Last week on Public Radio International’s Studio 360 Hollywood producer Linda Obst appeared in support of her new book Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business. One of the essential points that the author made, to host Kurt Anderson, is that Hollywood movie producers now have to focus more on international markets as the blockbusters aren’t taking off in the States as they used to. During an interview with Bloomberg TV, Obst asserted that “We are making our movies basically for Russia and China.”
The success of American movies in these overseas markets comes with the caveat that Russian and Chinese movie goers (and more importantly their governments) aren’t interested in seeing or displaying American ideas or values on the screen. In the case with China we’ve seen how films like Iron Man 3 have been compounded with bonus footage for the Chinese audience. Although this makes sense as Iron Man’s track record in Chinese foreign relations has been hostile at best.
With the international community embroiled in a debate about Russia’s ban on “propaganda depicting non-traditional relationships” centering on the Winter Olympics in Sochi, I wondered, what of film? and where do the Russian censors draw the line? Obviously, films such as Brokeback Mountain wouldn’t fly in the Kremlin. But what about movies where the support for “non-traditional relationships” is a little more subtle? What about civil rights parables like Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies?
You don’t have to dig too deeply into the X-Men films to see the obvious support for LGBTQ rights underlying every battle scene. From the earliest scenes of X-Men (2000) where telepathically inclined mutant, Jean Grey, lobbies against “family values” senator Richard Kelly in the name of Mutant rights, it was clear that Singer’s X-Men was about a little bit more than a mutant’s right to bear knife-fingers or eye-lasers.
X-Men: First Class screenwriter Zack Stentz even went as far to acknowledge the connection in a comment thread, stating:
“I helped write the movie and can tell you the gay rights/post-Holocaust Jewish identity/civil rights allegory stuff was all put in there on purpose…Bryan Singer wove his own feelings of outsiderdom as a gay man into the movie series. The whole ‘have you ever tried NOT being a mutant’ coming out scene in X2 isn’t even particularly subtle, while it is effective.” X-Men: First Class Screenwriter, Zack Stentz
While I imagine that the most overt references to homosexuality in the X-films such as Beast’s “You didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell” quip in First Class are too American to translate to a wide Russian audience (or a mainstream American audience, for that matter), I would imagine that in retrospect the Russian right would see a bit of themselves in Senator Kelly’s bigoted exclamation, “I think the American people deserve the right to decide whether they want their children … to be taught by mutants!” That sentiment expressed in the first X-Men film is notably similar to Russia’s assertion that their homophobic legislation is in the interest of the children.
Barring the specifics of Singer’s commentary on the state of gay rights in America, I wonder what the Russian censors make of a superhero team as American and subversive as the X-Men. It isn’t that the X-Men are gay themselves or that the films depict homosexual relationships (although the X-Men comics celebrated a cathartic, interracial gay marriage last summer), it’s that the X-Men remain a uniquely uncanny yet empowered minority in the American public. A team that is capable of fighting off the threats of hateful congressmen and genocidal androids sent to hunt and destroy them (the distinction between senators and murderous cyborgs is sometimes hard to make). And on top of all that, they are always at conflict internally between Magneto’s nefarious mutant-supremacy and Professor X’s pragmatic equality.
In this world of threats, the X-Men are the beacon of truth and human liberty. The mutants possess a fundamentally democratic set of ideals, it just so happens that LGBTQ equality are the current zeitgeist by which they have manifested themselves. They are the champions of the oppressed and for that they are a constant threat to the oppressors. Whether or not the Russian propaganda filters are smart enough to pick up on the X-Men’s essential civilly disobedient streak is another question.
The previous X-films have done a pretty good job cleaning up the Russian box-office. Unsurprisingly, the series’ numbers at the Russian theatres fall off a bit with First-Class which could be due to the plot’s involvement with the Cuban Missile crisis. With an eye to the future of the franchise, what kind of Russian reception can we expect for Bryan Singer’s upcoming return to the series with X-Men: Days of Future Past?
We can assume that Days of Future Past will maintain the pro-gay rights allegory Singer instilled in the movie series at its inception. If you read the comics, you know that Chris Claremont’s Days of Future Past story-arc involves an alternate future where, in 2013, mutant-kind is hunted to the brink of extinction due to a series of events triggered by Senator Kelly’s assassination by the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in the 1980s. It forced the X-Men into a morally ambiguous dilemma where they had to save an enemy from the violence of their fellow mutants in the prevention of a future disaster.
The cross-time adventure of Days of Future Past was ground-breaking in that it didn’t adhere to the typically black/white morality of comic books at the time of its publication in 1981, and my hope is that Bryan Singer will transfer some of Claremont’s non-conformist, epic, meaningful drama to the big screen when X-Men: Days of Future Past hits theatres next Spring.
It is obvious that the X-Men won’t be dropping their well worn mantle any time soon. But given the recent developments in Russia, will the decidedly anti-gay Russian establishment ban the movie from hitting their cinemas? The Washington Post has postulated that Russia’s anti-gay legislation will primarily target human rights groups and protestors, such as Side by Side, Russia’s first LGBTQ film festival. I doubt the Russian’s really see Hollywood films as a major threat, this isn’t the cold war after all. The real trouble, as we have seen, is that the legislation is encouraging a violent fervor against the homosexual youth in Russia.
If films like X-Men make it past the Russian censors unscathed, it is the perfect opportunity for Bryan Singer to make an international pop-culture declaration of the rights of men, women, homo superior, and transgender peoples the world over. Seeing as the Russian strong-man, Colossus is back in action for this X-Film I can’t think of a better hero to deliver the message. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay, lesbian, queer, transgender, black, white, Navajo, weird, lame, or a nerd, the X-Men have always stood for the outsider, since the seventies, they’ve been a diverse multi-national super hero squad, and there is no reason that they should stop now because their liberality may harm Days of Future Past’s prospects in the international market.
If “We are making movies basically for Russia and China” as Linda Obst stated, does that mean we need to cater to the Russian government’s oppressive legislation against homosexuals? Our heroes celebrate America’s greatest triumphs, in the last century our greatest victories have taken place in the field of civil liberties. Should our heroes have their purposes neutered in favor of globalizing practicality? Absolutely not. Am I essentially advocating combative propaganda that justifies my own beliefs? Some may say so. But I am certainly not advocating intervening policies like Magneto might inspire.
But I am a human being, I’m a queer human being, and if I have learned anything from the X-Men or any of the great movers, shakers, and abolitionists in history it’s the importance of standing up for the rights of other human beings. For all the sacrifices I could make in the name of sacred objectivity, I cannot sacrifice my humanity, my capability to emphasize with humans that are not me, with every Russian kid being harassed, assaulted, and abused by an unkind society.
The Russians are afraid of HIV and the dissolution of the family, but it is just that fear that this country went through, that fear which we are currently facing at home and abroad. Fear is the enemy that we all face, fear has empowered the dictators throughout history. It’s the same fear that makes Human-kind hate mutant-kind, and fear that makes some mutants hate humans. It is that fear that Joss Whedon wrote about in his Mutant cure plot during his 2003 run on Astonishing X-Men.
If early buzz and leaked footage is any indication, Days of Future Past will be the movie it very well should be. A massive globe-trotting epic of civil unrest and the prevention of genocide. I don’t imagine that movies alone can change the world, perhaps the world changes of its own accord. But I am convinced that we should not strip our cinema of our ideals in the name of international receipts.
American movies, of the big-budgeted variety specifically, get a bad name for being empty special-effects spectacles. It is easy to overlook the power that may be hidden underneath these loud, and visually astounding feats of cinematic artistry. It is easy to forget that American movies are oftentimes massive displacements of American values onto the big screen. Hollywood is basically the cultural arm of American diplomacy, and I think filmmakers owe it to the American people to produce films that speak to the values of humanity. In the case of X-Men, Professor X’s team of super powered mutants must maintain the subversive streak that has helped ensure their relevancy. I don’t think Professor X, or X-Men fans for that matter, would want it any other way.