Mutants in the Marvel universe have always been an allegory for the persecuted “other” in all its forms. But never has the present-day world of the X-Men looked so grim for mutants as it does in Fox’s new series, The Gifted. The series is so grim, in fact, that it’s easy to view it as the spiritual prequel to the desolate futures presented in Days of Future Past or Logan.
In The Gifted, the X-Men and Brotherhood have disappeared, leaving other mutant defenseless against the prejudices of regular humans but even worse, the militaristic regulation from Sentinel Services.
By removing the X-Men from the story entirely, The Gifted finds it easier to explore the more personal stories of seemingly “normal” people, mutant or otherwise. We get a refreshing reminder that just because you have lizard eyes and can summon vortexes to anywhere, that doesn’t make you subhuman. The Gifted isn’t trying to be an X-Men show because it’s trying to become something much more relatable.
The series follows several members of the remaining mutant underground but focuses more on the suburban Strucker family that’s shaken by the realization that the daughter and son are, in fact, mutants. The eldest daughter can manipulate air to create barriers (cool!) and the younger, troubled son is some kind of overpowered telekinetic (boring).
The father, a district attorney more used to prosecuting mutant criminals, suddenly finds himself on the opposite side of the political divide. We get the story of “lesser” mutants forced to fend for themselves and the regular humans, like father Reed Strucker, that get caught in the middle.
No uber-powerful X-Men are there to defeat the Sentinel spider robots that come for the mutants in The Gifted. There’s no school where mutants can hone their powers, and most of the characters are amateurs at wielding their powers. They either lack control or crack under pressure or just haven’t pushed themselves to their limits.
The overtones of literal power and privilege so pervasive in most of the blockbuster X-Men movies have been stripped away to expose a rotten human culture that would torture and experiment on superpowered individuals out of fear, but it’s also a reductive one where bullies beat up kids in high school for being “weird.”
Most of the X-Men movies present the marginalization of mutants in some fashion, but top-billed actors playing powerful mutants in peak control of their abilities has slowly become trite. In 2017, you just can’t relate to a story about an immortal guy with claws fighting a blue shape-shifting villainess that kidnapped a U.S. Senator last week.
More recently, Apocalypse somehow made Magneto even more powerful and almost brought about the end of the world. What happened to politics?
When mutant stories are told just through the lens of the X-Men — who live in a gorgeous mansion — they never reach the civil rights allegory they’re meant to be. Especially in the case of most X-Men movies, these stories come from a place of power and privilege. Is Xavier really an “other” if he’s wealthy, white, male, and can control people’s minds?
Fans that grew up with X-Men: The Animated Series might remember it as a politically-charged series that focused on the Mutant Registration Act in its two-part pilot episode. Key images early on include protests, political outrage, and general civil unrest. They throw the ugliest member of the X-Men, Beast, in jail for seemingly no reason other than the fact that he looks like, well, a beast.
The five seasons that followed eventually sent the powerful X-Men into outer space, but the series spent a lot of time exploring the political landscape of a world with mutants, oftentimes portraying them as a marginalized people in need of defending. That’s where the X-Men came in.
But what if Wolverine, Jean Grey, Storm, and Cyclops weren’t around to defend your average mutant?
What’s left are the stories like The Gifted, which examines what happens to the lesser mutants that simply can’t fit into a mainstream society that, once you’re on the marginalized side, looks an awful lot like a dystopia.
The Gifted airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on Fox.