X-Men: Blending Pop Culture & Social Relevance

We live in an age of darkness: a world full of fear, hate and intolerance. But in every age, there are those who fight against it

-Storm

Outcasts. Rejects. These are just two of the many ways you can use to describe the X-Men. It’s hard not to know who the X-Men are if you’re a fan. When you think about superhero teams, most fans usually mention the Justice League, the Avengers or the X-Men, and for good reason. The X-Men have been around since September 1963, making them 55 years old as of 2018. In the 30 years from the 1960s-90s, Marvel published some of the best X-Men stories ever told. Featuring iconic works like Days of Future Past, The Dark Phoenix Saga, a personal favorite of mine from this era of X-Men, and the Age of Apocalypse comic book arcs. The 1990s brought X-Men to mainstream audiences like never before with the renowned, fan favorite and timeless classic, XMen: The Animated Series. Finally, the 2000s-2010s gave us some of the best comic book films of all time as the X-Men reinvigorated the comic book film medium. Thanks to the 2000’s X-Men, superheroes became “cool”again after a down spiral of films like Batman & Robin, the market for superhero films was cold and most studios were not confident in a big budget comic book project.  X-Men made almost 300 million worldwide which was considered groundbreaking, and rightfully so. The film sparked the superhero renaissance we live in today and paved the way for the Spider-Man Trilogy, The Dark Knight Trilogy and in turn, the modern superhero film landscape. There is no denying the X-Men are iconic but  a what makes them special and stands them apart from any other team is the way they seamlessly blend social relevance and awareness with pop culture.

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Social awareness has been embedded with the X-Men from inception. Between films, comics and tv series, all of them incorporate concepts of social relevance into the characters and themes. For films, the two films that do this well are X-Men & X2. X-Men portray their heroes as outcasts and refugees, many of them without families or homes of their own and looking for a place to feel accepted. Mutants, like refugees, are feared and called a “problem” by higher authorities even though that’s not the case. “Are mutants dangerous?” asks Senator Kelly in X-Men. Jean follows with how it’s an “unfair question”—you can’t license people to live, a chilling theme that continues to be relevant today. In a world where people are hurt for their a race, religion, orientation, and you have an administration that not only amplifies it, but adds fuel to the fire, it creates a toxic environment. The mutant struggle brings some of these aspects to light and takes their characters to dark places to do it. X-Men shows that you can’t just exclude mutants from society.

The next example of The X-men’s social awareness is X2. X2 deals with several themes, most particularly the “coming out” stage. Bobby (Iceman) is forced to tell his parents about his mutant abilities and his parents reaction is exactly what you would expect from a suburban Christian family. His mother says, “have you tried… not being a mutant?” This is something that people who are LGBTQ can relate to, as they have difficulty explaining to their loved ones about this topic. They’re in a constant state of discomfort before coming out to their loved ones, debating if it’s the right idea, or questioning how will they react. Bobby kept his powers a secret for years and when he finally told his parents, he got the stereotypical reaction many get in real life. Mutants are always forced to hide themselves because they’re scared of what the “normal” people will think of them. They hide what makes them special to blend into the crowd. This can be reflected back to people hiding their own cultures to blend into society as well. Throughout all of The X-Men iterations on film, they has always been an element of discrimination and what that does to the characters.

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If the X-Men films were good at incorporating and touching on themes of social awareness, then the comic books dial that up to a million. The X-Men were literally created for the purpose of being socially relevant. Just look at the year they were introduced, 1963. Thousands of African Americans marched the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, for the Civil Rights Movement. That same year, the X-Men were created and were confirmed to be influenced by those social movements. Mutants talk about how everyone outside of their kind hate them. They’re afraid. This translates to real world persecution. In 1982 comic book writer Chris Claremont wrote The X-Men comic, God Loves, Man Kills, which is about William Stryker’s fear and hate of the mutant civilization. He shows that he even hates his own son, Jason, due to him being a mutant. “You dare call that… THING a human???” is a direct line from that comic. Stryker screams at Nightcrawler, during a public speech about the toxicity of mutants living in the world, thus proving that the X-Men were clearly labeled as not human or just simply, not one of “us”.

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We still live in a world full of hate and there is no denying it. Immigrants are being treated a sub-class, there is a rampant fear of religions of peace, race relations are being degraded everyday and a toxicity around people with different sexual orientations continues. The X-Men are just as relevant today as they have ever been. Their core message is one of acceptance. Stand proudly for what you believe in. This is what the X-Men have taught me from the beautifully written pages of the comics to the spectacular live action installments. 

The impact of the X-Men personally means more to me on so many levels. I grew up watching XMen: The Animated Series every Saturday morning with my brother. The X-Men simply face challenges that the Avengers, Justice League and Fantastic Four don’t. They have to live in distress all the time, they aren’t accepted in costume or out. They have to deal with discrimination from their own loved ones, the government, the public and the world, even when they are serving to protect. Their greatest triumph is that none of the discrimination stops them from saving the world. This in itself is the message of the X-Men. They make sacrifices no other superhero teams have to make. The X-Men are one of the most popular franchises in cinema and one of the most iconic comic book teams in the medium. In 55 years, the X-Men have managed to perfectly blend pop culture success with social relevance, creating an impact that is unmatched.

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