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Mutation, part I

June 16, 2011

This post has spoilers to the new X-Men movie. If you don’t want to know then don’t read any more.

I just got home from seeing the new X-Men franchise, X-Men: First Class with my kids.  I’ve enjoyed the X-Man series since my younger brothers introduced me to them back in the 1980s. They’re good stories, and they’re also good starting points for conversations about a lot of adult topics.

As we walked away, I asked them, “So, who’s the bad guy?”

Sebastian Shaw, power-mad, bent on world domination. Absolutely. That’s a no-brainer.

Who’s the good guy? Charles Xavier, vunderkind mutant leader, kind, smart, compassionate, dedicated. Absolutely. Another no-brainer.

But the movie isn’t about Charles versus Sebastian. It’s about Charles versus (Erik versus Sebastian).

Sebastian Shaw, in what must be the lamest comic-book-into-movie-plot McGuffin ever, turns out to have been the exact same evil Nazi scientist who, under a different name, murdered Erik’s mother and then tortured the young Erik Lehnsherr in a futile attempt to teach the future Magneto to control his superpower: the ability to manipulate objects made of metal.

The film is about is Erik’s quest for vengeance, and Charles’s efforts to dissuade his friend from murdering his mother’s murderer.

“Are you on Professor X’s team or Magneto’s team,” I ask my kids.

Silence.

More silence.

“Whose team are you on Mommy?”

I tell them the truth: that I agree with Magneto, brilliantly played yet again, this time by Michael Fassbender, but I think at the end of this movie and certainly in the other movies, his actions are the actions of a very bad guy, even if he starts from a good place. I tell them that I’d go on Magneto’s team at first, but then when he started killing people, I’d leave and go live by myself in a remote mountain village somewhere, or seek out Charles’ protection if I thought Magneto would come after me once I left his team.

“But who’s right? Charles or Erik? Professor X or Magneto?” Mutants helping regular people and being secret, or mutants living in the open, even though people might be scared of them.

“They both are.”

“But they’re on different teams. They don’t agree with each other! How can they both be right?” my kids ask me.

“There are some things you know for sure and those never change. Like don’t hurt or kill people,” I tell them.

“Yeah, we know that.” They roll their eyes.

“But sometimes, you can be absolutely right and still be wrong from another way of looking at things. Two people can both be completely right and yet still  completely disagree with each other.”

“Huh?”

“Well, it’s wrong to kill people. That’s why Charles was so upset when Erik killed Sebastian,” I remind them. “Do you think he was wrong?”

“Is it okay to kill bad guys? What do you do about a bad guy? A REALLY bad guy?

“It’s complicated. Usually we arrest them and let a jury decide whether they’re bad or not, and then a judge decides what their punishment should be, with help from what the laws are. But sometimes, once in a while, someone is so bad that it’s okay to kill them. Do you think Sebastian was so bad that it was okay to kill him, because he tried to start a nuclear war?”

“Yes!” say my children.

“Do you think that’s why Erik killed him?”

“No!” say my children.

“Why did Erik kill Sebastian?”

“Because Sebastian killed his mother!”

“And then what happened?”

My kids are silent.

“He went with all the other bad mutants and started a new group. So, in a way, he became the new bad guy? Instead of just killing Sebastian, he became him?”

“Exactly!” I tell my daughter. My son activates his super power of Big Brown Eyes and just listens.

“And when Charles was so upset that Erik killed Sebastian, it wasn’t because Sebastian was dead, it was because of what killing him did to Erik? And Charles wanted to stop it because Erik was his friend, not because he wanted to save Sebastian.”

“Exactly!”

I sense that my kids want closure.

“So what makes the movie good is the idea that our actions have unintended consequences.”

“So how do we know the best thing to do?”

“You don’t,” I tell my children. “You hold fast to what you do know, that it’s wrong to hurt and kill people, and you just do the best you can from there.”

Morals versus Ethics.  Literary analysis. These are questions I can handle, but the open-ended question about whether gene mutation is real and the path the answer takes is one I’m dreading.

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