Art Imitates Haunting Life

In X-Men: Days of Future Past, the world’s population of mutants have either been exterminated or banned to concentration camps. As is often the case with science fiction film and television, it is relatively easy to draw a direct line from comic books to actual historic circumstances. The aforementioned Auschwitz death camp, the United States government’s 300 year campaign to exterminate Native Americans, the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II, and the systematic attempt at exterminating indigenous people of the African Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium from 1885-1908. There’s also the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which the Hutu-led government and its allies killed nearly 1 million members of the Tutsi ethnic group. These are just a few of the many instances in which one group of humans believed that it was their right to intern, subjugate, exterminate or otherwise persecute another group of people.

The X-Men are merely characters in a comic book and a film.  But it is clear that the DNA injected into them by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Bryan Singer for the film franchise, was culled from some of the darkest chapters in human history. But the age old question will ultimately be raised: Does art indeed imitate life or vice versa?   

From Magneto to Professor X and Bolivar Trask, X-Men: Days of Future Past is filled with themes of paranoia, demagoguery and deathly fear of change. The irony is that the Sentinels, who were created by Trask to protect humanity, eventually enslave or exterminate humans along with the mutants.  Occurring in both the comic book and X-Men film, it stands a fitting and ironic metaphor of how hatred and xenophobia will lead to the eventual death of us all.

The X-Men have been celebrated for tackling issues of diversity and human rights almost from its inception as a Marvel Comics staple back in 1963.  Its members hail from a myriad of locations from throughout the globe.  Storm is from Africa. Sunspot is a native of Brazil. Warpath is of Native American descent. Arch-enemy and sometime ally Magneto is of Jewish Eastern European parentage. And Colossus is Russian. Historically, this group of people have been visited with just as much death and tribulation as any on Earth, highlighted by the millions of deaths from war and starvation during WWII while under siege by the Nazi's at Leningrad during WWII, but the subsequent culling by Josef Stalin immediately following the war. 

They are said to be the next step in human evolution, deemed as Homo Superior by Magneto, Apocalypse and others.  As was the case with Neanderthal man and his more advanced Homo Sapiens counterpart, there are some humans who believe that the coming and eventual proliferation of mutants will spell the ultimate demise of mankind.  It is for this reason that mutants eventually become the target of hatred and fear from those born without powers.  This was the central theme behind the actions of Bolivar Trask, who was played by Peter Dinklage in X-Men: Days of Future Past.  In the comic series, Trask is an anthropologist who eventually becomes a weapons designer and eventually develops the Sentinels to counter this perceived threat.  Though for all intents and purposes he is a villain, that designation is up for debate depending upon your point of view.  Though history will recall Nazi Party chairman Adolf Hitler and military physician Joseph Mengele as evil, psychotic despot, and the Angel of Death. Their constituency at the time considered them to be working to preserve the pride and dignity of the German people. 

“Define villain?  I’m going to argue a bit with this notion of good and evil,” said actor Peter Dinklage during a New York press conference for Days of Future Past. “This guy, sure. Not so much the other guy.  I’ve said that before about this character, and it was more like a highfalutin actor thing of not judging your character and not seeing him as a villain.  He really believes he’s doing the right thing.  He wants to save humankind but, at the same time, he was also a capitalist.”

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However, whether or not one deems Trask to be a villain, humanity’s would-be savior or something else, the very same issues that drove him to create the Sentinels who would eventually deem it necessary to enslave humanity in order to protect it. These are the same issues that have driven mad men to attempt to exterminate or enslave one ethnic minority or another for hundreds if not thousands of years.  Fear, hate and greed can be explained away as “doing what’s right” by the egos of men and women. 

Conversely, the character Magneto, who is played in the X-Men film franchise by Sir Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender, has been called a villain and a hero at one time or another. Leading this mutant opposition, Magneto’s drive comes as a Jewish Holocaust survivor created by Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby as the first villain the X-Men ever faced in battle (He made his debut in X-Men #1, September 1963).

It is from times of turmoil, death and upheaval that a violent opposition is often born. The Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya to repel the British and their loyalists. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was birthed in Oakland, California as a response to police brutality against African-Americans. And the almost paranoid state of constant military readiness taken by the state of Israel has its roots in both the Holocaust and its multitude of wars against its Arab neighbors.

As was mentioned by Peter Dinklage, what is good and what is evil are largely dependent upon the individual doing the naming.  Magneto, also known as Erik, initially believes that mutants are genetically superior to human beings and were thus destined to rule over them.  However, as time went on, the writers filled in his back story.  His motivations were fleshed out and he would eventually become a figure who is far easier to identify with.  As a survivor of the Holocaust, he is driven by the belief that he must protect all of mutant kind from suffering a similar fate as the victims of Auschwitz-a viewpoint similar to that of Civil Rights icon Malcolm X.  

Magneto despises X-Men founder Professor X for his pacifism. Like X misunderstood (although he didn’t hate) Martin Luther King, Jr. because of his non-violent beliefs. Over the years, Magneto has gone from arch rival to anti-hero and was even the leader of the X-Men at one time.  In X-Men: Days of Future Past, Magneto betrays Professor X and Wolverine to commandeer the mutant hunting Sentinels in an attempt to kill Bolivar Trask, President Nixon and his entire cabinet. 

Mystique, who is played by Jennifer Lawrence and Rebecca Romjin throughout the X-Men film franchise, is another character whose intentions are a bit more nuanced that may they may appear at first glance.  She has been a secret agent, a double-agent and an enemy of the state in both mutant and human affairs. Espionage and assassination are her expertise. She is the consummate femme fetal. From the Mata Hari of World War I to the nuclear secret thievery of Julius and Ethel Rosenthal during the Cold War, history is filled with people who betrayed their countrymen for an ideological cause and paid the ultimate sacrifice for their transgressions by way of firing squad, hangman’s noose or electric chair.

It is fairly safe to say that each leader who implored his followers to carry out such heinous acts was able to convince his people that doing so was in their own best interests. Adolph Hitler’s pseudo-scientific theories on race were believed by tens of millions of Germans as gospel in 1938. It’s sad to comprehend that people actually believed his excreta as factual. Some still do.

But we have the benefit of hindsight and sanity provided by time and philosophical distance. Recently, President Obama has again spoken out about his desire to close Guantanamo Bay. Vocal since 2008, that idea is gaining traction and support. While some are against it, unhappy with the recent prisoner swap involving former POW Sgt. Bowe Berghal in exchange for five foreign combatants housed at Guantanamo. 

We consider our political, sociological or military opposition enemies, not because they were birthed with some predetermined notion to destroy their counterparts. But because their points of view are deemed detrimental to what we feel is “right” or “just.” There is no “to be continued” in real life. But in the comic books, writers are able to flesh out the evolution of a character over the lifespan of their imagination all to the backdrop of real life events blended for fictional purposes. If only we all had the ability to be penciled in over the course of time and erased when great thoughts dissolve into negative questions of ethics and morals. 

The great thing about comic books is, for the intrepid, they opened up a whole new way of looking at the world and even helped formulate a worldview at times. Yes, it was that deep for me, as well as others on The Shadow League.  The X-Men are but the tip of a very deep iceberg in the various comic book universes.  From Marvel Comics, and rival DC Comics and its signature story lines featuring Superman, Batman and all of its makings, and other publications as well, they are memorized for life.  For me, being engulfed in these fantasy worlds provided a welcome respite from the hell that was hood life for a scared kid, but it provided me an early glimpse, albeit imaginary, outside of my real life haunting circumstances.


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