"X-Men is not just a fantasy... it's about something"
Ian McKellen speaks to Will Lawrence about the social conscience behind the hit x-men franchise
Film-maker Bryan Singer, the man responsible for bringing the X-Men to the silver screen, is a generous host according to British screen and stage legend Ian McKellen. Indeed, the openly-gay actor, who plays the mutant Magneto in the X-Men films, recounts a tale in which the openly-gay director insisted on his attendance at the annual Washington Correspondents' dinner.
"The President lets his hair down and gives a funny speech," McKellen says of the evening. "It was wonderful. You are sitting in this room with all these journalists, very high powered and the president is at the top table. America's hierarchy is constantly available."
Singer suggested that he and McKellen might go and say hello to Obama. "I said, 'We can't do that.' And Bryan said, 'Yes, we can. I know him,' and so we went over and stood watching and the president looked up in our direction and Obama says to Brian, 'Hi.'
"And then he moved to me and he said, 'Great actor.' I practically curtsied. Barack Obama who you have never met, sees you for the first time and says 'Great actor'? Wonderful! Well, it turns out he is a fan of the X-Men."
Which is understandable. Marvel's original X-Men comics were borne from the mind of Spider-Man creator Stan Lee, who sought to tie them in with the burgeoning Civil Rights movement that was gaining momentum during the early 1960s. His heroes would be different from normal, everyday Americans, and, –-as a result, they would be hated and feared.
"It occurred to me that instead of them just being heroes that everybody admired, what if I made other people fear and suspect and actually hate them because they were different?" says Lee. "I loved that idea; it not only made them different, but it was a good metaphor for what was happening with the Civil Rights movement in the country at that time."
It is a view echoed by subsequent comic-book writers across the years. Chris Claremont, for example, who created series mainstays like Rogue and Mystique, says, "The X-Men are despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have here, intended or not, is a [comic] book that is about racism, bigotry and prejudice."
This was what excited Singer, urging him to bring the comic book heroes to the big screen with the very first X-Men movie, which was launched back in 2000. "I'm actually part of a number of minorities," the film-maker said then. He's Jewish and came out this week as bisexual, but is happy to use the term gay.
"I liked the notion that Professor Xavier was like Martin Luther King and Magneto was Malcolm X, and these were two men who had very strong, decent beliefs, but had taken different roads. And the irony of that, and the moral ambiguity of that, intrigued me," Singer adds. "It was a step beyond simple crime solving, superhero action. It was much more socio-political, and in that way exposed more truth."
According to McKellen, the executives at Marvel told him that the success of the X-Men in their original, papery format, was driven largely by the fact that they appealed to minority groups in America, whether along ethnic grounds or sexual.
"Certainly my way into the character was through being gay," says McKellen. "How do you relate to somebody who can control metal? Well, he is unfairly ostracised and you see that in the first film – an example of discrimination that many people can relate to."
The moment to which McKellen refers comes at the infamous Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz, when a young Magneto is separated from his family.
"You see him separated from his parents and that's the first time you see him bend the metal of the gates. That sort of thing is what makes these stories wonderful fantasy. Magneto discovers his powers when he is distressed by the ill treatment of his parents by authority. That is what brings it out of him.
"Mutancy and society are absolutely connected with each other and people relate to the X-Men for that reason. It is why the demographic for the comics, Marvel told me, is young blacks and young Jews and young gays.
"I don't know whether it is true of the films," he continues, "but Bryan Singer was always clear about that when he asked me to do it. It is a gay metaphor. It is not just a fantasy story, not just putting on fancy costumes. It is about something.
"In the second film, for example, one of the mutants comes out to his parents. 'Have you always known you were a mutant?' his mother says. You can't write off the X-Men movies. They are about something."
Certainly, the films are wildly popular. The six X-Men-related movies to date have taken in excess of $2.3 billion at the worldwide box office, with the third instalment, X-Men: The Last Stand, racking up almost $460 million on its own. The seventh movie, which arrives in cinemas this week, X-Men: Days of Future Past, may yet eclipse that figure.
"The X-Men have always represented something different," says Ann Nocenti, who edited a number of X-Men comic books during a 12-year stint in the 1980s and 1990s. "Their powers arrive at puberty, making them analogous to the changes you go through at adolescence – whether they're special, or out of control, or setting you apart – it's the misfit identity theme."
Singer, returning to helm this film after Matthew Vaughan helmed its predecessor, concurred. "Certain races, even a Jewish boy or a Jewish girl, will be born into a Jewish family, or there will be an African-American or whatever minority in any given area. But a gay kid doesn't discover he or she is gay until around puberty. And their parents aren't gay necessarily, and their classmates aren't, and they can feel truly alone in the world and have to find, sometimes never find, a way to live." So Singer has explored his own situation through the X-Men? "Absolutely. And what better way than in a giant, action, summer event movie! I could think of no better place to spill out one's own personal problems and foist them onto the world!"
Of course, not everyone agrees with the argument. The X-Men's deeper, socio-political content is overstated, according to some. "It's an easy line to accept if you've never been in the shoes of those groups," says one blogger on Esquire.com. "Granted [X-Men characters] Storm and Bishop are literally black, Northstar is literally gay, and Magneto was literally a Jew in Nazi Germany.
"But black people aren't telekinetic, gay people can't walk through walls, and contrary to what certain conspiracy theorists might tell you, Jews can't control the weather. Anyone who thinks mutants are really analogous to marginalised groups in the real world drinks too greedily from the punch bowl of Stan Lee's signature Kool-Aid."
The blogger has a point but he takes it too far. Neither the comic book creators, nor today's filmmakers, would claim that the lives of the X-Men are analogous to those of modern minority groups. The mutated super-heroes' situation offers a parallel, that's all, a glimmer of hope and understanding for young people who feel as though they are 'other' (and this includes the white middle classes, the largest majority group in the Western World).
After all, men create gods in their own image and almost everyone feels ostracised at some point or another, struggling with a sense of otherness. Minority groups just tend to feel this ostracism more acutely, and more regularly – just ask Ian McKellen, Bryan Singer or, if you're ever lucky enough to attend the same dinner party, Barack Obama himself.
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent