The Moral Conflict In X-Men: First Class

Posted: June 9, 2011 in Comic Books, Philosophy, X-Men
Tags: , , , , , ,

Comic Books, and other stories in the “superhero” genre are rich with philosophical messages that are often unfortunately left unseen or ignored by the majority of both readers and viewers alike.  In the creation of the first “superheroes” in the 1930’s, it is evident that characters such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were very much the product of the moral aspirations of their creators.  These aspiring fictional characters were thrust into ongoing stories of moral conflict which very much represent the values of the society in which they were created from.  Superman, in particular, is often said to represent “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”.  Early Superman stories in particular feature very clear themes of right vs. wrong, truth vs. deceit, and generally good vs. evil.  In fact, the earliest stories by Siegel and Shuster present Superman as somewhat of a populist “man of the people”, in which we find Superman tearing down housing projects which he deems unsafe, smashing automobiles that pose a threat to drivers’ safety, and even delivering to the law crooked business leaders who are cheating their employees and clients.

In the 1960’s the superhero genre received a revamp in the moral relevance of stories in order to keep up with the ethical issues of the day.  The influence of historical events such as the Civil Rights Movement, and the ideological battle between the United States and Communist Russia are clearly seen in the origins of several new heroes.  Casting aside the moralistic fantasies of the pre-WWII world, writers and artists such as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko oversaw the development of an entire pantheon of heroes whose stories were competent and relevant to the age of post modernism.  Perhaps there is no clearer example of this influence than in the stories of the X-Men.

The new movie, X-Men: First Class revisits the origin of Marvel Comics’ most famous group of mutants.  Set in 1962, (Ironically the same year that the X-Men made their first comic book appearance,) X-Men: First Class introduces the emergence of a fictional species of super powered mutants, known as Homo Sapien Superior.  Unlike Richard Donner’s Superman and other superhero movies, X-Men: First Class realistically hypothesizes how the world would react to the sudden emergence of super-powered individuals.  The movie’s historical setting is particularly brilliant, allowing the story to take full advantage of the tumultuous culture unique to the 1960’s.  Much of the movie consists of the introduction of integral X-Men characters such Professor Charles Xavier, Erik Lesherr, (Magneto) Mystique, Beast , Emma Frost, and others.  Upon the very sudden emergence of such spectacular characters, the mutants are drawn into two opposite teams, The “X-Men” lead by Professor Xavier, and co-opted by the U.S Government, and the antagonizing Hellfire Club, lead by the main villain Sebastian Shaw, who seek to start a nuclear war through the manipulation of the Soviet Union.  Things come to a head during an event which is supposedly tied into the real life Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.  Nuclear war is of course diverted, and the movie concludes quite satisfyingly. In addition to a great main plot, the movie additionally features some fantastic minor story lines, which I won’t ruin for all of you who may not have seen the movie yet.

What really impressed me about X-Men: First Class was its brilliant representation of the ethical conflicts that are featured so dominantly in all X-Men stories.  In every medium, X-Men stories feature themes such as equality, human rights, social change, and a discussion on ethics and whether or not human behavior should be judged by an ultimate moral basis.

The last theme mentioned is in my opinion, the main theme in X-Men: First Class.  This debate is illustrated in the interaction of the movies’ two main characters, Professor X, and Magneto.  The development and diffusion of their friendship is brilliantly portrayed by the two actors respectively portraying the two characters, James McAvoy and Michael Fassenbender.

Besides the facts that both Professor X and Magneto are mutants, and seek to protect mutants, the characters are about as unlikely of friends as any two individuals can be.

Firstly, lets look at the character of Magneto.  As X-Men: First Class portrays, the man who would become Magneto was effectively born in a Eastern European concentration camp during World War II.  Furthermore, the movie lets us know that Sebastian Shaw (operating under the alias Dr. Schmidt) murders his mother in an attempt to extract Magneto’s powers for sinister reasons.  After the war, Magneto sets out on a mission of vengeance, pretty much just killing any Nazi who was involved in the containment and murdering of his family.  Even though he is ultimately successful in this mission, the focus of his character begins to shift as more and more mutants begin to emerge.  Strangely enough, Magneto adopts a philosophy which most people would recognize as the same philosophy that Hitler used to justify the Holocaust.  Very much like Hitler, In the midst of experiencing the prejudice, Magneto begins to justify his murderous acts with Friedrich  Nietzsche’s philosophy of the “Übermensch”, or sometimes as it is ironically translated, “The Superman”.

Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” philosophy was introduced as an alternative to the “other-worldliness” of Christianity.  Speaking to those who are dissatisfied with the world as it is, Nietzsche attempts to lure the religious away from Christ’s promise of an ultimate redemption and reconciliation in the next life.  With this clearly as his motivation, Nietzsche declares those dissatisfied to turn away from all things that are not directly linked to the human body in order to achieve the society of the Übermensch.  In order to do this, Nietzsche tells us that we must reject what he sees as our objective recognition of concepts such as “truth”, “essence”, and the human soul.  While not declaring these concepts to be complete illusions, Nietzsche declares them to be secondary to the importance of the physical human.  (Or again, what could again be described as the Übermensch.)

I’m not going to suggest that Nietzsche was a Nazi or genocidal in any way, but his motivations seem to be certainly suspect.  Nietzsche’s philosophy floats anywhere from being too vague to definitely exhibiting many fallacies in practice.  In Magneto and Sebastian Shaw’s mind, Nietzsche’s ideal is already realized.  The movie makes many references to “the better man”.  Magneto and Shaw, although enemies, both consider mutants to be the better man.  They make the decision to embrace Nietzsche’s philosophy when the both decide that Earth would be a better place if it were purely devoted to the advancement of mutants alone.  Reasonable individuals would question this philosophy the first time that it was used by anyone to justify the extermination of human life.

Opposite Magneto we find Charles Xavier, who exemplifies a different definition of what it means to be “the better man”.  While still a mutant, Xavier rejects Nietzsche’s philosophy.  Indeed, Xavier is the movie’s proponent of a morality derived from “natural law”.  Natural law theorists generally accept human nature as it is, or as it was created.  To be “the better man” Xavier concludes that one must sacrifice himself for others, seek peace instead of war, and understanding and civility instead of ignorance.  In many X-Men comic book stories, Professor Xavier displays a nearly Christlike selflessness, often putting aside his and his “family”‘s safety in order to save those who openly oppress him.

The philosophical message that I see in X-Men: First Class, and other X-Men stories, is a very profound one.  Instead of using X-Men to further the validity of  trans humanist philosophers such as Nietzsche, (As many not so casual viewers and readers do.) I see it as a great metaphorical story for natural law, and morality which derives from the Christian tradition.  The brilliance of the franchise is that it is able to communicate such truths effectively in an age of increasing relativity.

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Comments
  1. What’s up i am kavin, its my first occasion to commenting anyplace, when i
    read this paragraph i thought i could also create comment due
    to this sensible piece of writing.

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