Science fiction has always allowed writers and directors to address sensitive social issues from an outside perspective, and the 2000 film X-Men is no exception. It begins by introducing the audience to two characters trying to implement social change – Professor Xavier and Magneto. While both powerful mutants, Professor X chooses to follow a more gradualist approach to achieving peaceful mutant-human relations by running a school and participating in Senate debates. Magneto, on the other hand, chooses to take a more radical approach when confronting the same topic, preferring to take direct action to ensure mutant rights. The film incorporates references to the Civil Rights movements through these characters’ words and actions in order to give its audience a basis to compare the two forms of social change. X-Men serves as a commentary on gradualism versus radicalism, most specifically by comparing it to the Civil Rights Movement, one of the most concrete, contemporary examples of a human rights demonstration.
Since Stan Lee, the author of the X-Men series, wrote the comics in the 1960s at the peak of the Civil Rights movement, he incorporated many of the issues he saw being addressed in America into the comics, which then were translated into the film. For example, Jean Gray’s proposition at the beginning of X-Men resembles many of the court cases in which gradualist reformers fought for equal rights for African Americans. During the debate at the beginning of the film, Senator Kelly, an anti-mutant politician, argues, “Now I think the American people deserve the right to decide if they want their children to be in school with mutants” (Singer). This is similar to many American’s resistance to de-segregating schools when the Supreme Court passed Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954. For instance, on February 11, 1956, 15,000 people attended a pro-segregation rally, which was led by James O. Eastland, a United States senator. He declared, “I think I know the people of Alabama well, and you’re not going to permit the NAACP to take over your schools.” In these two instances, both the senator in the film and the real-life senator from Alabama were scared of an outsider coming in and changing whom their children were being educated with.
The film expands upon this commentary through the characters’ actions, creating historical parallels and questioning social change as a whole. Initially, Magneto attempts to change the world leaders into mutants “by any means necessary,” a line that Malcolm X was notorious for saying; thus, the film associates Magneto with the radical Civil Rights activist (Singer). While X-Men can be seen as an allegory for the Civil Rights movement, it is broad enough to concentrate on the oppression of the other in general. Bryan Singer, the director of the film, clearly acknowledges that he used the film as allegory for a larger concept:
“Well, I think beneath the costumes and the spectacle and the fighting and the fun, there’s an underlying philosophy about prejudice, about feeling outcast, fear of the unknown, trying to find you place in the world – very universal concepts that people have been attracted to” (Singer).
Singer’s view is reflected in Magneto’s beliefs about tolerance: “America was going to be a land of tolerance, peace…[but] there is no land of tolerance, there is no peace. Women and children, whole families destroyed simply because they were born different from those in power….” (Singer). Consequently, the majority of X-Men discusses the moral dilemma of how oppressed people should go about obtaining equal rights – through gradualism or radicalism.
Through his actions and beliefs, Professor Xavier acts as a fictional proponent for gradualism as method of social change. One of the key ways that gradualists hope to implement social change is by educating their oppressors, an action that Professor Xavier performs repeatedly throughout the film. In fact, the first time that the audience is physically introduced to Xavier is when he observes Jean Gray fail to convince the Senate and the American people that mutants are not dangerous and should be fully accepted by society. However, the professor does not realize what the African Americans who wrote the journal Negro History Bulletin understood as they faced intolerance during the 1950s: “Much has been based upon ignorance, ignorance is no excuse in the promotion of a program to destroy human happiness for millions of Negroes” (Segregation and Gradualism). That is to say, Professor Xavier does not realize that education alone will not win the mutants equal recognition, just as it did not do so for African Americans. Moreover, gradualists detest the idea of radical social change, especially through revolts or uprising. This can be seen in Professor Xavier’s constant attempts to prevent Magneto from making such a revolutionary change. Throughout the course of the film, Professor Xavier directly confronts Magneto three times: outside of the Senate building, through Sabertooth when Magneto kidnaps Rogue, and during their chess game at the end of the film. During these encounters, Xavier stresses the idea of “hope” – both that humans and mutants will one day live in harmony and that Magneto will one day convert to the gradualist philosophy.
Nevertheless, Professor Xavier’s practice of gradualism does not work because his policies are internally inconsistent, and his constant promotion of peace can no longer mask the burgeoning number of conflicts arising from the stark differences between mutants and humans that eventually force the Professor to use violence. Although Xavier claims to not use violence as a means of social change, he persistently uses it throughout the film anyway. One such instance occurs when he attempts to explain his philosophy to Wolverine; the professor states that “there are many powerful mutants out there, Logan, and many of them do not share my respect for mankind. Without anyone to protect them, humanity’s days might be numbered” (Singer). In order to protect the humans, the professor utilizes the lower levels of his school as essentially a military base for his own private army – the X-men. Even though he only uses the X-men as a method of defense, by their mere existence, they contradict gradualism. If Professor Xavier really believed that violence should never be used to accomplish social change, he would attempt to stop the Brotherhood through peace talks or pre-existing, legitimate authorities. Also, the professor does not realize that “the longer the period of inequalities of fundamental opportunities, the greater will become the disparity between the relative progress of those who have every opportunity and those who are burdened with handicaps” (Segregation and Gradualism). Consequently, by following a gradualist philosophy, problems tend to only become worse rather than improve.
Furthermore, the film makes it very clear that although mutants evolved from humans, they are not the same and, as a result, will have difficulty peacefully coexisting. Professor Xavier even acknowledges that mutants and humans are very different by explaining that even “the brainwaves of mutants are different from those of average humans” (Singer). Ironically, while the Professor can acknowledge that mutants and humans are physically distinctive, he refuses to believe that they are truly different from each other in other aspects. Additionally, he creates Xavier’s School for Talented Youngsters because he believes that “anonymity is a mutant’s first defense against the world’s hostility” (Singer). By segregating mutant students from normal humans, it reveals that humans and mutants in fact cannot live synchronously, especially in a place as small as a school; therefore, he contradicts his own gradualist belief that mutants and humans should make slow changes in order to live together in peace.
Lastly, despite the growing conflict between mutants and humans, Professor Xavier continues to ignorantly have hope that peaceful resolutions can be made in face of increasingly hostile relations between mutants and humans. The film makes it appear as if the professor is naïve enough to believe that mutants and humans can forestall a war, even though Magneto nearly converted the majority of the world’s leaders into mutants and, at the end of the film, Mystique, Magneto’s accomplice, has infiltrated the white house by impersonating an allegedly dead senator. In addition, Logan, Senator Kelly, and Magneto each independently admit that a war is coming, but the Professor will not do the same. Even at the end of the film when Magneto and the Professor are playing chess, he still does not recognize even of the possibility of war, firmly proving that his entire philosophy is illogical considering the rapidly declining mutant-human relations throughout the film.
While Professor Xavier practices gradualism, Magneto chooses to use a radical philosophy when implementing civil change, similar to that of Civil Rights activist Malcolm X. First, Magneto realizes that mutants and humans are so drastically different that he does not think of them as the same species. For instance, before he changes Senator Kelly into a mutant, he states, “No, Senator, what I think you’re really afraid of is me. Me and my kind. The Brotherhood of Mutants” (Singer). Consequently, he has the frame of mind that the humans that are in power are no longer the best species to govern the earth: “We are the future, Charles, not them. They no longer matter” (Singer). As a result, Magneto follows typical radicalist thought: “The flavuor of radicalism bereft of tangible results may simply be bartering in the semiotic game-play that accompanies its own particular discursive formations” (Thompson). That is, the defining mark of radicalism is by actually taking action as opposed to just talking about it. This is present in both Malcolm X and Magneto; Malcolm X once said, “I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problem just to avoid violence”. Similarly, Magneto refuses to wait for social change to happen on its own and, instead, wants to begin to implement it immediately. In X-Men, Magneto does this by attempting to change all of the world leaders into mutants themselves so that they can begin to make laws that benefit both mutants and humans because “God works too slowly” (Singer).
While the radicalism that Magneto uses has some drawbacks, it is far more efficient than gradualism. One such implication of radicalist philosophy is that it can lead to excess or unnecessary violence. Professor Xavier notices this in Mangeto; he tells Wolverine that Magneto was “convinced that humans would never accept us, he grew angry and vengeful” (Singer). Additionally, Magneto is willing to kill Rogue in order to change all of the world leaders into mutants, which Wolverine critiques: “If you [Magneto] were really so righteous, it’d be you in that thing” (Singer). However, radicalism that uses justified violence can still accomplish a lot more than gradualism. By sacrificing Rogue, mutants would be able to finally get the rights they’ve been fighting for instead of “pass[ing] that law and they’ll have you in chains with a number burned into your forehead” (Singer). Thus, although Magneto’s plan is radical, it would presumably prevent a war from breaking out between humans and mutants, eventually causing more good than harm.
While Professor Xavier and Magneto use opposing means for accomplishing the same goal, Brian Singer’s film places more emphasis on choosing a side – gradualism or radicalism – and taking action than favoring a side itself. In fact, asking Wolverine to pick a side remains a constant motif throughout the film. For instance, Storm confronts Wolverine, and Wolverine states, “You know there’s a war coming. Are you sure you’re on the right side?” To which Storm replies, “At least I’ve chosen a side” (Singer). In the same regard, Singer wants the audience to truly think about the benefits and consequences of both radicalism and gradualism and pick the one that they deem to be the most plausible solution.
Professor Xavier opens the entire movie with the quote “Mutation. It is the key to our evolution. It has allowed us to evolve from a single-celled organism to the dominant species on this planet. This process is slow, normally taking thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward” (Singer). Just as mutation is slow and the revolutionary leaps push species forward, so too does gradualism make a little progress towards a desired goal while radial change quickly accomplishes it – both in the real world and a fictional one. In the end, although X-Men may not require the viewer to put on spandex and save the day, it does ask him or her to take a crucial stance –to join Magneto and the Brotherhood on their quest for radical change or to become an X-Man and promote peaceful mutant-human relations with Professor Xavier.
“Segregation and Gradualism.” Negro History Bulletin 15.7 (1952): 152-53. Print.
“Segregation Rally Attended by 15,000.” Spokane Daily Chronicle [Montgomery, Alabama] 11 Feb. 1956: 3. Print.
Thompson, Nato. “When Radicalism Pays Off.” Third Text 22.5 (2008): 599-603. Print.
X-Men. Dir. Bryan Singer. Perf. Ian McKellan and Patrick Steward. Twentieth Century Fox, Marvel Entertainment, 2000. DVD.