Traumatic Adolescences And Revolutionary Tendencies In Bryan Singer’s X-men (2000)
In X-Men the stigmatising, marginalising powers of mutancy push mutants into two ideologically oppositional camps, one heroic (the X-Men) and the other villainous and anti-society (Magneto’s group) which come to represent good and evil in the film. The impending apocalypse in X-Men is brought about by the revolutionary activities of the villainous group, positing concrete consequence for the formation of such groups. The way characters are sorted into and come to identify with these categories is thus of interest as it provides insight into beliefs held by society about the deviance, criminality, and the formation of moral character. Focusing on Marie D’Ancanto and Erik Lehnsherr, the only two characters whose origins as mutants are revealed in the film and who therefore allow for an understanding of the effects of mutancy on characters’ moral positioning, I describe X-Men (2000) as adopting a positivist approach to criminality (in which an individual’s predisposition toward criminality is pre-determined), where it is the social conditions of the pre-categorised mutant (as encompassed, represented, and remembered in a singular traumatic moment of discovery of mutancy in adolescence) that shapes their views on human society, thus influencing their social decisions and determining their ideological and literal future within the text.
A positivist approach to crime and deviance regards criminality as caused primarily by social, biological, or psychological conditions, understanding outliers of society as fundamentally different. (Roshier, 1989) From such an approach, criminality is not primarily the result of rational choice. In X-Men, mutation is innate and inescapable but it is in the emergence of opposing deviant stances (“against” and “for” the continuation of human society) as a result of differing experiences of “becoming” a mutant that the film’s positivist tendencies are manifest. I propose that the film provides two scripts which illustrate possible post-traumatic-event paths for adolescent mutants, one of which is taken by Erik, who becomes the (revolutionary) supervillain Magneto, and the other by Marie, who becomes Rogue, a member of the (heroic, society protecting) X-Men.
Moments of trauma and the production of opposing views on society
Experienced as the beginnings of their irreversible (psychological) alienation from regular society, the traumatic moments of characters’ discovery of their mutancy are formative, leaving lasting impressions on them of the nature of their mutancy and its implications on their relationship with non-mutant society. These experiences are set apart by the agency and power wielded by characters and the actions of those around them which ultimately produce impressions of being a danger to or in danger because of society in Marie and Erik respectively, informing their subsequent actions and stances toward non-mutant society.
Erik’s first use of his mutant abilities is tied to an experience of powerlessness, injustice, and social violence, resulting in a perception of society as congenitally flawed and himself as outside of it. The audience witnesses his discovery of his powers in a flashback to World War Two where Erik, as a young boy, marked already as an alienated individual as a result of his Jewishness, walks with his mother through a thick crowd outside a concentration camp. Suddenly, his mother is pulled away from him and into the camp, and Erik, left struggling against a slew of guards to reach her, bends the gates toward him with his ability to control metal before he is knocked unconscious by a soldier. Erik’s first use of his powers is thus a retailliation to violence inflicted upon him by society and a desperate emotional attempt to gain control that ultimately fails. The brutal severing of maternal ties leaves Erik vulnerable and isolated, without anchor to human society, and the exit he experiences is an involuntary one from a society that is discriminatory and cruel. This experience engenders in Erik an enduring sense of victimhood and a strong sense having been rejected by a discriminatory society, preventing him from forming dreams of assimilation and later informing his experience of mutantness.
Marie, on the other hand, approaches her mutancy from a position of acceptability and normality. Rooted firmly in her ordinary life within non-mutant society, her initial unproblematic assimilation prevents her from viewing society as inherently marginalising. The incident occurs in a mundane setting; in her bedroom discussing her plans to travel with her boyfriend. The scene is disrupted, however, when her boyfriend kisses her and falls victim to her ability to absorb the ‘lifeforce’ of those she touches, landing him in a three week coma. Jolted into a recognition of her own dangerousness, Marie initiates her self-marginalisation and exit from society. Marie’s powers, which she understands only in their capacity to harm, become the source of her exclusion as avenues for intimacy through physical contact become closed to her. As she perceives her mutancy as being at fault, her existence outside of society does not preclude continued affection for it (and the family she has left within it) and she proves capable of harbouring desires to protect the society she is familiar with, carrying this out in part by removing the threat to it she represents.
The social groups that characters become a part of (which push characters toward and enable characters to take their respective stances at the almost-apocalypse) are determined by the worldviews adopted by Erik and Marie respectively as a result of the previously discussed moments of trauma.
Erik, seeing himself as an outsider, envisions himself as part of a “mutant brotherhood” of similarly predisposed characters where his participation and sense of belonging to the group is built on the basis of their shared marginality and opposition to the non-mutant world. His participation in group life is thus fueled by and reaffirms his sense of society as threatening and discriminatory. In Erik’s companions, outsider statuses are written onto their physical bodies, preventing interaction with non-mutant society and reducing potential for reassimilation and identification with it. Mortimer Toynbee’s mutation, for example, leaves him with, amongst other toad-like features, an extended tongue, a greenish skin, and oddly bulging eyes. It is notable that these characters are distinctly animalistic, with Mortimer displaying less propensity for independent action and thought and at one point swallowing a live bird whole after catching it with his tongue, suggesting a subhumanness in them and an atavistic tendency in the film. As the members of Erik’s group are connected solely on the basis of shared alienation (as suggested by the lack of emotional interactions between them), the group’s formation takes on distinctly political undertones. Unable to foresee a future within society, status quos present themselves as untenable and change necessary. The group thus becomes a pool of mutants with shared latent frustrations and revolutionary dreams ripe for mobilisation under Erik.
Whilst Erik forms his community in retaliation to perceived and felt threat, Marie is adopted into hers through acts of rescue that allow her to avoid using her powers and through this help her regain and retain her sense of humanity and connection to non-mutant society. This is most obviously seen in her relationship with Logan. The first mutant she encounters, she attempts to stowaway in his truck and makes a plea for him to help her find a place to go, to which he reluctantly agrees. Over the course of the film they form a close relationship in which Logan takes on a protective role. Their relationship takes on physically and psychologically restorative properties as Logan’s unlimited ability to heal allows Marie to temporarily absorb his powers and heal her own injuries without causing him lasting damage. Two such instances of healing occur in the film and in these acts of care and self-sacrifice Marie’s humanity is reinforced through her capacity to form meaningful relationships. Representing the mutant community’s heightened endurance, Logan’s resilience allows the community to become a safe space for her not because Marie does not feel threatened by others but because she is not forced to perceive herself as as great a threat. Repeated acts of rescue carried out by members of the X-Men and Logan also emphasise her belonging to the community and thus prevent her from being co-opted into Erik’s group.
Also important is Charles Xavier’s School For Mutants’ allowing of Marie’s reintegration into her peer group which prevents her from developing an anomic identity. In being a school where students are “mostly runaways, … some with gifts so extreme they’re a danger to themselves and those around them”, the institution minimises the importance of mutancy and vagrancy which would otherwise be conspicuous and alienating. Marie’s mutancy is no longer felt as deviance but natural variation, allowing her to identify with others and form an identity outside of mutancy. Charles’s vision of the school, as a space that will provide shelter for mutants but also prepare students to potentially “rejoin the world” also encourages the upholding of social order and allows Marie to envision a future of herself within the limits of society. The need for an attachment to a revolutionary imagination is thus removed as society is not presented as perpetually closed to mutants. Marie’s participation in the mutant school thus allows her to reimagine herself as part of a rule-bound and morality-centred social group, resulting in an investment in maintaining societal status quos and a disposition against the revolutionary stance of Erik and his compatriots.
The continued relevance of the traumatic moment
These differing experiences ultimately culminate in opposing positions at the almost-apocalypse. The inability to form dreams of integration with society can be seen to produce in Erik revolutionary dreams of equality, the realisation of which are contingent on the destruction of an old discriminatory order. For Erik, the relevance of trauma sustained during the holocaust, in its contribution to his sense of himself as marginalised and under threat, is seen his use of war imagery and an us-versus-them rhetoric. He makes repeated references to a coming “war” and claims non-mutant society will put mutants in chains and have “a number burned into [their] forehead[s]” (a reference to the branding of Jews during the holocaust), and that there is “no justice”, and he has seen “whole families destroyed simply because they were born different from those in power”. The enduring effects of trauma suffered by Erik in adolescence can thus be seen to lead to his continued perception of persecution as a natural human tendency. He thus justifies his plans to turn an island of politicians into mutants by claiming that it will bring about positive change, that the “world’s powerful will be just like us” and “return home as brothers”. Erik, incapable of seeing society as something worth preserving in its bigotry sees his attempts at mutating society as valiant, allowing society to move past its segregatory instincts to achieve solidarity through shared deviance. The future that Erik envisions, therefore, is not merely a superpowered existence or retributive end of humanity but one in which discrimination disappears in the production of visible deviance in all members of society.
Marie’s experience, on the other hand, is one in which her excess of power again places her in a position of precarity. Seen by Erik as a tool through which his revolution may be carried out (through using her to power his contraption), the experience mirrors her traumatic moment of discovery. Desiring the continued existence of society because of the culmination of her positive experiences of it, she resists Erik’s revolutionary position but, ineffective in fending him off, is reduced to the position of a victim and is ultimately rescued by Logan and a team of X-Men. In becoming a passive victim, Marie returns to her position as civilian and dependent, reinforcing her ties to the community of X-Men and their order-protecting values. Prevented from becoming an unwilling villain, she is allowed to continue to harbour dreams of reintegration and belonging to existing human society, placing her firmly on a non-revolutionary path which she is seen to take at the end of the film where she returns to the mutant school and is seen playing and socialising with other young mutants.
X-Men can thus be seen to adopt a positivist narrative, putting forth clear scripts for becoming “good” and “evil” in which experiences of trauma shape worldviews to far-reaching consequences. The production of a revolutionary/criminal deviant in X-Men as embodied in Erik can be seen to involve initial alienation from society, and an experience of mutancy associated with marginalisation and powerlessness preventing attachment to society in its current state. This experience results in the formation of revolutionary dreams of equality and identification with mutants similarly alienated, reaffirming and allowing attempts to realise those dreams. A conforming deviant as produced in Marie can be seen to be shaped by experiences which allow for an initial emotional attachment to society and re-integrative social opportunities that allow continued dreams of reintegration with “normal” society. In this, X-Men is deterministic, displacing agency in the discussion of the origins of criminality and thus implying a responsibility on the part of society for the production of disruptive personalities.
Roshier, B. (1989). Controlling crime: The Classical Perspective in Criminology. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
Singer B. (Director). (2000). X-Men [Motion picture]. Los Angeles: 20th Century Fox.