- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 23, 2000

At their very best over the years, super hero comic books have served as fascinating vehicles for storytelling. I still fondly remember as a kid greatly anticipating the next installment of the latest battle between good guys with fantastic powers and a variety of evil-doers.

Of course, conservative leanings even could be detected those many years ago, as my favorite was the star-spangled Captain America. However, I also occasionally read the "X-Men," who were ripped from the pages of Marvel Comics and thrust onto the silver screen this past summer. To the surprise of some, the "X-Men" movie raked in some $160 million while in the theaters. On Tuesday, the film was released on video and DVD perhaps just in time for a little relief from the strife of the presidential election over the past couple of weeks.

Interestingly, over the past 15 years or so, super-hero comics generally have not been written for young kids. Indeed, owners of a few comic book stores told me that the majority of their clientele are adults ranging from their late teens into their 40s, and beyond. Likewise, given some of the violence and harsh language, the "X-Men" movie is not necessarily for younger children.

But the film touches upon some interesting cultural issues both old and new. The "X-Men" were created back in 1963 by Stan Lee, and have always focused on the interactions and tensions between normal humans and outcast Mutants in both cases, some good and some evil. This theme is transplanted to the new movie.

Set in the not-too-distant future, mutations have begun to appear more frequently, and are represented as the next step in human evolution. A U.S. senator rails against the Mutants and their unknown, presumably dangerous powers. In McCarthy-like fashion, he even waves a paper in the air while claiming to have a list of names of Mutants living in the United States. Making the comparison to gun registration, the senator wants to pass a law requiring Mutant registration. In this senator, the filmmakers manage to take a dig at both conservatives and liberals. "X-Men" is heavily laden with the idea of fearing and lashing out at those who are different. Again, this theme always has been a part of comics history, which goes a long way in explaining why teen-agers, who so often feel like misfits, have long loved comic-book super heroes and why the "X-Men" have ranked among the genre's best-sellers.

Obviously, the issue of race rests not too far below the surface, but with a slightly different twist. The Mutant minorities possess a wide variety of super powers. Among the X-Men, Wolverine has retractable metal claws and tremendous healing powers. Storm can control the weather. Professor Charles Xavier can crawl into minds through telepathy. The bad guys include Magneto, who can manipulate metal, the shape-shifting Mystique, and the powerful Sabretooth. The primary conflict in the film, though, is not really between Mutants and humans. This only serves as a backdrop for the battle between Mutants who oppose mankind and Mutants who wish to protect and work with humans. Both sides abhor the invasive, big government notion of Mutant registration, but one group decides to resort to violence while the others work and hope for peace. "X-Men" also deals with immigration.

It is no mere coincidence that the movie's final battle takes place around Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The film carries a subtle pro-immigration message, as the newcomer X-Men work to save mankind in particular, and New York City, from destruction. In addition, as was so often the case during periods of robust immigration, Professor Xavier runs his own school for young Mutants to teach them to control their powers and use them for good. This is much like, for example, Catholic, Lutheran and other parochial schools serving as the Melting Pot for so many children of immigrants over the years. Finally, the "X-Men" movie offers a much-needed warning against eugenics.

Magneto threatens to transform normal humans into Mutants. However, in reality, his attempts only result in death. As mankind in coming years further unlocks the secrets of the human genome, such information can be used for good or evil. It can be used to heal human beings, or to turn people into mere products.

As with any good super hero tale, the "X-Men" film ultimately reveals both the heights and depths that can be reached by individuals. This critical fact of human nature needs to be remembered in the heady days that lie ahead.

In the end, though, this film was just plain fun. Action, adventure, beautiful women, strong men, some humor, and good ultimately triumphing over evil, the "X-Men" movie helped to rekindle a bit of the delight I once had reading about super heroes in my younger days. Bring on the sequel.

Raymond J. Keating is chief economist for the Small Business Survival Committee, and co-author of "U.S. by the Numbers: Figuring What's Left, Right, and Wrong with America State by State."

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