The X-Men film series has decided to move forward by looking to the past. The latest installment, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, is a prequel that discusses the genesis of Wolverine, perhaps the most charismatic and relatable of the mutant characters. We learn who Wolverine is and how he comes to be the intriguing and internally conflicted enigma presented in earlier films. The film predominately focuses upon the evolution of his physical indestructibility, as we are introduced to Wolverine the research subject, whose skeletal structure becomes bonded with a rare and powerful metal known as adamantium. However, below this self-evident narrative lies a briefly touched upon issue of great social importance and psychological weight. This issue explains both the success of the X-Men movies and why Wolverine is a unique character deserving of his own story. Beyond the idiosyncratic superpowers, awesome fighting abilities and witty one-liners are personalities embattled by stigma. Mutants just want to be normal in a world that insists on labeling and treating them as abnormal.
The real conflict is not between one mutant and another as the trilogy presupposes, but between mutants as a group and the rest of society, and the battle is for the acceptance and affection that all humans need to live in happiness. In the psychological literature this type of dilemma is known as a concealable stigma. Historically, groups like African-Americans or the handicapped have suffered because of a minority identity that can be visibly identified. You can't walk into a room and hide the fact that you are black. However, in recent decades, research has investigated populations who can walk into a room and hide their stigma, such as closeted homosexuals or those individuals that have been institutionalized for mental illness. On the surface, such identity-presentation flexibility may seem like a benefit, but emerging research is suggesting the groups that can opt for the closet may actually face greater mental health difficulties. In addition to the stress of stereotypes, discrimination and hate crimes, concealable stigma populations must construct an identity without explicit social feedback and manage an identity that is under constant threat of being uncovered. Evidence of the heightened mental health consequences may exist in theories of self-esteem that claim the more you are rejected by others in childhood (i.e. parents and peers), the more your sense of self becomes dependent upon those prejudiced external standards. Further, self-regulation theories suggest that when you exert energy pretending to be someone you are not, you have less cognitive resources left over to perform optimally in other facets of life.
Learning to construct and manage a clear and stable identity is the hidden goal of each mutant, but this psychological dilemma and struggle is most vividly embodied in Wolverine. In between car chases, gun fights and explosions, we see Wolverine's chiseled shoulders slumped in despair, his hairy brow furrowed in anguish. These emotionally charged moments depict an individual grappling with a concealable stigma.
Imagine you are gay and nobody else knows it. You may not know who is going to accept and reject you, or for that matter, whether life will be better lived in the closet or out. There are two basic paths to take - self-acceptance which leads to a coherent identity or self-rejection which leads to a fractured one. When Wolverine isn't defending himself against Stryker, he sits at this crossroad. As with all internal wrestling matches, there is an angel and a devil on each shoulder. The wrestling match is unintentionally manifested in the form of two other central characters. The devil is Wolverine's older brother, Victor (later to become Sabertooth). He represents self-rejection, as he seems to be fully persuaded by the negative societal message that equates being different with being monstrous. In the beginning of the film, he behaves like a monster: killing innocent civilians and capturing fellow mutants. Reflected in this destructive path of self-rejection are many psychological symptoms: he is quick to feel abandoned, he is easily brainwashed into betraying his personal moral code and he is dominated by feelings of loneliness and anger. The angel is Wolverine's girlfriend, Kayla Silverfox, who translates the societal message into, "to be different is to be unique and worthy." She accepts and embraces Wolverine's mutant identity, helps him to assimilate into the mainstream and solves problems peacefully. Contentment, tranquility and a life lived in-line with true values are all by-products of this path toward self-acceptance. As it happens, the mutant civil war depicted in the film series can serve as a metaphor for the internal battle waged within an individual with a concealable stigma. Before this person can get down to the business of living a happy, assimilated life he/she must resolve the conflicted aspects of self.
Throughout the film external pressures cause Wolverine to vacillate over this psychological issue - is he a monster or is he a unique human being? This is the pivotal question and one the film cements as unanswered once Wolverine's memory is erased. We know from the previous three films that Wolverine continues to lead the fight against those mutants that seek war with society and assimilated mutants. Rejection versus Acceptance. This leaves little time to explore who he is and how he can peacefully negotiate his assimilation into the only world that exists. Perhaps the fifth film will tackle this philosophically heavy question, but until then we must continue to be saddened by a restless, conflicted and unfulfilled Wolverine.