“X-Men: First Class,” which hit the screens this weekend, isn’t just the latest installment in one of the most successful superhero movie franchises of the 21st century (the first four movies in the series grossed more than $1.5 billion). It’s a more direct commentary on contemporary America than such ostensibly realist films as “Bridesmaids” and “Midnight in Paris.”
Though populated with superpowered “mutants” such as Magneto (who is able to control all sorts of metallic objects), Storm (capable of flight and creating crazy weather), Banshee (an Irish American tenor who can kill with his voice) and Raven (a blue-skinned shape-shifter), “X-Men” perfectly captures social reality and social aspirations in a post-gender, post-racial, post-mainstream, post-everything America. The multicolored, polyglot heroes and villains of the X-Men universe may be able to communicate by reading minds rather than using Skype, and they may be able to fly anywhere without booking tickets in advance, but make no mistake: That’s us up there on the screen.
The X-Men have captured the public imagination in a world where we can tailor what we drink at the local coffee bar, personalize our online newsfeeds and are increasingly OK with people who look and sound and think different (to paraphrase Apple Inc.'s slogan of a few years back). That’s because the X-Men incarnate what anthropologist and author Grant McCracken has called “plenitude,” or the “quickening speciation of social types.” No one is simply white or black, or even male or female, anymore; we revel in our ongoing mongrelization and hybridization.
This is a global phenomenon, but it is particularly strong in the United States, where the creation and maintenance of social personae dates back at least to Benjamin Franklin, who endlessly invented and reinvented himself as an unmannered rube turned self-made man, Enlightenment man of science, political revolutionary, ultra-cultured European courtier and much more.
McCracken’s work shows that where there used to be a few basic identities men and women might occupy, there are now many. After a walk through a Toronto shopping center, McCracken wrote: “Teens were once understood in terms of those who were cool and those who weren’t. But in a guided tour of mall life … I had 15 types of teen lifestyle pointed out to me, including heavy-metal rockers, surfer-skaters, b-girls, goths and punks. Each of these groups sported their own fashion and listened to their own music.” The world of “Happy Days” has yielded to the world of the “Twilight” saga, and whether you root for Team Edward or Team Jacob, your world is a whole lot richer at every stage of life.
Two major developments over the last 40 or so years unleashed the proliferation of identity. First, technological advances in everything from medicine to clothing design to online vending allowed us to develop and insist on ever-more personalized and individualized products and service. That coffee bar drink comes by the shot, with skim, 2% or even soy milk. The produce section in the local supermarket is likely to carry three or more varieties of eggplant, a vegetable that once came only in dark purple and was eaten mostly by Italian Americans.
Second, and more important, social attitudes toward inherited group identity and traditional tribal affiliation have relaxed tremendously, resulting in an America that is far looser and less uptight than we once were about everything from dress codes to racial segregation.
When Barack Obama’s parents were married in 1961, “less than one in 1,000 new marriages in the United States was, like theirs, the pairing of a black person and a white person,” according to Pew Research Center estimates. “By 1980, that share had risen to about one in 150 new marriages. By 2008, it had risen to one in 60.” New social realities have given rise to new levels of tolerance and pluralism as well. In 1987, two decades after the Supreme Court invalidated the last laws against interracial marriage, only 48% of Americans thought it was “OK for whites and blacks to date each other.” By 2009, 83% did.
Similar trends can be observed in other areas of personal identity. The Gallup Poll began asking, for example, whether “gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal” in 1977. Just 43% then thought they should be permitted. Today, that figure stands at 58%. “While public attitudes haven’t moved consistently in gays’ and lesbians’ favor every year, the general trend is clearly in that direction,” summarizes Gallup.
In short, it’s not only easier now for all of us to let our freak flags fly, it’s easier to find somebody who will help us design and produce them in the first place.
Which brings us back to the X-Men. Created in 1963 by Marvel Comics masterminds Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the franchise was a run-of-the-mill title for the company until the mid-1970s, when it was recast in wilder and darker tones by younger writers and artists who emphasized the individualism of the characters and their ambivalence toward the very powers that made them unique.
In other words, “The X-Men” caught fire when it started fully exploring the disruptions and possibilities inherent in the plenitude of the last 40 years, and not coincidentally as the mainstream gave way to niche markets in music, publishing, clothing, ethnicity and so much more.
Taking their cue from the classic storylines published in the 1980s and 1990s, X-Men movies posit an ongoing war between Homo sapiens (regular people) and Homo superior (mutants), who represent the bleeding edge of trans-human possibility. Fittingly, the movies, including “First Class,” revolve around a school run by Professor Xavier, a crippled telepath who teaches his superpowered students to fulfill their potential while being comfortable in their own often-polychromatic skin. Some of the mutants, and many of the regular humans, can never let go of their resentments or their fear. They are, quite properly, the villains of the series.
Yet by and large, the X-Men learn not just how to get by but how to flourish as a community. Similarly, after many fits and starts, American society has generally come to accept plenitude, recognizing not just that mutants walk among us but that we are all mutants, with unique desires and talents that, when acknowledged and developed, lead to a vastly more interesting, exciting and prosperous world than the alternative.
Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch write for Reason magazine and are the coauthors of “The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America,” which will be published June 28. declaration2011.com.