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Sunday, 20 December 2015

Why the X-Men Are the Worst There Is at What They Do

Apropos of nothing, my thought of the week has been what shitty superheroes the X-Men are.

To a certain extent all superheroes aren't particularly good at what they do - on the contrary, they seem to be actively detrimental to their communities, because they attract supervillains and cause extensive property damage. Superman and Batman got their start beating up corrupt corporate magnates and street criminals, respectively, but the creators eventually brought in bad guys like Lex Luthor or the Joker, which made for more colorful stories but must have lowered property values and consumer confidence in Metropolis and Gothem.

But the difference between Superman and the X-Men is that Superman doesn't really have a stated aim - he just stands up for truth, justice and the American way. The X-Men, by contrast, have made it their mission to be accepted by the world around them, which hates and fears their genetic mutations. And judging by that standard Professor Xavier's dream has to be counted a failure.

For the same reason that comics creators raised the stakes for Batman by pitting him against the likes of the Joker or the Penguin, Stan Lee and Chris Claremont and all the other X-Men writers would periodically make the anti-mutant climate in their stories more intense. So you could argue that the public's perception of mutants has grown worse over the past fifty-odd years, rather than better.

Of course, that might partly be the fault of the writers, who've made the good guys (to say nothing of the bad guys) look ever scarier as time went on. Nightcrawler's a lovable blue imp in comparison to somebody like Cable or Bishop, who are all eye-scars, tattoos and guns.

(Incidentally, Cable and Bishop both also support my hypothesis, in that they're both from dystopian futures.)

The other worrying implication of the X-Men's setting is, how do other superheroes feel about them? We're led to believe that the authorities and the general public don't trust mutants, so it stands to reason that some beloved mainstream superheroes must be rabid mutant-haters. I seem to recall stories where the likes of Spiderman or the Avengers expressed some misgivings about mutants, so if you're an X-Men reader who also reads other Marvel books, it's worrying to think that you're rooting for somebody who prejudges your favorite superheroes just based on being mutants.

One wonders, therefore, if that's why the X-Men took so long to gain any popularity. Something that gets forgotten these days is that the original run by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee wasn't very successful, and the book was effectively cancelled after a few years, with new issues featuring nothing but reprints. It wasn't until Chris Claremont took over and turned it into a long-running soap opera that the X-Men became one of the biggest-selling books of the 80s and 90s.

I'd further argue that the best-loved X-Men stories are evenly split between those dealing with the characters' central idea (like Days of Future Past) and those that have nothing to do with the whole anti-mutant prejudice storyline (like the Dark Phoenix Saga). Certainly Claremont introduced a lot of ideas into the X-Universe during his years at the helm that had nothing to do with prejudice, like the Shiar Empire, the Brood and the Phalanx, Arcade and Longshot.

A quick riffle through one or two old comics just now also turns up the possibility that some of the outlier books, like X-Factor, were more interested in tackling the prejudice storylines than the main book - certainly the stories that stand out for me from that time are quite far from the original intent of the characters.

Jokes about racist or ineffectual superheroes aside, this kind of escalation is what you get when a character lasts this long. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo and his companions reach an endpoint by saving the world (albeit after a thousand pages), but they weren't expected to continue having adventures month in and month out for the better part of a century.

We insist on these characters - whether they be Superman, Batman or the X-Men - continuing forever, because we want to recreate the sense of wonder we had when we first encountered them. But unfortunately, characters aren't really meant to do that - so you either get diminishing returns (like with the James Bond series or Star Trek) or you get ever-increasing levels of violence and tension (as in superhero comics). There's the odd exception, but the fact remains that it's pretty much all more of the same every issue or story arc.

I sometimes think the best thing for characters like the X-Men is to get a definitive win, like they do in the movies, and then go on hiatus for a while, until someone can find great new stories to tell with them. Marvel/Disney would never agree to it - there's too much merchandising riding on it, I guess - but it might make them special again.