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Gonzaga professor sees more than meets the eye in ‘X-Men’ films

Gonzaga University media professor Claudia Bucciferro has written a book analyzing the films made from X-Men comic books. Photographed Tuesday, May 3, 2016 at Gonzaga University. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga University media professor Claudia Bucciferro has written a book analyzing the films made from X-Men comic books. Photographed Tuesday, May 3, 2016 at Gonzaga University. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Gonzaga professor Claudia Bucciferro is looking for what it means to be human in an unlikely place.

Superhumans.

The Chilean immigrant, who grew up under the rule of military dictator Augusto Pinochet, was transfixed when the 2000 film “X-Men” premiered in an American-style movie theater in the coastal town of Concepcion. She saw on the screen characters who were outsiders, much like herself, who were both grappling with their identities as well as saving the world. Sixteen years later, she’s released “The X-Men Films: A Cultural Analysis,” a joint project with more than a dozen other thinkers in the fields of media and communication studies focusing on the billion dollar franchise.

“I grew up in Chile being different,” Bucciferro, an assistant professor of communications and media studies, said. “I didn’t quite fit in. I was a very intellectually driven kind of girl. I was not into the makeup and high heels that people expected girls to be worried about.”

Those feelings persisted after Bucciferro moved to the United States to pursue her degree. She was a non-native speaker and, later, a woman operating in an academic field of study dominated by men. The X-Men series, born on the comic book page in the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and attaining cinematic prominence in a post-9/11 world, tackled issues of identity and discrimination better than other blockbuster franchises, Bucciferro said.

“People were branded, physically, with numbers in their arms and put into concentration camps because they were deemed different,” Bucciferro said. “The fact that the X-Men picked that up, I think, is significant.”

Both the original X-Men trilogy and the rebooted version, which will see the release of X-Men: Apocalypse on May 27, feature scenes of series antagonist Magneto, AKA Erik Lehnsherr, separated from his Jewish family in a Nazi concentration camp. One of the book’s essays, written by Ron Von Burg and D. Stokes Piercy, focuses on Magneto (portrayed on-screen by Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender) and the historical underpinnings of his philosophy that mutants are superior to humans.

The X-Men series isn’t the first time Bucciferro has lent her critical lens to a massively popular cultural property. Her first edited tome examined the “Twilight” series of books and movies and how different cultures responded to the vampire-driven phenomenon.

Bucciferro rejects the argument that series like Twilight and X-Men are meant to be mindless pieces of entertainment that say little about the real world.

“This is all over the world, it’s a mainstream thing,” Bucciferro said. “They are kind of intertwined with everyday life. Even if you never liked superheroes, you are surrounded by superheroes.”

Dan Webster, a local movie critic who contributes to Spokane 7 and Spokane Public Radio, said that some academic work on mega cultural properties is better than others.

“Sometimes it really works, sometimes they’re able to get at the heart of a new meaning for all this stuff,” Webster said. “Other times it just feels like it’s pandering to the masses.”

The X-Men series, along with many other cultural properties, can tell us a lot about ourselves, Webster said.

“These superhero movies, and to a certain extent the ‘Harry Potter’ movies, they play to this notion that we’re all special, we’ve got a hidden power somewhere,” Webster said. “We want to be able to right wrongs.”

Superhero films also enable our culture to attack fictionalized versions of our own foibles and insecurities, Webster said. The X-Men movies attack our prejudices about people unlike ourselves, Bucciferro and the contributors to her book argue, but the films aren’t perfect.

In particular, some of the films feature problematic portrayals of women, Bucciferro said. Jean Grey, who becomes one of the most powerful X-Men in a story arc depicted in “X-Men: The Last Stand,” is controlled by both Professor Xavier and Magneto in the films. The same is true of Mystique, a shape-shifting mutant portrayed first by Rebecca Romijn and later Jennifer Lawrence. Both characters receive their own chapter in the book.

“It does come back, in the end, to how do we control these women who go nuts?” Bucciferro said, though she acknowledges in “Days of Future Past,” the most recent X-Men release, James McAvoy as Professor Xavier refuses to control Lawrence’s Mystique in the movie’s waning moments.

Bucciferro hopes the book adds to the academic discussion of pop culture properties. Its basis in theories of feminism and communication mean that it isn’t as accessible as some other academic treatments of comic book worlds, but when Bucciferro sees her children with posters, Legos and costumes of the heroes she’s writing about, she knows the work will have a lasting cultural footprint.

“Popular culture is becoming catchy, as an area of research,” she said. “You have a lot of different people, from different areas, approaching it. We need to dig deeper, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Kip and Nathan Weinbender chat about Bucciferro’s work on this week’s Spokesman-Review Podcast. Listen below.

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