I'm almost ashamed to admit that one of my most powerful literary experiences as a child took place during the summer of 1981, when I paid 75 cents at the corner grocery in Tampa, Fla., for a comic book called "The Uncanny X-Men." I had been following the title for many years, but nothing I'd read up to that point even hinted at the scary ideas and images inside the "SPECIAL DOUBLE-SIZED 150th ISSUE!"
I say almost ashamed, because it was in a comic book that I gained insight into the spiritual cost of being different. Sure, I learned about significant things in other books I read that summer. "Animal Farm" taught me to beware of fascists in revolutionary clothing. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" taught me how the best adults make for the worst hypocrites. "The Red Badge of Courage" taught me about the horrors of modern war.
But it was the X-Men who demonstrated how being gifted meant being feared and hated. It was and remains a hard lesson.
The X-Men were created 30 years ago by the legendary Jack Kirby (who also created Captain America, the Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk). X-Men #150 ("I, Magneto ... ") wasn't written or drawn by Kirby. Instead, Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum did the honors and succeeded in expanding the existential foundation that Kirby laid 15 years prior. The X-Men were misfits bound together by their freakish powers. They were a powerful symbol for the way I felt about my own misfit status. Like the young mutants, I was a "gifted" student enrolled in a "gifted" school where I took "gifted" classes apart from the larger student body, who naturally looked at me with suspicion and a bit of envy. If my powers had consisted of something more than the ability to read a lot, perhaps they might have grown to fear and hate me.
Being different was the red badge I wore growing up, and I wore it proudly with others like myself. It was a privilege the X-Men characters could never afford, because their powers consisted of flying, bending metal, becoming metal. They were weapons, like Wolverine, whose powers were heightened by military scientists, making him a weapon of mass destruction. Still, they wanted to be accepted, not persecuted, for their unique qualities. It's a universal feeling, particularly among adolescents, as they discover how they differ and -- more often than not -- learn to suppress rather than flaunt the talents they're born with.
Persecution is an ideological game, one played expertly and to the hilt during Reagan's '80s and Dubya's '00s. Cold War brinkmanship is another game that has returned to the headlines. It's the game the mutant villain known as Magneto tried to disassemble in X-Men #150, a comic book I still possess today. In it, when the character Cyclops questions Magneto's resolve to protect mutant kind with a pre-emptive attack on humanity and its nuclear arsenal, the super villain replies, "For myself, I am tired of seeing things as they are and asking why, of dreaming of things that never were and asking why not. I have the power to make my dreams reality. And that I shall do."
As a child, I understood that Magneto had a point, and I found that point frightening. As columnist Patricia J. Williams writes in the April 28 issue of The Nation ("Taking the Cake"), pre-emption "is the Bernhard Goetz doctrine, the cowboy rationale, as well as the hip-hop anthem, shoot first, ask questions later. It is a scared gangfighter's way of thinking, and it ensures a never-ending cycle of trauma, in which illusions of danger are treated on par with reality, in which waves of endless violence engulf all sane limits."
What horrified me as a child is that Magneto's words were often echoed in the speeches of my cowboy president -- and now as an adult I hear them in the words of the New Cowboy. This sense of horror at our leaders' dreams of death is something I've longed to encounter in comics -- and movie adaptations of comics -- ever since. After all, comics have always been a subversive medium, from Marvel Comics' anti-nuclear stance to Crumb's underground revolution to Alan Moore's deconstruction of Victorian England in "From Hell." But all the mainstream comics industry and Hollywood have given us is the same crap, specially formulated to sell Happy Meals. From Superman to Batman to Spider-Man to Daredevil, it has been nothing but a consistent, brain-deadening attempt to pander to the lowest common denominator. Sadly, it works.
No more. I can't fully explain why director Bryan Singer's sequel to his shoddy first foray into the X-Men saga is a superior, thought-provoking, thrilling example of genre filmmaking. (It seems the same hacks who brought us that cliched showdown atop the Statue of Liberty in X-Men were involved in the making of X2.) But I can outline some themes and moments in "X2: X-Men United" that reveal its subversive spirit and bold vision.
The opening scene, for instance, is harrowing. A mutant (whom we later learn is named Nightcrawler) enters the White House, teleporting his way through Secret Service agents and into the Oval Office. There, the president cowers amid 30 or more agents, their guns drawn, waiting for the mutant to break down the door. Instead, he teleports through the room, viciously beating the agents into submission, until it's just him and the Big Man, pinned to the desk. Nightcrawler pulls out a dagger, ready to plunge it, but an agent recovers enough to wing the assassin, who then disappears. The dagger is left sticking in the desk; a note attached reads: "Mutant Freedom Now!"
When has a Hollywood superhero flick been this hardcore? Singer (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil) must have ordered his screenwriters and production crew to put their balls on, because from here things just continue to intensify.
The assault renews the political and public outcry for a Mutant Registration Act, a gross erosion of civil rights on par with the Bush administration's own Patriot Act. Leading the anti-mutant crusade is a wealthy former military commander, William Stryker, played by Brian Cox (Manhunter, LIE), who does his best John Ashcroft impression, as a man whose grievances and psychopathology make him a dangerous administrative figure. He sends U.S. Special Forces to attack Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, and the images of soldiers shooting mutant children in the neck are absolutely terrifying. There's a moment when the clawed Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) -- who alone is left guarding the school while the X-Men search for Nightcrawler -- shish-kabobs a dark-hooded intruder. It freezes the heart: Mutant has killed man, and there's no going back. The war is on.
Indeed, the humans' effort to pre-empt another mutant attack has wrought -- as the Israelis and Palestinians fail to acknowledge in their treatment of each other and as our own leaders refuse to perceive -- more violence. As a result, the evil mutant Magneto (Ian McKellen, The Lord of the Rings) unites with the X-Men to fight a common foe, the U.S. government, and impending disaster haunts every subsequent frame.
There are other chilling scenes. Teenaged Bobby, or Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), briefly shelters Wolverine and two younger mutants at his parents' house. There, he "comes out" to his family that he possesses unique powers, to which his mother replies, "Have you tried not being a mutant?" Heartbreakingly, Bobby's brother immediately phones the authorities, and the group is again on the run. Fear shatters even familial bonds.
Then there's the scene where Magneto lures Pyro (Aaron Stanford, Tadpole), Xavier's student, to the dark side. "You're a god among insects," he says, flattering the burgeoning pyromaniac. "Don't let anyone tell you otherwise." Mutant power is a curse, until it's used to harm others, the weaker ones, humans. Then it becomes a mark of supremacy.
I could go on. Of course, X2 has everything the rubes expect from Hollywood: lavish special effects and violence. The pill beneath the sugar, though, is that the violence serves as a warning about the direction our country is headed. Mindless fear and policies of intolerance will result in a cycle of bloodshed from which no one will be spared, not even the innocent.
Who are the innocent? Singer's new movie offers no answers. Rather, X2 is full of troubling questions. If all summer movies were this daring, comics enthusiasts would no longer have to suffer inferior Hollywood adaptations. Indeed, the American superhero comic book is a mythic genre that has finally been translated into a remarkable film. Let's see if American audiences will embrace or loathe the long-awaited breakthrough.
"X2: X-Men" United opens Friday, May 2.
Jarret Keene is CityLife's A&E editor.