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X-Men And Our Own Struggles With Alienation

There’s a rather fascinating op-ed today in the Los Angeles Times titled, ‘X-Men: First Class’ reminds us we are all mutants now. It argues that “the superhero movie series reflects an America that has increasingly come to accept individuals with unique identities, desires and talents.”

It’s a good article that raises some interesting ideas. However, where I’ll disagree with the LA Times writers (and perhaps Grant McCracken, though I haven’t fully reviewed his work titled Plentitude (pdf download)) is where they argue this “quickening speciation of social types” is a recent phenomenon. If you need any evidence, just think back to when you were in high school and how many different social types existed. The fact is we’ve always typed individuals. And we’ve always set out to form our own tribes as a way to confirm (or deny) self-identification as well as develop the security of numbers.

Now, it’s a lesser-known fact that I’m a huge comic book collector. I first started reading in 1984 and one of my favorite titles was X-Men. I don’t think I was completely aware of it at the time, but what I undoubtedly found within the stories were themes I could easily relate to: feeling outcast, alone, angry, and different from those around me. I surely felt a kinship between my teenage self and the various mutants within X-Men who sought acceptance from society.

But another way to look at why the X-Men remain popular since their beginnings in the 1960s is to see their relationship to our own cultural outlook. Not only do they fulfill a hero archetype, they connect us to an inner sense of alienation. Each of us is alienated from something in one way or another. It could family if we’ve chosen to do something outside of their wishes. It could be work if we are disconnected from the leadership structure. It could be online in social networks if our attempts at communication are ignored by others.

The moral story of X-Men – not just First Class but throughout the canon – is there are two paths we can take. One is with Magneto who believes alienation should be met with anger and vengeance. The other is with Professor Xavier who argues that alienation can be met with a hope for societal acceptance.

At the end of X-Men: First Class, characters are asked to make a choice: join Magneto or Xavier. It’s the same in our own daily existence. If we’re feeling alienated and apart from the group in which we seek acceptance, do we take the path of brooding anger…or do we take the path of hopeful determination?

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