nazi regime and individuals possessing the kind of raw power that can literally kill millions with a thought — and I don’t think it’s unreasonable for someone to keep tabs on people like that. Even in the real world, people with certain skills or access to certain dangerous things are asked, for the safety of everyone, to register in some form with the authorities… so I don’t see how it’s unreasonable to expect the same in a world where people like the X-Men exist. Unfortunately, we can’t have a rational discussion in an X-Men comic about maintaining a balance between public protection and individual rights because… well, I don’t know why not.
6. Because there’s no other way to put it: Charles Xavier is a racist.
Some people have made the observation that Charles Xavier and Magneto function as the Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, respectively, of the mutant rights movement, and that makes a certain amount of sense. While one preaches tolerance and acceptance of differences, the other goes more for the “by any means necessary” approach when it comes to ensuring his people’s rightful place in the sun. And yeah, I can see that… except (a) I don’t recall the good Dr. King relocating African-Americans to hidden estates to live and train in secret, physically separating them from the people whose minds they’re supposed to be enlightening (b) sending teenagers out on missions to fight others who look like them but who don’t agree with their philosophy or (c) state outright, as Xavier did in X-Men: First Class, that mutants constitute a “new species” and are not, say, simply specimens of Homo sapiens born with something extra. When you get right down to it, Xavier’s attitude towards humans isn’t that far from Magneto’s — he doesn’t want to kill them, sure, but he still acts as if they’re children who need tolerance explained to them.
7. Because someone has to say it: the Sentinels are a monumentally stupid idea.
The main enemies of the X-Men tend to be either evil mutants who want to hurt humans or evil humans who want to hurt mutants. And then there are the Sentinels, giant robots designed by an eminent anthropologist (um) as a way to outsource the “hunt and destroy mutants” work to expendable drones. In their first story, they were roughly twice the height of normal humans, but as time went on they grew to the size of large buildings. I know this because there’s a hilarious scene in the 1990s X-Men cartoon where a Sentinel who is literally the height of a building is “hiding” in an alleyway while waiting for his target to show up (you can almost hear him whistling as he’s trying to hang back and look inconspicuous). Even if we accept a world where an angry anthropologist can throw together a robot that flies and responds quickly enough in a firefight… which freakin’ government would agree to pay for these things??? For real, what can a supposedly very expensive Sentinel do that a couple of highly trained special ops guys can’t? And even if we forgive the massive costs involved in building these things and settling the lawsuits for all the property damage they cause… isn’t it possible that giant flying robots are probably not the ideal tools for sneaking up on people? A lot of people (myself included) are excited about the upcoming Days of Future Past movie, but knowing the Sentinels will be in it isn’t making me want to see it any more than I already do.
8. Because the existence of mutants and their struggle in the Marvel universe makes the other superheroes look like, well, dicks.
Speaking of the Sentinels. When they first came on the scene, they were presented as a government-funded way of dealing with the mutant problem… by swooping down from the sky, arresting people without cause and transporting them to various holding facilities without a trial. Yeah, I can’t imagine any non-mutant superhero having a problem with that OH HEY THERE CAPTAIN AMERICA SYMBOL OF AMERICAN FREEDOM AND LIBERTY WE WERE JUST THINKING ABOUT YOU. It’s kind of a blessing in disguise that Fox scooped up the X-Men film rights before Marvel Studios started making movies set in the “official” Marvel cinematic universe; on the one hand, it means we won’t get to see an epic battle between, say, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Chris Evans’s Captain America… but on the upside, it avoids any awkward conversations between Patrick Stewart and Robert Downey, Jr., about mutant civil rights and where were heroes like Iron Man when the government was talking about Sentinels and whatnot. How inconvenient are mutants in the modern-day Marvel universe? When Mark Millar wrote Civil War, a summer event that was specifically about the civil rights of individuals with special powers, he purposely benched the mutants by having them declare neutrality in the growing battle between pro-registration heroes and the heroes who opposed it. Why? Probably because it would be hard to have a story in which Captain America is making speeches about the right of superhumans to live free from government control without Cyclops and Emma Frost coughing loudly off to the side.
9. Because the existence of mutants with that kind of power in our world would have created a very different world than the one we have now.
Remember when a couple of idiots tried to blow up some planes using liquid explosives, and suddenly we all had to put our travel toothpaste in clear plastic bags? Or when that idiot tried to sneak a bomb aboard in his shoes, and we responded by making everyone going through airport security take off their shoes? These are two small examples of how actions by a small group of people ended up causing massive inconveniences for everyone else. Now imagine a world where the public is aware that telepaths can knock pilots unconscious, or that mutants with magnetic powers can rip a plane apart from the inside. One of Marvel’s selling points is that its heroes live in a universe much like ours, but that simply isn’t possible to pull off when you’re creating a world where mutants are known to exist. Yes, the X-Men books have occasionally talked about countermeasures against mutant actions, but on the whole the day-to-day lives of normal humans in the Marvel universe doesn’t seem all that different from ours. Where are the class-action suits against Trask Industries? Where are the Shopping Channel hucksters selling bogus mutant detection kits? Where are the over-the-top security measures around every airport and public building to guard against mutant attack? When anyone could be a mutant, then everyone’s a suspect — which, granted, makes for a handy allegory for these paranoid times, but it’s hard to believe the Marvel world is so similar to ours given the many different types of threats they have to guard against.
10. Because there’s something a little not right in the way that Xavier puts this whole “live in peace and harmony with the humans” plan into action by turning minors into a paramilitary strike force.
Let’s just put it all on the table: Doesn’t it feel a little bit wrong to see a guy send minors out on life-and-death missions? Sure, they’re teenagers who can punch holes in walls and such, but they’re still teenagers. Look at the facts: he started out with a team of teenagers, recruited Kitty Pryde when she was only 13 years old, allows new and younger classes of underage students (the New Mutants, etc.) to fly off on all kinds of adventures, actually has a room in his mansion called the Danger Room where students are subjected to all kinds of, well, danger… are we supposed to assume all the parents who sent their kids to his school happily signed liability waivers? Even if Prof. Xavier was given full custody of his students, shouldn’t someone be the least bit concerned about the constant physical and mental trauma he puts them through every time they go out to fight evil mutants? And how does “assembling a covert team of impressionable youths to go beat up bad guys” get them closer to Xavier’s stated dreams of peace and harmony?
11. Because the X-Men, by definition, are not allowed to win.
List the big X-Men stories that first come to mind. The Phoenix Saga. Days of Future Past. House of M. The Mutant Massacre. How many of them ended with an unqualified victory for the team? Other superheroes have their tragic moments, sure — Spider-Man is practically the poster boy for the hard-luck hero set — but they’re allowed to have moments of triumph, too, because we kind of need a bit of both in our stories. But for the X-Men, their status quo is “a world that hates and fears them” — they can never get to a place where mutants are accepted by the rest of humanity, because that would mean the end of the franchise. So they continue, year after year, fighting evil mutants who hate humans and evil humans who hate mutants, and suffering tragic losses and picking themselves up and vowing to keep fighting… for what, exactly? So they can go right back to the “world that fears and hates them” status quo and sit around some more moping about how life is unfair. I’m not asking for rainbows and images of Wolverine reading to schoolchildren, just the occasional acknowledgement once in a while that the life of a mutant isn’t a never-ending shit sandwich.