Ruminations on Superhero Universe Creation

We went to X-Men Origins: Wolverine this weekend, and although it was a good movie, it got me thinking about both the nature of the comic book universe and the X-men universe in particular. Any movie, comic, novel, or what-have-you reflects the cultural mores of the time and the atmosphere of the time it was created in. As time goes on the way that we view certain things can change greatly, and that can greatly affect how the audience reacts to the media they are viewing.

Now, let me start by saying that my experience with the X-Men universe is limited to the movies and some brief explanations by my husband from his comic-reading youth. So in a way I am looking at the X-Men movies completely out of context from the rest of the series and am instead viewing them in context of the world today. Considering that X-Men takes place in a universe that differs from our own mainly in the existence of mutants, I, as a non-fan, would expect people in said universe to react to certain things much the same as people in our world. Thus, the behaviors and reactions of the characters and the general populace of the X-Men world does not necessarily make sense to me because their reactions are not those that I would expect from people today in our world.

This isn’t because of any fundamental issue with the X-Men universe (although they need to get their timeline straight), but rather an issue inherent to any series that is published over a very long period of time. While we as a society change and grow at a rapid pace in the real world, the characters in these long-running series generally stay close to the same age or do age, but at a much slower rate than the time that is passing between issues. For example, X-Men was created in 1963, at the height of the Cold War; long before computers became household appliances and shuttle missions became old hat. Nuclear annihilation hung on the horizon and was a very real possibility, and society was very different because of that. The government was actively engaged in secret tests of every sort that stretched and often broke the bounds of ethics. Naturally, the distrust of the government and fear of nuclear war at the very least influenced the construction of the society in the original X-Men, not to mention the social shunning of anyone different that was common at that point in time. As the years progressed the comics could adapt themselves to the times, somewhat, but the very bones of the story still kept their original forms.

Which brings me to the movies. The movies themselves are set in a time that seems to be very similar to our own. However, the illusion breaks down when some of the characters behave in what seems like an anachronistic manner.

Think of it this way: in this day and age, everyone is obsessed with being politically correct. Can you imagine if mutants were discovered/started developing today? They’d probably get spots on Oprah where she gushes over how difficult life is for them. The military would probably openly recruit mutants, most likely giving bonuses for more useful powers. None of this hush-hush stuff, either; they’d want the largest number recruited possible, which would mean plenty of mutant-recruitment-oriented publicity. Pro sports? Please. They would be all over mutants like white on rice. There’d probably be a congressional hearing on whether letting mutants play is the same as steroid use. There would be issues with whether mutants are covered by ADA and whether being a mutant is semantically the same as being disabled. They’re not disabled, they’re “differently abled,” seriously. How many class action lawsuits would be brought against major corporations or the government for causing the mutations through pollution/harmful chemicals/inaction/whatever? Most teenagers would be waiting anxiously for their powers to show up, and the ones without would probably go the same way the fake-fang-vampire-wannabes do in our world. Not to say life would be cushy for mutants, but in a way they would form a super-culture, rather than a subculture, one that is lauded and emulated by those not in it.

My point is that the X-Men universe, when taken in context of its Cold War era creation, makes a good deal of sense for the society that existed at the time. However, like many similarly long-running series, when it tries to keep up with the times, it actually loses some of its original punch. In a way it is best for series like that to stay at a fixed time in their alternate universe and neglect bringing in elements from today’s culture; the story will read more authentically and it helps to keep the timeline straight.

Which brings me to two other comments: first, the timeline for X-Men confuses the heck out of me. I think it’s because so many artists and writers have worked on the story over the years, adding and removing details as necessary for their tenure on the line. What I really wish comic artists/authors/creators/Stan Lee would do is write out the personal history for each significant character in advance. I know it’s a lot of work but it would really help to keep cannon cannon and to keep the audience from going “Huh?” Also, I would love to see a version of the X-Men where all the powers are kept a little more reasonably within the realm of science. Some of the characters are within the realm of plausibility but others jar me right out of the story because their powers are so absurd. I can suspend disbelief quite a bit, if you go the science-is-magic-and-we’re-not-going-to-explain-it route (like Star Wars before they mentioned the midichlorians) but when you start to give a scientific explanation and then throw logic and reality out the window I start raising my eyebrow. Then again, I may be in the minority on that one.

In any case, it was a good movie, by far one of the best in the series (I like the first about as much if not better and the only reason I like the second is because of Nightcrawler. The third made me go OMGWTFBBQ). If you’ve got the money and aren’t paralyzed by fear of the swine flu then by all means see it. I will say it’s rather dark, though — probably not good kiddie fare. Final grade: 3.5 out of 5 stars