In 2000, X-Men kicked off one of the most popular blockbuster film trends of the last decade: Superhero pictures. By 2008, the cycle reached its unequivocal pinnacle in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Rising to the top of the box-office, the front of moviegoers minds and the height of pop culture saturation, it’s the be-all, end-all superhero movie.
Going back and watching X-Men, it’s clear that the superhero film started in an odd place, stuck in-between campy characters and gritty drama, it never comes together as well as it could. But, much like The Dark Knight, there is an overlap in the core conflict of the film, a struggle between good and evil that goes beyond simple diametrical forces, but two fundamentally incompatible worldviews.
X-Men opens on the most life defining moment of Eric Lensherr. Shuffled through the mud amid his fellow Jews in Nazi occupied Warsaw, he’s torn asunder from his mother, reaching out to her as the soldiers hold him back. Eric grows up to become Magneto (Ian McKellen), one among a growing number of mutants who have manifested superpowers. His life experience has led him to the conclusion that there is one overriding instinct that drives everyone: survival.
In The Dark Knight, we’re faced with a man with no past, a face with a permanently cruel smile. The Joker (Heath Ledger) is the pure embodiment of chaos. He weaves his evil plans based upon one pure supposition: when push comes to shove, people will do anything just to survive.
Joker’s counterpoint is Batman (Christian Bale), a man who believes that Gotham can still be saved, that there are still decent people in the world, good men like Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) who will stand up and do the right thing. It’s an unspoken sentiment shared by Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in X-Men. He runs a school for mutants while also trying to find a way to bring peace between humans and mutants.
Magneto believes that the war between humans and mutants is inescapable and decides he’ll be the one to strike the first blow. He creates a machine that will turn humans into mutants, creating a way to assimilate the population into the mutants, a way to jumpstart evolution and ensure the survival of what Magneto believes is the superior species.
The fatal flaw is that the mutation ends up rejecting its host and killing them. This makes Magneto the misguided villain. Humanity’s role in the affairs of mutants plays little into the actual plot of X-Men. It’s more about the conflicting perspectives, the diametric viewpoints of Xavier and Magneto. In the end, the human reaction still remains an unknown and both sides have strong arguments for their viewpoints.
It’s undermined slightly by the defect in the machine, but it works more as a contrivance for the X-Men to stop the proceedings. It would have been more compelling if the writers had found a way to give them another reason to stop the machine, something that went beyond the safety of the leaders and more into the two conflicting viewpoints.
The Dark Knight has the same fundamental conflict between its two leads. Batman believes people are capable of being good and decent while Joker sets out to prove Batman wrong. District Attorney Harvey Dent emerges as a pinnacle of hope, incorruptible, someone inside the legal system who fearlessly hunts down the wicked and corrupt and puts them before.
Through a series of twisted killings that culminate in the murder of Dent’s love and his physical disfigurement, The Joker turns Gotham’s hero into a villain. The Joker visits him in the hospital wearing one of Dent’s campaign pens which declares: “I believe in Harvey Dent.” And The Joker does believe in him, anticipating his descent into madness, hatred and rage.
The final confrontation of The Dark Knight centers around an poorly devised set-piece. The Joker has rigged two ferries to blow at the top of the hour, but has also given each ferry the option of blowing up the other one before the hour, saving themselves from the fate of the other. The Joker believes that, in the end, survival instincts will kick in and one boat will seek to preserve themselves before the hour ends. Batman believes otherwise.
Against Joker’s plans, neither boat blows up the other. The entirety of the film, the whole struggle over the soul of Harvey Dent, the entirety of The Joker’s point is undermined by the behavior of a group of individuals that represent the best and worst of Gotham. Even with the boat scene, it’s clear The Joker is the true winner of the film. He’s proved his point, shown that even the most admirable and moral of men is corruptible.
Neither The Dark Knight nor X-Men proves incorruptible by the end. Both are tainted by the need for narrative contrivance, both need a reason for the heroes to be the heroes and both are lesser films for it. The tension, ambiguity and conflict is still there, but it’s lost in the need to satisfy audiences. The Dark Knight proves the most egregious offender, especially in light of its darker tone, but once again it proves that ain’t a perfect film ever made.