After three X-Men movies and one Wolverine prequel movie, people around the world (outside the comic book community) are now at least vaguely familiar with the X-Men. This week a new X-Men prequel movie, X-Men: First Class, is set to hit the big screen, but what is it actually all about? Why did Stan Lee and Jack Kirby create the X-Men comic back in the early 1960s? Underneath the spandex costumes and mutant superpowers, what is the real story? And where is a good place to get into the X-Men? (Some spoilers for the film under the cut.)
The first X-Men comic debuted in 1963, an extremely turbulent year in the middle of the American Civil Rights Movement during a decade rife with many far-reaching social and political changes. The X-Men comic drew many parallels from real world events at that time, hidden under a veil of spandex and superpowers. In the comic book, people are often afraid of those that are different. They can’t relate to them and don’t understand them. The X-Men represent the ultimate outsiders; many of them look extremely unusual, and their abilities make enemies band together against what they see as a common foe.
One of the reasons the X-Men stories are just as relevant today is that for all of the sacrifices made pushing for equal rights, these problems have not gone away. Bigotry, racism, sexism and, more recently, increased fear and intolerance about people of different faiths, persists in the twenty-first century.
At the heart of the X-Men are two men, Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, also known as Professor X and Magneto. These two begin as friends, but later become implacable enemies (although in some ways the term ‘enemy’ is insufficient to describe their complex relationship). They are two sides of the same coin, looking at the same problem from a different perspective. Even after they go their separate ways, each hopes the other will come around to their way of thinking. They believe the other is misguided, but not actually evil per se.
In the new movie, X-Men: First Class, the story is set in the 1960s and charts the friendship between these two great men who will eventually inspire many other mutants to take up their cause. In the movie, mutants are starting to become more numerous and can no longer be ignored as an urban myth or flight of fantasy. Charles Xavier is an intelligent and driven young man who sees great potential in mutants, and an opportunity for them to help humanity by working in conjunction with them, and by using their extraordinary powers to resolve conflicts. He believes that mutants need to prove their worth in order to be accepted and embraced by humanity. To begin with, Erik agrees with this approach and works with Charles, training and coaching young mutants, helping them to realize their full potential by embracing what makes them different and unique.
The problems begin when Erik starts to see things differently, coming to believe that Charles’ approach is flawed. In his view, mutants should not have to prove anything just because they are different, and he believes mutants are in many ways superior to humans because of their abilities. Erik is Jewish and, during WWII, he was a young boy who eventually ended up in the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. As a result, he is very aware of where segregation and intolerance can lead in extreme circumstances, and he does not want to see mutants treated in a similar fashion.
In the previous X-Men films we saw that Charles and Erik are no longer working together, and on many occasions they come into conflict with one another, but each still greatly respects the other. The X-Men: First Class movie shows us the beginning of the end of their friendship, where the cracks begin to show. They are no longer able to present a unified mutant front, which makes it even more difficult for people in authority to trust them, much to Charles chagrin.
The X-Men comics and movies are undoubtedly about action, adventure and the fantastic powers that allow the characters to perform superhuman acts. Not all of the comics, or indeed the films, have such an obvious didactic message as described, but it is the foundation on which all of the stories were built. Growing up, I enjoyed the comics because of the exciting and fascinating characters and wonderful stories, but as an adult, I am now able to enjoy them on more levels.
The X-Men: First Class movie differs slightly from the original comics, but at its heart it is about the same thing—Charles bringing together a small group of mutants and trying to build something that will last. Over the decades, the stories have become much more complex in the comic books and at times very convoluted, but there are a number of jumping on points I can recommend.
If you like the idea of the early days of the X-Men then I would recommend picking up X-Men: First Class by Jeff Parker and Roger Cruz which follows the adventures of Charles Xavier and first 5 mutants he recruits and trains, some of who also appear in the X-Men: First Class movie. Alternatively, if you wanted to jump on board with the current X-Men comics, I would recommend three stories (Messiah Complex, Messiah War and Second Coming) which will provide details of the current status quo.