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The X-Men were one of the first comic superheroes I remember falling in love with. Long before I ever picked up an X-Men comic, I watched the '90s animated TV series on Saturday mornings, played as Storm any chance I could in Marvel vs. Capcom, and had a growing collection of action figurines thanks to KB Toys.
But as I got older and began reading X-Men comics, my appreciation for them grew. Not only did some of the mutants look like me, but they all dealt with the similar issues I was starting to notice and deal with myself, everything from oppressors to respectability politics. Unfortunately, not much has changed in my world or theirs, but how I feel about the X-Men and what they stand for has changed since the first live-action adaptation.
The live-action X-Men movie is now almost old enough to drink and too old for Charles Xavier to recruit for his little army of children. I can still remember the exact day I watched some of my faves brought to life on the big screen. If I asked my dad today, he would say he took me to see it because he knew how much my brothers and I loved the X-Men. However, while I'm sure that was some of the motivation, I know the real motivator was Halle Berry playing Storm and the $2 matinee at our local theater. In-between popcorn and sips from the ICEE I begged for, I gleefully jabbed my dad in the side to let him know who was who. I also quietly squealed to myself whenever I noticed a moment in the movie that was similar to the animated series or the few Uncanny X-Men comics I'd read beforehand. Honestly, it was indeed a great summer day and memory as I look back on it. The only thing I wish I could take back is siding with Charles Xavier.
I'm not saying Magneto was right, but he made some points, and it's hard not to at least understand his hatred towards humans with such a heart-wrenching opening sequence. Watching the movie now, I can't say I wouldn't cheer Magneto on if he'd decided to burn everything down to the ground. And having Jean standing before lawmakers some decades later pleading on behalf of all mutants to forgo the Mutant Registration Act makes my blood boil. Watching those two scenes juxtaposed to one another reinforces how completely trash it is for the oppressed to plead for their worth to be realized by those who have shown no signs of letting up on the oppression.
The scene between Professor X and Magneto shortly after Senator Kelly goes full Strom Thurmond hits differently now, too. Charles is naive when he tells Eric mankind has evolved; Senator Kelly and everyone in that room who cheer him on is proof enough of that fact. While, ultimately, Magneto's plan to mutate everyone was extremely flawed in its own way — mainly because it would have turned mankind into water blobs — Professor X's mutant PR team disguised as the X-Men is also flawed and harmful to mutants.
Two decades later, the recognition that what Charles spouts is nothing more than respectability politics changed so much for me. While I still have a love for the X-Men, the ideologies upon which they were founded make me feel uneasy. At one point, Charles explains to Logan that his school is a safe haven for young mutants, but he leads with it being a place to keep them safe from Magneto. There's a constant reference to Magneto as someone more dangerous to mutants than mankind, and that's just not entirely true. Professor X is causing harm to mutants in his quest to find acceptance from mankind just as Magneto is in his quest to show mankind that mutants are the future. The way the X-Men pop up to save the day from Magneto feels very "See, there are some good mutants, and they'll protect you against the bad ones. Please see us as your equals." At any point in the movie, Charles asking Eric about mutant-on-mutant crime would have been a fitting exchange.
Respectability politics are dangerous for several reasons, and in this case, it's creating this idea that humanity will accept mutants if they see there are enough "good ones" out there to assuage their fears. It's the same ways respectability politics are trash when it comes to police brutality and how someone Black should interact with police officers to avoid harm. Perfect or imperfect, Black people should be able to survive their encounters with police regardless of how they present themselves. Full stop. The creation of such a false narrative that states otherwise is harmful because it only serves to fuel deadly ignorance.
Even though I feel so differently about Charles Xavier than I did some 20 years ago, it's not a bad thing, because I'm still very much a fan of these characters I've loved for so long. I've been able to go back and read or watch past comics, TV shows, and movies with new eyes over the years, interpreting their stories differently than when I was younger. The one thing I'll give the first X-Men movie credit for 20 years later is how revealing the portrayal of Charles Xavier was — something I didn't fully appreciate the first time around.