"The Republicans would all go nuts over Senator Kelly."
'X-Men's worst villain was a hero to Bush-era Republicans
The 'X-Men' star tells Inverse how his despicable role helped him get into the offices of some of the most powerful politicians of the early 2000s.
When X-Men kicked off the modern superhero movie era on July 14, 2000, Senator Robert Kelly felt like the worst kind of U.S. politician: reactionary, xenophobic, and nationalistic with an anti-mutant agenda. 20 years later, he’d probably be one of the more moderate members of the modern Republican party.
But even in the early 2000s, this fictional conservative legislator from the Marvel universe had his fans in Congress. And Bruce Davison, who played Kelly in X-Men, tells Inverse that after the film came out, he was often sent to lobby Republican politicians on behalf of the entertainment industry for that exact reason.
“I was spending a lot of time in Washington with the Creative Coalition campaigning for the arts, and they would only send me into the Republican offices because the Republicans would all go nuts over Senator Kelly,” Davison says. “It was great, talking to Brownback and his people about, ‘Oh, yeah, Senator Kelly. I can identify with this guy.’”
Davison adds that, like more conservatives, Brownback was “a brick wall when it came to funding the arts,” but that the senator’s aides “loved Senator Kelly.” In general, his role as the genocidal X-Men villain was “a useful door opener in those Bush years.”
Sam Brownback, then a senator from Kansas, went on to become the state’s governor, instituting a series of drastic tax cuts referred to as a "red-state experiment" that ended in disaster. He resigned in 2017 as one of the United State’s least popular governors for a role in the Trump administration. However, in today’s political scene, Davison sees another figure as the obvious stand-in for his X-Men character: Vice President Mike Pence.
“I'd rather not be compared to him, but yes, Pence is that guy.”
(Inverse contacted the State Department where Brownback currently works for comment but did not hear back before publication.)
X-Men wasn’t the first superhero movie of its kind. Many consider Blade to be the true origin of Marvel’s current cinematic success, while Davison points to even earlier films like Superman, which demonstrated the power of an onscreen comic book story.
Still, X-Men kicked off a superhero goldrush that brings us to this current moment: Disney dominates the box office (largely thanks to its ownership of Marvel), while rival studios like Warner and Sony fight back with their own fiefdoms (DC Comics and Spider-Man, respectively).
For Davison, acting in X-Men was a unique experience.
“X-Men was like nothing I'd read or seen before,” he says. “And it was all about the characters. It was all about mutants living in the world. It wasn't the first, but it followed the genre, which has now sort of gobbled everything up. Now I guess that era is ending too.”
At 74 years old with just over 50 years of acting experience, Davison has been around long enough to see a few other trends come and go. (He even had a secret cameo in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind as one of the people walking off the spaceship in the end: “I'm the guy on the left that gets off the mothership with the pilots.”)
He’s not claiming to have any inside information about the future of superhero movies, but he does think the genre needs to do something new if it wants to stay relevant.
“Something that alters your perceptions and suddenly changes the way you look at things,” Davison says. “The first X-Men did that. I found the characters all complex and interesting. They were a mystery at the time. We didn't quite know them, but we knew that they were struggling and they were trying to do something and there was this great conflict beginning to brew.”
That initial conflict grew into 11 intertwined movies and two separate casts. Davison only starred in the original X-Men with a brief appearance in X2.
Now, with Disney set to reboot the superhero team into its successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, the studio has a chance to fix what 20th Century Fox got wrong — from botching the Dark Phoenix saga (twice!) to Halle Berry’s confused performance as Storm — at a time when this parable for civil rights and the oppression of minorities has never been more relevant.
But Davison doesn’t think we need another take on the X-Men, at least not right now.
“I'm not really interested in what Disney does to refresh the X-Men,” he says. “They're just rebranding another story. Come up with a new thought, a new idea, a new character. Stan Lee did it all the time. Go find the Stan Lees in the world and see what they come up with. And then build it all on that.”
Of course, with that said, if Disney called Davison tomorrow and asked him to reprise the role of Senator Robert Kelly for a new generation, he admits he’d jump at the opportunity.
“I’d drop dead, I’d be so shocked,” he says. “I'd be more than happy to do anything that had to do with that, but I certainly ain’t holding my breath.”
Welcome to X-Men Week, Inverse's celebration of the film that kicked off Marvel's movie domination.