How many heroes choose to have the powers that set them apart?
Some acquire their extraordinary abilities from accidents of bizarre science. Green Arrow, Ozymandias, and Batman train and arm themselves so that they can accomplish what the law cannot (this power is a combination of being very determined and very wealthy). Countless caped characters have superpowers due to hereditary traits. Heroes like Starfire, Superman, and the Martian Manhunter have superpowers because they are not human. However, the most interesting portrayal of inborn superpowers can be found in ordinary Earthlings with unusual powers. The X-Men movies in particular tell the stories that make the born-not-made superhero relatable in a way that the others do not. This is because mutant superpowers become apparent as young mutants reach puberty. The timing of this awakening makes perfect sense: as puberty begins your body suddenly starts doing things that you have not asked it to do.
When I reached puberty I did develop a super power: like all my cis female friends I became capable of having a baby. This is a real world superpower, but I have to say that it was not my first, or even second, choice. The power to reproduce was at best not very useful to me; at worst it is a burden. As a carless, untraveled teen I’d have preferred the ability to fly or to teleport. Moving things with my mind might have been handy, and being able to read my peers’ minds would have explained some otherwise inexplicable moments (arguments, inside jokes, gossip, crushes, and the like). But being able to give birth to another human was really of no use to me when I felt largely powerless.
Rogue’s mutant power is far more complicated than unwanted fertility. Being able to borrow or drain the powers of other mutants means that she can have every power. This ability also means that she can never be touched directly, skin-to-skin. “The first boy I ever kissed ended up in a coma for three weeks,” she tells us. As she becomes attracted to and dates a fellow student at Professor Xavier’s school, this power keeps her from experiencing the physical affection that accompanies a romantic relationship.
Mystique, who appears as a young woman in X-Men: First Class, can change her face, hair, and build in ways that we can only envy. Unfortunately her natural blue, scaled appearance is unearthly and strange in the eyes most of the people she meets. The movie incarnation of Mystique grows up spending any time outside her adoptive home she shares in disguise. She does not show the world her true face because she is certain that she will not be accepted.
In many ways we have little control over our own bodies as they grow. We can choose how we clothe our bodies, what mementoes we wear (think of Wolverine’s military tag or Rogue’s streaks of white hair), and the ways we modify our bodies with piercings, tattoos (like the “M” that the mutant gang in X-Men: Last Stand all wear to identify themselves as mutants), or plastic surgery. The Spectatorial’s past post on elvish-aesthetic body mods is an excellent example of the latter. But there is little we can do to alter or re-shape ourselves on a genetic level.
We know that our inherited genetics shape us as we grow, but they give us more questions than answers: will I get breast cancer like my mother and grandmother ? Will I need glasses to see, like my parents? Knowing your family health history can leave you wondering whether you will experience health concerns that are more serious than near-sightedness. Consider Jean Grey’s dangerous Phoenix personality. Because the Phoenix persona is the product of repressing Jean’s inborn mutant powers, it is analogous with the self-destruction that can result from mental illness. An unacknowledged, untreated mental illness can take your sense of security apart, piece by piece until you no longer recognize yourself. Ignoring, rather than acknowledging, a genetic risk for such illnesses can keep one from seeking the help one needs.
As we grow, we too learn to recognize and manipulate our inherited strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. Some people have the ability to reach that thing on the top shelf (the one that ordinary mortals must stand on chairs to access). Some of us are flexible in ways that most people are not and so excel at yoga, gymnastics or parkour. Others can eat just about anything and make the most of their metabolism. Our bodies are fascinating to live in, and each power we grow into is an adventure, even if they are not all of our choosing.
The transformations we go through, mutant or human, serve as a physical reminder of just how limited our control of our bodies really is. Given the choice, wouldn’t you rather be able to fly?
-contributed by Miranda Whittaker