Are 'X-Men' Mutant Issues a Mirror on Society?

For the first time, mutants have a choice — they can retain their uniqueness, though it isolates and alienates them, or give up their powers and become human. That's the ad line from the marketing material for the new film X-Men: The Last Stand. Mike Pesca looks at how "mutantism" in the movie represents real-life issues ranging from dwarfism to deafness to sexual orientation.

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Over the weekend, the movie X-Men: The Last Stand found box office glory. With special effects and recognizable characters, it's the fourth highest grossing weekend in movie history. NPR's Mike Pesca finds the film has a serious side. The plot touches on issues of race and sexual orientation and eugenics. Here's Mike.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

The movie-going public has proved that it's willing to be engaged in social issues through films, like Crash and Brokeback Mountain. But X-Men: The Last Stand knew it had to offer up a little more exploding and a little less emoting. So, in one scene Magneto levitates a car, then Pyro lights it on fire and then Magneto throws the car at the X-Men.

Then they do it again. Levitate car, burn car, throw car. That's what the kids are telling their friends about the movie. Then there are the parts of the movie that don't necessarily sound like blockbuster material. Here, screenwriter Zak Penn discusses plot elements that befall a couple of the X-Men.

Mr. ZAK PENN (Screenwriter): In the same way that Bobby coming out to his parents in the second movie was an obvious parallel to someone coming out of the closet, the entire Rogue/Bobby sub-plot is pretty close to the abortion argument in a lot of ways.

PESCA: Whoa. So this is a crowd pleasing, popcorn movie about abortion? No, don't be silly; it's much more about biomedical ethics. The plot of X-Men: The Last Stand centers on a cure for the genetic mutation that gives the X-Men their powers. The real life parallels would be to a pill that could make us all the same race or make us all heterosexual. But to the X-Men like Rogue, a teenage girl who sucks the life out of someone by merely touching them, whether she wants to or not, and Storm, whose mutation allows her to control the weather, the cure is about their powers or as Rogue sees it, their curse.

(Soundbite of movie, "X-Men: The Final Stand")

Ms. ANNA PAQUIN (Actor): (As Rogue) Is I true? They can cure us?

Ms. HALLE BERRY (Actor): (As Storm) There's nothing to cure. Nothing's wrong with you; or any of us, for that matter.

PESCA: Hugh Jackman, who plays Wolverine, says curing oneself of the traits, which make up identity was a provocative enough idea to engender debates among the cast.

Mr. HUGH JACKMAN (Actor, X-Men): When we were filming this X-Men: The Last Stand, there were arguments on set. For example, the character of Rogue -should Rogue take the cure or not? And, literally, people, we'd be in stand-up arguments about whether some - and it's split, and I'm sure the audience is going to be split.

PESCA: Well, maybe not. The audience asked to consider the cure must think that being able to shoot force beams out of your eyes isn't something to be corrected. It's something to pay $9 to see in a movie. But for the film to work, the cure has to be seen as truly controversial and the debate within the movie has to be seen as legitimate according to X-Men's co-screen writer, Zak Penn.

Mr. PENN: Both the audience and comic book fans are going to find something abhorrent about the idea of these characters who have this incredible ability taking this cure. And it really - and in some ways it makes it a little bit more difficult as a writer because you have to try to keep it ambiguous.

PESCA: So the film's pro-cure arguments are mostly told through the experiences of Rogue. First, they make her seem pretty miserable, not being able to touch people without sucking their life force and all. Then the film does something interesting. It all but says, okay, you think the cure is eugenics, which civilized society loathes. Well, maybe you should think of opting for the cure as an analogy to something else, here mentioned by director, Brett Ratner.

Mr. BRETT RATNER (Director, X-Men: The Last Stand): You know, she did that because she made the choice. It's like abortion, you know, whose choice is it?

PESCA: Driving this home are scenes of cure-seeking mutants besieged by angry protestors, made to line up outside a heavily guarded facility, which is eventually firebombed. But even if you believe that this is a movie with a message, a message even deeper than the tolerate others instruction that you find in such blockbusters as Finding Nemo and E.T., you must ask, does the message really make for a better movie?

The writers and actors suggest that it does in ways that are sometimes below the surface. Take Halle Berry, who complained after the last two X-Men movies that her character, Storm, wasn't given enough to do. But she says she feels more invested in the current film, partly because she has strong opinions on the ethical questions raised by the cure.

Ms. HALLE BERRY (Actor): However we come here is how we're meant to be here. On a spiritual level, I just believe that. We don't need to cure Downs Syndrome. You know, I have a Downs Syndrome nephew who's just joy. Joy, joy, joy, and he's taught my family so many things that we wouldn't have learned without having him in our life. So I am not for a cure.

PESCA: By inspiring the actors and driving the story, the ethical debate helped the movie. But does the movie help the ethical debate? Take, for instance, the case of achondroplasia. Usually it's the result of a mutation, it's certainly not a superpower; it's a genetic defect and the most common cause of dwarfism. Today, science can detect some genetic abnormalities like achondroplasia in the womb. But curing them may not be an act of mercy, but deep immortality, says Dan Kennedy, author of Little People, a book about dwarfs.

Mr. DAN KENNEDY (Author, Little People): If you're talking about screening followed by abortion, genocide might be an extreme word, but I guess we are talking about something like that.

PESCA: Achondroplasia causes health problems, though not always severe ones. It mostly causes people to be small. If you were a dwarf or, in Kennedy's case, the father of a 13-year old who has achondroplasia, what would you think of a cure? The hard case is put to the test, the simple movie message - tolerate others. Kennedy says those attempts at tolerance often fall short.

Mr. KENNEDY: Our cultural attitude is that we do embrace difference, but only if we encounter it from a certain distance. We may fear it if it's right up close; and if it's us, we tend not to want it.

PESCA: If, as Kennedy says, differences are acceptable at a distance. The escapism of super heroes and flaming cars, or just watching any story in two dimensions, makes it hard for us to truly engage in a debate, no matter how well presented. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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