Tributes. Wizards. Witches. Vampires. Werewolves. Divergents. Give or take a plot point, these cinematic heroes could all easily go by another term: mutants. And X – as in X-Men – marks the spot for many blockbuster franchises, including The Hunger Games, Twilight and Divergent.
The X-Men turned 50 last year and the team's Canadian mutant, Wolverine, celebrates his 40th anniversary this October. X-Men: Days of Future Past hits theatres here on May 23, with a time-travel plot that unites the casts of the popular X-Men trilogy and its 2011 prequel. Having endured five decades of pop culture, the impact of the misfit superhero group is undeniable.
The X-Men broke the comic mould in 1963. Creator Stan Lee introduced flawed, reluctant, insecure heroes – troubled young people coming to grips with heavy burdens, strange new powers and unwanted responsibilities.
Sound familiar? It should. Today's most popular characters, including Katniss Everdeen, Bella and Edward, Beatrice Prior and Harry Potter, all follow a similar story arc.
The term mutant is just another word for "different," explains Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y. "These are metaphors for what every teenager feels like growing up in a modern, industrialized culture. Whether we call it mutant or vampire, you are lucky if you make it through your teenage life without feeling like [that] at some point."
The X-Men struggle with identity, acceptance and a sense of purpose. Today's young champions of fiction are no different – from Percy Jackson's demigod to the fanged stars of TV's The Vampire Diaries.
"These characters are outsiders. Many of them are stigmatized and ostracized or suffer tragic flaws – and every kid has felt that way," Thompson says. "But, on top of that, they've been given superpowers and unique abilities. That is catnip to a drama queen of a teenager."
While supernatural creatures are now common, many X-Men were ahead of the curve. The Beast and Wolverine were harbingers of the modern take on werewolves as romanticized, sympathetic monsters who struggled to contain their animal side, says Winnipeg-based science-fiction and fantasy novelist David Annandale. Yet the X-Men's leader, Cyclops, takes his name from Greek mythology, which reminds us that the narrative tradition of empowered, heroic youth predates comic books: Long-ago figures such as Hercules and Achilles, young half-gods, also wrestled with their identity and destiny.
The X-Men comics may not have invented the concept, but they popularized it at a time when people were hungry for a retelling – and influenced today's genre writers, producers and directors.
Wolverine is the central character in Days of Future Past, and the most popular member of the team. The Alberta-born hero first appeared in the pages of The Incredible Hulk in 1974, and later joined the X-Men. While Wolverine's technically not a teenager – he was born in the late-19th-century – he constantly struggles with his animal impulses and fiery emotions. That sounds a lot like puberty. And his trademark steel claws are an unorthodox case of "growing pains" – painfully bursting through his skin with each deployment. In 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand, Wolverine was even forced to use them to seemingly kill his true love, Jean Grey, when her rapidly evolving telekinetic powers grew beyond her control and threatened the world. Teenage catnip indeed.
Much of The X-Men's initial success was also about timing. Most early radio and comic superheroes were one-dimensional and unambiguously good – such as Superman or Captain Marvel. The sixties and seventies changed all that, and The X-Men – along with another Stan Lee creation, Spider-Man – were the vanguard. They offered imperfect and relatable young crime-fighters.
"They put the problems of the postwar generation into these … neurotic teen superheroes," says Tim Blackmore, a professor of information and media studies at Western University in London, Ont. "[Youth] lived in the Greatest Generation's shadow. They did not have the 'great tasks' of their parents. … They were rebels without a cause."
It's no surprise that current young-adult novels – the source material for many big- and small-screen heroic characters – tap into modern youth's angst, aimlessness and uncertainty about the future. "Anxious times bring anxious texts," Blackmore says.
Before Katniss and Beatrice got busy toppling corrupt dystopian societies, The X-Men took on hot-button social issues. At the time, their status as oppressed minorities made their struggles align with the fight for civil rights and gay rights, says Annandale. The X-Men comic debuted one year before the U.S. adopted the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
At the heart of the mutants' story was prejudice and fearmongering: Born with an X-gene that gave them their varied abilities, mutants were persecuted, manipulated and hunted. The strategies advocated by mutant leaders – Professor Charles Xavier's nonviolent integration versus Magneto's hard-line tactics – mirrored those of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
"These heroes are not lionized," says Annandale, who also teaches in the department of English, film and theatre at the University of Manitoba. "They wrestle with rejection or being viewed as a pariah … against society's norms."