September 15, 2011

Summer of the Super Hero - Part 3: Survival of the Fittest

by John-Brian Paprock

Here is a review of one of this summer's crop of superhero movies that is currently available on DVD/Blue Ray.

X-Men: The First Class
Released June 3, 2011 Runtime: 132 min
Rated PG-13 
DVD/Blue Ray release date September 9, 2011

Can there be humanistic superheroes who are not quite human? What if they consider themselves better than human? 

X-Men: The First Class is an origin story of a team of superheroes whose powers come from significant mutations of genetic code. They have innate powers, not of choice but due to an inherited potential caused by a force of nature known as mutation.  They seem human enough, until their special uniqueness and power emerges. 

As the one that takes the monicker, "Magneto," due to his unique ability to manipulate the power of magnetism, he deems these mutants as a new species, "Homo superior."  The term actually goes back to 1935 Science Fiction writers who coined the phrase to describe "the species that will evolve or be developed from Homo sapiens, with greater intellect or physical abilities, and often possessing paranormal powers," according to the  Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (Oxford University Press Inc, 2007), which also gives the following references:
  • 1935 O. Stapledon Odd John № 271: Homo Superior faced the little mob of Homo Sapiens, and it was immediately evident that Homo Superior was indeed the better man.
  • 1943 J.W. Campbell, Jr. Astounding SF (Feb.) № 158/1: How do you decide whether a man is an abnormally brilliant homo sapiens or a low‐grade homo superior, anyway?
  • 1955 F. Donovan Short Life Astounding SF (Feb.) № 48/2: Now you see why I dared not go even farther and release [...] the true Homo superior, the transcendent man.
  • 1973 J.R. Gregory & R. Price Visitor № 23: When the three returned to Earth, they had wondered what to call themselves. Homo superior sounded [...] well, too superior.
  • 1996 D. Pringle, et al. Ultimate Ency. of SF № 51/1: Sf writers [...] have been most interested in the advantageous mutations which might produce the first specimen of Homo superior.
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In this movie (and other X-Men movies as well as the very popular comic books), these mutations allow for diverse abilities. Some of these abilities are particularly powerful. The X-Men are a team of some of the most powerful, put together by a benevolent leader Professor Charles Xavier.  This movie takes place in the early 1960s and reaches back into the 1940s.

There is an underlying back story about the "human problem:" exploitation of the powerful mutants who can be used as weapons or intruments of espionage and blatant prejudice against those with more obvious mutations like wings or scales and more subtle hatred when unobvious abilities are revealed.  The X-Men story focuses on two divergent ways that two powerful mutants deal with that "human problem."  And in the Greek tragedy tradition, these two started in wildly different environments and experiences, become close friends and allies, but the tension of their respective views eventually forces them down different paths.

There is a third way of dealing with the "human problem" that is only alluded in this movie - isolation from "homo sapiens." This is explored in the Marvel comic book universe initially in a comic book series, "The Inhumans."  There is no movie about these mutants in the works. Of course, the X-Men saga has always been one of the most popular comic book series and it remains popular in diverse printed and digital movie forms.

As a story about human values, morals and ethics, the movie X-Men: The First Class dramatically plays out the realness of human evil that is at the core of the "human problem."  But in this movie, the struggle is much more personal as we learn the origins of Magneto's distrust and disdain for homo sapiens as well as core convictions of Professor Xavier, from whom the X-Men have derived their team name.

It starts, without shame or subtlety, in Nazi Germany and ends with an alternative reality for the Cuban Missile Crisis.  In between, some of the most powerful mutants find each other in hopes of being of mutual benefit. They meet in their struggles.  It helps, of course, that Professor Xavier's mutant ablity is enhanced mental abilities, especially strong telepathic abilities.  It helps Magneto hone and develop his powers as well. Xavier learns that he can help mutants learn to use their abilities and sees them as blessings for the entire world.  So, he opens a school for teen mutants, when at the age of puberty, mutants have particular - and many times peculiar - awkwardness.  He creates a home for those that don't seem to belong anywhere else. Magneto, once a lone revenger against the Nazis that killed his parents, learns that the company of fellow mutants is important, but he has great difficulty forgiving "Homo sapiens" for their humanness which he sees as a constant reminder of the ugly underside of human history - before its evolution into the superior species.

X-Men seems to have progressive and humanist teachings rather than overt spiritual or religious teachings.  It incorporates the fantastic along side the mundane, honoring the ideas of science over that of superstitution.  It champions diversity among the mutants, but the rest of humanity seems nearly monolithic.  Mutants, in general, seem to reject much of regular human spiritual teachings, particularly among these mutants.  There is an eclecticism in this movie reminescient of the liberal religious tradition of Unitarian-Universalism, but more likely the feeling is born of the diverse roles of mutants with diverse appearances and even more diverse super abilities rather than being influenced by any religious tradition in particularly.  One can imagine Martin Luther King Junior's dream including hand-holding with mutants as well.

What appeals to modern society in this movie is the common understanding of being rejected for our uniqueness; of not quite fitting in, and of even being overtly harassed for being different. In addition, in this new global society, we all struggle with the humantarian use of individual and collective power inherent in our diverse gifts, skills and abilities. We identify with the dilemma of being exploited if we have desired abilities or completely rejected if our unique qualities are not popular either in appearance or in practice.  This is an intensely spiritual struggle, and one that transcends race, culture and religion.

One of the main issues among mutants is in the control and the improvement of their unique abilities. In spiritual development programs, there is an acquisition of spiritual awareness and certain insights that can be seen in a similar way.  One wholistic program of spiritual and physical discipline is the martial arts of the east. In X-Men, this is mostly encouraged and developed with mental functions like focus of will and clearing the mind. The teachings in X-Men come from the Eastern Traditions of Buddhism, Taoism and Vedic meditative practices.  In the center of these schools of spiritual wisdom, there is the teacher, wise and helpful, who uses his own life force and experience, his special gifts, to assist his students learn control.  All to come into a certain harmony with the people and world around us and unlock the unique potentiality within each of us.

This is played out when two powerful mutants come together - one (Xavier) to help the other (Magneto) heal his painful memories and anger so that he can access his personal mutant power more effectively. Here are several quotes of Xavier when he is speaking with Magneto from the movie X-Men: The First Class.

Professor Charles Xavier: You know, I believe the true focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity.

Professor Xavier: There is so much more to you than you know, not just pain and anger, there's good too, I felt it. When you can access all that, you'll possess a power no one can match, not even me.

Professor Xavier: You have a chance to become a part of something much bigger than yourself.
Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto): What do you know about me?
Professor Xavier: Everything.

This is the best overall film of this Summer of Superheroes, from its writing to its direction to its consistent and blended special effects.  It bears the burden of being a prequel to a trilogy of the hugely successful X-Men movies very well. It also reminds us of true friendship and the lasting effects of our decisions, that even with super mental faculties and superior physical abilities we may not be able to help everyone.  But, regardless of the odds, some of us will still try.

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