June 02, 2006

A 'Last Stand' Against Cure

by Robert McRuer

X-Men: The Last Stand has not been particularly well-received by critics in the mainstream media. One of my graduate students at the George Washington University, in fact, said that when she attended the opening, a friend turned to her mid-way through the film and said, "Did George Lucas write this dialogue? It's AWFUL."

X-Men: The Last Stand, directed by Brett Ratner, has been perceived by many as less intellectual and more invested in meaningless visual effects than the two previous X-Men films, directed by Bryan Singer. It's often a "cartoon" in the negative sense -- not, in other words, the fine artistry legible in the best comics or comics-turned-film, but rather two-dimensional, big-screen mediocrity.

I have to agree that X-Men: The Last Stand is atrocious in a lot of ways. And yet, from a disability perspective, it's one of the more complicated films to emerge from Hollywood in a long time.

Cultural representations do change because of the arguments we make and the activist movements we shape.

I had a great time teaching one of the X-Men comics in a Disability and Culture class this past semester (it was the final text of the semester, and I used the Ultimate X-Men, Volume 1). We talked at length about the X-Men ethos, articulated most consistently by wheelchair-user Professor Charles Xavier.

The X-men ethos is basically integrationist or assimilationist into U.S. society as it is; it is a reformist agenda that sees the structure of society as generally fine and that understands "mutant" identity as simply a variation on "human" identity. As with reformist movements more generally over the past century (jump cut to the Human Rights Campaign or similar groups), the catch phrase for the X-Men could be "except for small differences we're just like everyone else."

The Brotherhood of Mutants ethos, in contrast, stresses a distinct identity or difference, and is essentially separatist and revolutionary or "terrorist" depending on the angle from which you approach them (and a lot of the conversation indeed was about just how tricky that line is, not least given the imbrication of the two terms historically in the American and French Revolutions -- an imbrication that Neil Smith discusses brilliantly in his recent book The Endgame of Globalization).

The Ultimate X-Men series is much more complicated than this simple set of binaries suggests, but this was nonetheless how things lined up in our class discussion, and a not insignificant number of students, it seemed to me, empathized with the Brotherhood of Mutants. Nominally, I would argue, the ideal reader of the comic is not "supposed" to empathize in this way, or if you do, you're supposed to relinquish that identification, cathartically perhaps, by the end.

Several students however, kept stressing, "well, you know, the Brotherhood of Mutants is really right to be so angry and aggressive; they are right to reject the integrationism of the X-Men. Given the government-sponsored genocide the mutants face, these arguments really make sense." And, of course, students had as the background for sorting out these questions the complex (and fabulous) conversations we had sustained all semester about disability culture as a multi-faceted entity similarly able to support both reformist and more revolutionary arguments (although, certainly, in the United States reformist agendas have been dominant -- more revolutionary disability arguments have emerged as disabled people have forged alliances across national borders).

Which brings me back to X-Men: The Last Stand. Despite being panned by critics, the film is in some ways, of the three films in the series, the most charged from a disability perspective, mainly because the government's new weapon in the War on Terror -- I mean, the war against the Brotherhood of Mutants -- is a "cure," initially offered to any mutant that wants to take it but quickly turned, by the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies, into a weapon (and isn't it amazing how quickly the Department of Homeland Security has been absorbed by popular culture? -- almost as if the "real life" agency had been brought to you by Marvel Comics in the first place).

The U.S. government in X-Men: The Last Stand, despite its "tolerance" for mutants who toe the party line and despite the presence of token mutants even in the administration, is on a crusade against mutants. And when governments invoke a crusade, as we know, the primary goal is to force the opposition to convert, to reject its identity, community, culture, and history. Enforcing normalcy, we might say, to invoke disability scholar Lennard J. Davis: if you're not "just like everyone else," we'll make you that way!

What's fascinating about X-Men: The Last Stand, however, is that it ends up producing a range of varied responses/positions on said "cure," with mutant crowds (and their supporters) outside the pharmaceutical company, on one side of the street, yelling "no cure! no cure!" and mutant crowds, on the other side of the street, lining up for the injection. Halle Berry's character Storm gives the most articulate minority defense, and she sounds like innumerable disability activists; Storm asserts forcefully that a cure is absolutely unnecessary because there's nothing wrong with being a mutant.

Anna Paquin's character Rogue, in contrast, is the most conflicted of the X-Men, and understandably so; Rogue is not able to touch another living being without sapping the life force from them. Challenging both the two-dimensional, able-bodied "cure or kill" mentality and a hard-line anti-cure activist position, X-Men: The Last Stand, from a disability perspective, is pretty complex. Ultimately, I'd say the film nominally comes down "against cure," but then again, the X-Men (the heroes of the film) are simultaneously fighting for the government and against the Brotherhood of Mutants. And it's inescapably the Brotherhood of Mutants who mount the most articulate anti-cure stances.

Given that Ian McKellan's character Magneto is Jewish and survived the Holocaust, that articulateness is understandable. And, of course, audiences who bring to the theater the knowledge that McKellan is an openly gay actor have only one more reason for weighing his arguments carefully. I've seen Magneto described in the mainstream press as Osama bin Laden, but gay, disabled, and Jewish viewers (along with those who have been listening to us over the past few decades) are likely to have a slightly more nuanced reaction to McKellan's performance.

My point here is definitely not to reverse the more widespread critique the film is receiving but simply to provide another angle for understanding X-Men: The Last Stand. There is so much in the film that viewers should be simply and straightforwardly annoyed at, like Berry's ridiculous and extended fight scenes with Dania Ramirez (Ramirez, who plays Callisto, is the only other primary character who is a woman of color -- neoliberalism, I'd say, needs these women to be arch-enemies, thereby showing "tolerance" in regards to race but forestalling the possibility that women of color might just get together and change things!).

To say that X-Men: The Last Stand marks a different kind of Hollywood take on bodily, cognitive, and behavioral difference is not necessarily to embrace it uncritically, but to encourage us to be vigilant: cultural representations do change because of the arguments we make and the activist movements we shape. We, in turn, need to continually access new critical vocabularies for comprehending, and altering yet again, those changed representations.

Robert McRuer is an Associate Professor of English at the George Washington University and the author of Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (NYU, 2006).

Posted on June 02, 2006