Believe it or not, there was a time when there were not a dozen superhero movies being released every year. It almost seems mythological at this point, our brains are so saturated these days with people with powers beating up other people with powers on screens big and small. Thirteen years ago (yes that long) there was a time when only like, three or four movies were released in the genre. All these years later, as Marvel and DC battle it out for who can make the most and the biggest movies, each new entry still revolves around the same themes and ideas.
In 2003, X2: X-Men United had the job of following up X-Men, the movie that was so loved in 2000 that it brought us to where we are today with our superhero madness. No easy task. Yet, it holds up to the best we’ve had in these nearly two decades of these films. X2 is expertly crafted, perfectly paced, and most importantly doesn’t have one of those annoyingly over-the-top endings where spectacle takes over and everything is telegraphed. The reason it works so well is the reason any film works so well- it lets its characters drive the story. Every action is reasoned, motivations are clear, and the results are earned. Plus, it’s thrilling, full of great action, and has a great deal of mystery that’s been missing in the recent X-films. It’s a fantastic movie.
Professor X: Mutants. Since the discovery of their existence, they have been regarded with fear, suspicion, often hatred. Across the planet, debate rages. Are mutants the next link in the evolutionary chain or simply a new species of humanity fighting for their share of the world? Either way, it is a historical fact: Sharing the world has never been humanity’s defining attribute.
As we open on the expanse of the universe, we hear the voiceover of Captain Picard Professor Xavier introducing the central conflict that has defined all the X-films. The setting is a world struggling to cope with these radically different human beings that have “mutated” into something unique and often powerful. The thematic parallels to our world are obvious, yet there’s something about these movies that brings an urgency to the argument. X2’s powerful and manipulative villain William Stryker seeks the total genocide of the mutants. The weight of such a concept is never fully felt, but the line is drawn hard in the dirt. Humanity most certainly has had trouble sharing the world.
Nightcrawler: You know, outside the circus, most people were afraid of me. But I didn’t hate them. I pitied them. Do you know why? Because most people will never know anything beyond what they see with their own two eyes.
Storm: Well, I gave up on pity a long time ago.
Nightcrawler: Someone so beautiful should not be so angry.
Storm: Sometimes anger can help you survive.
Nightcrawler: So can faith.
This is the essence of our choice when we’re faced with adversity. Anger or faith. Certainly it’s not cut and dry, but when faced with real hardship, we can choose to lash out, or believe in something. It’s not an easy task and no one is perfect., but through peace or force, we act. Storm, who has fought for peace with her X-Men team, leans towards anger. Nightcrawler, who through manipulation nearly assassinated the president, leans towards faith. It’s a fascinating dichotomy that illustrates that the human heart is fickle, and never can be trusted.
“For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” – 2 Timothy 1:7
Pardon me for cherry picking an extremely cherry-picked verse, but Paul spoke these words to Timothy while he was sitting in a jail cell. That’s a pretty tough place to choose faith over anger. Timothy also faced real adversity for his faith, and Paul spoke to him of the power it has over fear. I think the reason the X-films feel urgent in examining prejudice, is that they don’t shy away from giving the world stakes. It’s life or death for these characters facing discrimination due to their genetic makeup.
I see so many faux stakes every day. As a Christian, I watch time and time again as others who identify as Christian manufacture persecution and act as if they’re fighting a cultural war for their own soul every time they enter a Starbucks. It’s shameful, harmful to many, and subverts the basis of the very idea they claim to fight for. Today, social media shines its unforgiving spotlight on each new occurrence which only adds fuel to the fire and I’m left wondering if it will ever end. Meanwhile, mass genocide, war, human trafficking, and all manner of real horrors happen across the globe. We need to be reminded of real stakes. We need to be reminded that we haven’t been given a spirit of fear. The X-Men films, in a small way, help do that.
The mutants happen to overcome their inner turmoil for the greater good in this story. Unity, though imperfect and brief here, becomes a weapon that leads to peace. This is what the opposite of a spirit of fear looks like. God has given us a spirit of power, love, and self-control. He has given us community. Only in community can we be really known and accepted for who we are.
Fear often leads to actions that seek self-preservation. Fear creates William Stryker. Community and acceptance create Jean Grey, who sacrificed herself for her team. Through Jean’s action, peace can be maintained, the move away from injustice pushes forward, and the X-Men can go on to make their “last stand” (sorry, I had to). If the superhero machine keeps churning out stories with these themes, then you can go on making them into oblivion as far as I’m concerned. I’ll be first in line.