Between Marvel and DC, Marvel’s comics tend to be better informed philosophically. Bigger issues and subtle treatments, in general. The complaint is — and, I imagine, always will be — that Marvel sets up philosophically amazing scenarios and then doesn’t quite nail the issue to the wall. Avengers v X-Men, for example, tackles the fascinating world of minority rights and the extent to which communities under threat (represented by the X-Men) should be able to protect themselves from policies which advantage the privileged (represented by Captain America and the Avengers). The setup is dynamic and engaging, but the final exploration of the idea — with the authority of the author all but telling us that Captain America is correct in the dispute — feels a bit weak.
Similarly, the exploration in Civil War. The dispute is between Tony Stark and Captain America, and the quarrel regards whether or not vigilantism should be tolerated in the Marvel Universe. The legitimacy to use force against a criminal has a head of power within the legal framework of a society, but superheroes act outside that legal framework. Does this mean their use of force is illegitimate? Can the State use force against people anonymously (as it does with some superheroes within the Marvel Universe)? Again, the set up is amazing and intricate, but the exploration drifts away when it’s just easier to paint Iron Man as a jerk.
I know they’re writing comic books and not philosophical essays, but I really wish they would sometimes hand over the first half of a story to an ethicist, political philosopher, or legal theorist to give them some deeper insights into the issues hidden just under the surface of their plots.
Still, they’re trying. And it leaves room for the rest of us to write up interesting articles about the philosophical frameworks of the story.
But there’s one story that Marvel will never be able to explore. A question that is so taboo that to explore it in the comics would be treasonous. A fundamental principle of the Marvel Universe upon which its narrative structure is founded.
Are the X-Men really the heroes?
There are a few stories where individual characters — particularly Professor X — are brought into question. Was it moral for Xavier to form the X-Men? Can Xavier’s manipulations of the X-Men be justified? Even when it involves lying, manipulating, and outright deceiving people? Really?
But the X-Men themselves, as an abstract idea, are never brought into question. Let’s see why.
Despite being extraordinarily gifted and supernaturally talented, mutants are marginalised by the non-mutant community. Overt forms of marginalisation include abuse from members of society and the secret use of force by the State to ‘manage’ the mutant community, while invisible prejudices have been quite cleverly woven into a few different stories. Mutants are often taught to be ashamed of their powers, and are encouraged to hide them. To challenge the invisible prejudices, the X-Men promote a message of tolerance, waiting for the time when mutants will be accepted in society. More dramatically, they also fight literally with the overt forms of prejudice, usually represented by Sentinel robots.
They are not the only ones to fight back against anti-mutant prejudice. Magneto formed a group of mutants — called the ‘Brotherhood’ — to take more direct action against human oppressors. ‘Direct action’ here means ‘violent’ with the ambition to topple human control over the machinery of State and replace it with ‘homo superior’. Magneto’s Brotherhood are not only confronted with physical force but are also attacked on ideological grounds: deemed ‘terrorists’, ‘extremists’, and other characters refer to Magneto’s group as the ‘Brotherhood of Evil Mutants‘. The Brotherhood are not only weaker than their opponents, but their views are denied legitimacy within the public discourse on mutant oppression.
In the Marvel Universe, the X-Men often battle the Brotherhood in order to defend human society against the mutant threat. The X-Men are presented as a ‘middle path’ between the status quo and progressive realisation of mutant rights. Although they defend mutants against the overt attacks from the human society which fears and hates them, they also defend the oppressors against mutant attacks. It’s this latter function which is problematic: the X-Men actively fight in the interest of their oppressors.
We understand intuitively why we see the X-Men as the heroes of the Marvel Universe. They are trying to find a non-violent route towards equality, but this idea of voluntarily enforcing non-violence in reaction to State violence (such as marginalisation) should be questioned. In the future, a powerful psychic mutant called Rachel Summers is brainwashed into hunting down mutant threats. She’s disfigured, demeaned, and branded a ‘Hound’ by the humans she serves. Although the audience is appalled at her treatment, it never occurs to Marvel Comics that the X-Men perform the same task of hunting down mutant threats to human society, but without the need to be brainwashed. Like an obedient watch dog, the X-Men go and fight the Brotherhood, hoping that they will earn the gratitude and adoration of their human oppressors. ‘Thank you for protecting our oppressive society against mutant attacks, X-Men,’ they expect them to say. Instead, all they hear is, ‘See? Mutants are a threat. Look at them fighting like savages.’
Up until the modern period, we have been inclined to make heroes out of people who responded to this state of affairs with violence. Robespierre, for example, was happy to use the language of terror as a legitimate tool during the French Revolution. But we are uncomfortable with this idea in the modern political debate. Our heroes are people like Gandhi who use non-violent forms of resistance to draw attention to their cause. We like people like Gandhi because they are, ultimately, non-threatening. You can imagine the Gandhi analogue in the Marvel Universe who absolutely refuses to use violence, but is absolutely and utterly ignored by the human community who is left fully capable of continuing the banality of oppression.
We can think about times in the real world where we disapprovingly tut-tut at rallies which become violent. ‘Why don’t they just use their words!’ But we rarely take the second step in that thought process: are we sure that the language of politics, &c., is fair and equally accessible to everybody?
For all the speeches and delegations to the UN, the X-Men have not influenced public opinion in the same way that the Brotherhood have. Violence and the fear of violence are effective political tools, particularly where social structures need to be disrupted and especially when all avenues to non-violent political debate are cut off or rendered ineffective.
In the Marvel Universe, the X-Men struggle to get their voices heard in the political debate. Even in Avengers v X-Men, they get absolutely no say in the management of their own affairs — the comparisons between the Avenger’s activities and the Northern Territory Intervention are quite amazing, yet the Avengers are ultimately considered morally righteous for their act. The X-Men repeatedly attempt to play the political language game to progress their cause, and yet are routinely rebuffed. They simply do not have equal access to the political institutions of their world.
Marvel Comics never entertains the idea that the Brotherhood might be correct and the X-Men wrong because that would conflict with the dominant ideology of our culture: that violent reactions are illegitimate, and only those protests which makes the ruling class feel safe are acceptable. The Marvel Universe is liberal, not radical, and so establishes its philosophical framework upon these comfortable, familiar ideas.
But make no mistake, no group has done more to slow down the mutant rights cause than the X-Men. And when the Brotherhood finally succeeds in toppling the corrupt, violent human society which oppresses them (and we can only hope that they succeed), who will thank that X-Men for routinely opposing progress?