(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)
Different is normal.
I thought a lot about what to put up for the 4th of July, our first under this horrifying farce of a presidency. I could get all cynical and talk about something like Wag the Dog or Ace in the Hole, or defiant with something like Norma Rae or All the President’s Men, or hopeful with something like Saving Private Ryan or Superman. But my wife made an observation a few days ago that stuck, and I’m going with a more oblique (and very personal) choice. In a lot of ways, the X-Men are a great way of acknowledging a suddenly-very-problematic holiday, and Days of Future Past features a quiet point that’s worth celebrating.
More importantly – and more pertinent to the issue at hand – even the worst of the X-Men movies understood the underlying message inherent in the characters. The big movers and shakers of the series – Bryan Singer, Lauren Shuler-Donner, Hugh Jackman, etc. – never lost sight of that, which allowed the franchise to survive its share of dodgy entries.
And when the films first started, their central theme felt as heavy handed as the comics did. (It still does, but we’re clearly past the point of subtlety these days.) The X-Men are born with extraordinary powers that make them feared and hated by the public. And yet they defend that selfsame public from all threats, counting on their deeds to change minds, keep the world safe, and claim an equal place at the table for their fellows. Their message – the ideal that they fight for – is simply that different is normal. The outsider you demonize for whatever reason has a lot more going on than you think, and might even save your life one day if you let them. That, ironically, might make some of them hate you all the more… but not all of them. Not even most of them.
The template allows almost any minority to project themselves onto these figures: anyone who was ever made to feel Not Us. Their fight might never end, but in the meantime, it allows them to find their worth and defend it in the face of screaming, hated opposition from the most unexpected corners. The more they avoid stooping to their enemies’ level while still fighting for every inch, the stronger they become.
That comes largely by design, of course. Like a lot of comic book characters, the X-Men were created by Jewish artists and writers, who understood what it meant to be on the outside looking in. That made it easy for them to speak basic truths about tolerance and understanding, and the recurring need to stand your ground when people want to strip your humanity from you. (The right’s recent false equivalency about being silenced falls completely apart on that front: no one has the right to deny others theirs.)
That’s helped the X-Men movies weather the chops of changing tastes and periodic Brett Ratner attacks. So too has its central dramatic conflict: Professor Xavier, asserting the need for peaceful change, facing off against Magneto, pursuing a more radical agenda. Xavier ultimately holds the moral high ground, but Magneto’s dark side looks awfully gray sometimes, and their various “students” switch sides from time to time just to demonstrate how blurry the line can be. Magneto’s strength as an antagonist comes from the fact that he may be right: that the better angels of human nature may not prevail and that war is the only answer. It’s a brutal thought, but as the numbers on his arm indicate, brutality is part of human nature.
The fascinating thing about their give-and-take isn’t their points of contention, however: it’s where they agree. Neither of them disputes the fact that mutants deserve equal treatment in the eyes of the world… and by extension, they assert the need for every real life minority and demographic to be treated with dignity and respect. That’s off the table, a moral absolute as given as breathing.
It feels obvious, and yet it resonates beyond the simple theatrics of heroism and villainy. Indeed, other comic book lines have adopted similar plot notions, from DC’s Project Cadmus to Marvel’s own Civil War. But the X-Men always did it best, and in times like ours – when dehumanizing other people becomes easier than ever – the simplicity of that message becomes even more important. Hell, even the bad guy figured it out.
Which brings me to Days of Future Past, one of the better entries in the saga, but truly exceptional in only one specific way. Peter Dinklage plays the villain, a well-intentioned genetics expert who agrees that a war is brewing between humans and mutants, and unleashes a “solution” that ultimately dooms them all. It’s a good role, but that’s not the reason it’s so exceptional. Indeed, the exceptional qualities often go unremarked… an irony that most of the characters would appreciate. Few people comment on Dinklage’s status as a little person these days. His performance – any of his recent performances in fact – stand solely on their own merits. He’s there because he’s the best actor for the job, not because of his height.
Different is normal, his presence tells us.
Different can even play evil without eliciting concerns about stereotyping or further prejudice.
Hollywood has a lot of work to do on that front – a lot. And no, this film doesn’t address issues like whitewashing or the literal battle for survival that members of many minority communities fight every day. But the normality of his presence is still worth noting. Right in the middle of a movie about overcoming prejudice comes an actor who effortlessly lets preconceived notions slide off of him. You can dismiss it if you wish, and it’s certainly no magic bullet. But it is a sign of hope: something Xavier claimed to always seek and which moved past us in this film with nary a ruffle being raised.
So on this compromised 4th of July, I choose to celebrate that fact: a great actor given a terrific showcase for reasons that have nothing to do with his external qualities. A man judged not on his size or his gender or the color of his skin, but the job he does onscreen.
That’s it in a nutshell: everything the X-Men tried to teach us poor impressionable comic book nerds and everything we’re supposed to be fighting for today. It sits there in the middle of a open fiction to remind us that progress is possible. We can get there, it tells us quietly but insistently. We can find it. No matter what the other side says or does. The better angels of our nature haven’t deserted us, though they need us now more than ever. Day of Future Past carries a small reminder of that fact, and a promise of what beautiful forests can grow from such acorns if we only have the courage to fight for them.
Happy 4th of July everyone.