X-Men vs. Avengers

Storytelling Against Mutual Genocide

Stories aren’t just stories. Because we humans tend to act out the ones we know best, we need to hear, understand, and tell a variety of stories that are adequately nuanced and humanizing. Otherwise, we are doomed to perpetuating cycles of violence. We also need shared stories to help hold us together and to provide some common points of reference. On numerous occasions, I’ve witnessed groups of people born before 1990 find sudden solidarity around a mutual commitment to having “more cowbell.”

Several weeks back, I spent the day at Costco. My laptop brimmed with grading and drafts in need of revision, so I camped out in the café while I waited for my tires. By lunchtime, the other tables had filled, so when an older gentleman asked if he could join me, I gladly obliged. I asked him about the aircraft carrier on his hat and he swelled with pride as he spoke of cramped quarters, duty, honor, Custer’s Last Stand (family vacation), and Vietnam (his war). The landscapes of the western U.S. and the vast expanse of the Pacific spread before us.

Then we came to the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, suspended over the battleship-turned-tomb in Pearl Harbor. My conversation partner leaned in and whispered, “I saw a group of Orientals chattering away there and I wanted to ask, ‘Does anyone here have a gun?’” (Subtext: he would have gladly used one on them.) He added, “They’re buying up all the land in Hawaii, you know.” At a loss for words, I sat back and wondered what I could possibly say to redeem the conversation and my neighbor. I wonder still.

Why would someone expand “the enemy” of his own war to include civilians from an entire continent? Surely part of the answer lies in the kinds of stories we tell. It has long been standard fare in wartime (viz. pre-war, preemptively aggressive) rhetoric for governments to weaponize the fear of their own populace against the civilian populations of enemy states, not merely their governments, as a tool for justifying and soliciting support for violence.

I vividly recall being warned in the 1980s against “the Russians,” when “the Soviet military” or “Soviet government” would have been more apt. As often as not, the warnings came packaged in film (e.g., Red Dawn, 1984; Spies Like Us, 1985; The Living Daylights, 1987). I imagine that comparable warnings (if not cinematic riches) flourished on the other side of the Iron Curtain (“the Americans…”). Given adequate fear, resentment, racism, unhealed trauma, and time, one might expand one’s target from “the Vietcong” to include “everyone from southeast/east Asia.”

In what follows, I hope to contrast three different approaches to the stories we tell about the Other. The first is from the standpoint of the Other. The second erases the Other. The third considers two groups of Others in conflict. Apologies to anyone hoping for a run-down on which group mentioned in my title would prevail in combat. As my wife has pointed out, the metal-dependent Avengers have no chance against Magneto. Instead, I offer a reflection on the kinds of stories that promise to humanize Others and to sustain us collectively as a species.

A Parable for Our Time

The X-Men offer a clear parable of communal resistance, resilience, and the pursuit of civil rights. Gifted with superpowers, ostracized, scapegoated, and often unable to assimilate, due to physical appearance, mutants face a stark choice: they could either work for coexistence (the path of Professor Xavier) or fight for dominance (the path of Magneto, at least in the films). I decline to distill the dynamic visions of Martin and Malcolm into anything quite that simple, especially late in their careers, though the parallel does suggest itself. In the 1960s, the original Marvel print comics offered a metaphor for the plight of African-Americans. Growing up, my dad saw himself in them for that reason.

In Marvel’s Behind the Mask (2021), comic book writer David F. Walker explains, “A lot of the creators of in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s were Jewish immigrants. […] To a certain extent they lived a dual identity.” In the documentary, Rabbi Simcha Weinstein further explained, “It’s no coincidence that Stan Lee was born Stanley Lieber or that Jack Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg and they themselves create characters who have double identities.” Lee and Kirby co-created the X-Men and the Avengers, among others.

After my dad graciously gifted me a subscription, I read the series faithfully 1986-1993 (Uncanny X-Men, #201-301). These were the Chris Claremont years when the “good guys” weren’t perfect and the “bad guys” sometimes had a point. Sometimes. For example, this was an especially complicated era for Magneto—but the genocidal Sentinels were never a force of good.

Watching X-Men (2000) recently with my kids, I was struck by how well the parable has held up. The film opens on Erik Lehnsherr, who is Jewish and grows to become Magneto, as a child being separated from his mother at a Nazi concentration camp. Senator Kelly’s tirades against “dangerous mutants” and for “parents’ rights” sound as if lifted fresh from my newsfeed. In the second film (X2, 2003), when Bobby Drake (a.k.a. Iceman) opens up to his parents for the first time about his power, his mother asks, “Have you tried not being a mutant?” The franchise’s mutants could stand ins for any number of groups ostracized by mainstream society.

That said, in terms of how they present themselves at a literal level, the characters embody less diversity than one might hope. Tokenism, male-heavy casts, and colorism have been the norm in the films thus far. …Dark Phoenix (2019) even featured one villain who was the palest and another who was the darkest in the cast, two well-worn tropes (see “evil albino” and “dark is evil”).

The tripartite tension between the paths of submission, co-existence, and vengeful counter-dominance runs throughout the franchise without posing much work for viewers. A refusal to lapse into simplistic “‘good guys’ vs. ‘bad guys’” has always been what makes the Marvel brand strong, as it has, too, for Batman and Watchmen on the DC side of things.

So Much Work, But So Much Fun!

The Avengers films offer stories of hope against the odds and the power of teamwork. For fans, they represent a shared mythology. Amid its intricate plotting and multi-film story arcs, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) frequently offers a formula: led by a reckless leader (e.g., benevolent billionaire, space pirate), a band of plucky upstarts overcomes in-fighting, government interference, and familial/spousal objections (sorry Aunt Mae/Pepper) to save the Multiverse—yet again.

At an ideological level, the MCU narratives are a mixed bag. The earlier films often reinforce American norms of militarism, masculinity, femininity, individualism, socio-economics, and whiteness. The role of Tony Stark in the military industrial complex only occasionally receives critical attention (e.g., Iron Man 2, 2010). Steve Rogers’ volunteering as a human test subject receives none (Captain America, 2011). That Stephen Strange alone, the newest arrival at a Himalayan monastery, ends up graduating beyond it seems to be part of a marked racial hierarchy, reinforced by the casting of Swinton as the Ancient One and Ejiofor as runner-up villain (Dr. Strange, 2016). Black Widow rehearses the well-worn trope of femme fatale as assassin. Carol Danvers may be rocketing through glass ceilings throughout the galaxy (Captain Marvel, 2019), but Scarlet Witch had to be put down for becoming homicidally baby-crazy (…Multiverse of Madness, 2022).

I love these movies, I really do—except for that last one. The Avengers leave me feeling entertained and often inspired. But when I stop to ask what deeper meaning might be there, I’m often left wondering. Which is fine. Not all films need to have that. Entertainment-for-entertainment’s sake is valid, though I do typically want something more. Perhaps deeper layers are there that I have missed and I need someone else’s interpretation to unlock them. From where I currently sit, though, it seems that the Avengers lack what the X-Men possess in fullness. Specifically, the Avengers’ default individual/team-saves-the-multiverse plots tend to lump the rest of humanity together, minimizing or erasing the plight of oppressed social groups. Not all films have to include that. But the X-Men make that absence especially notable.

Talokan Forever?

The Black Panther films represent a notable exception to that trend. The conflict between T’Challa and N’Jadaka (a.k.a. Killmonger) in the first film (2018) bears striking similarities to that between Xavier and Magneto. The turning point in the film comes when T’Challa recognizes that Killmonger has a point: the status quo has been unjust; T’Challa’s father T’Chaka was complicit in the suffering of Africans and people of African descent worldwide; and, whatever might be said of his proposed solution, Killmonger’s diagnosis of the problem was fundamentally correct. Gifted but threatened Wakanda must choose between isolationism (the path of T’Chaka and his predecessors), aggression against neo-colonial powers (the path of Killmonger), and peaceful, philanthropic, activist solidarity with the African diaspora (the final path of T’Challa).

If Black Panther echoed the X-Men formula in its core conflict, writer-director Ryan Coogler and co-author Joe Robert Cole improved upon it in Wakanda Forever (2022). What happens when one oppressed nation finds its existence threatened by another oppressed nation? Led by Namor (a.k.a. Kukulkan), the people of Talokan, Mayan survivors of Spanish colonialism, find their underwater realm endangered by technology developed by an African-American prodigy—who quickly comes under the protection of Wakanda, led by Shuri. Viewers might naturally find themselves identifying more with Wakanda or with Talokan. But for the audience, as for the characters, this is a false dilemma. In the end, after lots of combat (surprise!), the two nations step back from the conditions for mutual genocide. One day, after growing in mutual trust the people of Talokan might proclaim “Wakanda forever!” just as the Wakandans might join in shouts of “¡Líik’ik Talokan!” (Rise Talokan!) But this would be possible only if both nations came to acknowledge their distinctive positions in wider history and global power dynamics, along with the reality that both nations stand under persistent threat.

Unmasking False Dilemmas

Late in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou describes a situation in which the prevailing narratives masked deep injustice and deprived two oppressed communities of an opportunity for mutual solidarity:

In the early months of World War II, San Francisco’s Fillmore district […] experienced a visible revolution. […] The Yakamoto Sea Food Market quietly became Sammy’s Shoe Shine Parlor and Smoke Shop. Yashigira’s Hardware metaphorosed into La Salon de Beauté owned by Miss Clorinda Jackson. The Japanese shops which sold products to Nisei customers were taken over by enterprising Negro businessmen, and in less than a year became permanent homes away from home for the newly arrived Southern Blacks. […] A person unaware of all the factors that make up oppression might have expected sympathy or even support from the Negro newcomers for the dislodged Japanese. Especially in view of the fact that they (the Blacks) had themselves undergone concentration-camp living for centuries in slavery’s plantations and later sharecroppers’ cabins. But the sensations of common relationship [between Black and Japanese] were missing.

Later in life, Angelou learned to find that sensation—and spent the rest of her life working to cultivate it in others. Elsewhere in …Cage Bird…, she points out, “we survive in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets (including preachers, musicians and blues singers).” And our memoirists, novelists, comic book makers, filmmakers, and other storytellers, I should add. Such narrative artists are the ones who might best offer analogies for negotiating divisions and for unmasking false choices and real oppressive forces that endanger us all, however unequally. The X-Men and Black Panther films help me perceive that. As Aboriginal Australian activist-educator Lilla Watson observed, “Your liberation is bound up with mine.” Your story is, too.