The following includes SPOILERS for Black Panther.
There are many reasons why pop-culture academia, serious comics journalism and a good deal of comic book professionals themselves tend to look askance at the infrequent fandom complaints that this or that book has “gotten too political” or that certain characters oughtn’t to be used to “force an agenda” but the most prominent tends to be that such naysaying flies in the face of the medium’s very history. While at times more explicitly than others, the notion of using superhero comics as a narrative vessel to explore and promote (or denounce) important issues of the day is as old as comics themselves – indeed, even older considering so much of superhero literature descends from the politically-charged “pulp era” of sci-fi and fantasy storytelling.
The most famous examples will be familiar to any fan of the genre’s storied history: Superman’s creators imbued his origin story with elements of their own Jewish background and framed his exploits as an ideal of the American immigrant story; Wonder Woman’s creator (as dramatized in the recent biopic Professor Marston & The Wonder Women) imagined her a standard-bearer for his revolutionary views on gender, sexuality and feminism; the original 1960s incarnation of Iron Man was the Marvel Universe’s chief anti-communist Avenger; Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko created an entire roster of heroes for Charlton Comics (including Blue Beetle and The Question) dedicated to promoting his belief in Objectivist moral-philosophy.
This Page: X-Men’s Big Selling Point Is Being Political
X-Men’s Big Selling Point Is Being Political
But when it comes to social-justice metaphor, few properties can touch Marvel’s X-Men. The idea of heroes whose special-abilities made the very people they were charged with protecting fear or even hate them was baked into the Marvel Universe narrative almost from the beginning, but the Mutant characters were in a class by themselves. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the midst of the social upheaval of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, the series’ initial good/evil scenario was framed around competing responses to the Mutants themselves as metaphors for other real-world persecuted minorities: Professor Xavier’s X-Men use their skills to fight crime in part to demonstrate that Mutants were not simply “safe” but societally-beneficial, while Magneto’s “Brotherhood of Evil Mutants” were militants seeking to overthrow human civilization and rule it.
Admittedly, the metaphor was never exactly perfect; nevermind that the common shorthand of Xavier and Magneto as stand-ins for Martin Luther King and Malcom X feels, in 2018, like an offensively grotesque over-simplification of the dichotomy in both men’s ideologies (particularly on the Brotherhood’s end, since the Black Militant movements of the era tended to focus on community/neighborhood defense and self-sufficiency rather than armed insurrection), the superhero context itself muddied the point somewhat; for all the myriad reasons that racial, religious and sexual/gender-minorities have found themselves marginalized in U.S. history, “fear of superhuman abilities” hasn’t been one of them. But the concept proved fertile for later takes on the material to show greater depth, like Chris Claremont’s “God Loves, Man Kills” storyline and the live-action X-Men films’ more explicit parallels to the LGBTQ rights struggle up to and including casting prominent gay rights activist Ian McKellan as Magneto.
And while it’s true that not every X-Men storyline has centered this particular aspect of the characters as the main narrative focus, it does tend to be the main thing that sets them apart from other superhero teams. As such it’s been heavily expected among some fans that if and when the characters come “home” to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (following the still in-progress acquisition of 20th Century Fox’s film and TV assets by the Disney Corporation) that this would continue to be the case in order to help them stand out from The Avengers or the Guardians of The Galaxy. But Marvel itself may have complicated the usability that particular narrative in an unexpected way – namely, letting newly-minted superstar director Ryan Coogler turn Black Panther into the most politically-charged box-office smash in recent memory.
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