Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D.

Robin S. Rosenberg Ph.D.

The Superheroes

X-Men First Class: A Psychologist’s Review

X-Men First Class is a psychologically insightful origin story.

Posted Jun 04, 2011

 First Class
Origin stories are about transformation. Superhero origin stories are about the transformation of people (loosely defined: humans, enhanced humans, mutants, aliens) into superheroes. About people who channel their (super)abilities and (super)powers in the service of others. To do good.

X-Men: First Class is a story about multiple transformations of people into superheroes and as such it is a great movie. It shows us not only Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr transforming into Professor X and Magneto, respectively, but also how a range of other mutants transformed into future X-Men or Brotherhood of Mutant members.

From a psychological perspective, the X-Men comic book (and film) stories are psychologically rich material, in which issues about prejudice and discrimination, teamwork, leadership, giftedness (e.g., being "special") and power are explored in ways that are both accessible and thought-provoking. X-Men: First Class continues this fine tradition.

Here are but a few of the "psychological truths" that I saw revealed during the course of the film.

Being Gifted Can be a Lonely Path

As we saw in the first X-Men film, being a mutant can be a lonely path in life. You are different than other people, they don't understand you and in some cases they fear you. In other cases, they want to control you-to use your power for their own ends. The mutants in X-Men: First Class film experience all of this, and because of it, they come to hide their abilities, when possible. Raven (the future Mystique) can change form to appear as other people, but her "self" is blue-skinned. She learns to hide this and expends some effort to shape shift so that she looks normal every waking moment. Angel has wings, hidden behind a harness. These and most other mutants grow up thinking they are each the only ones-that they are alone in being "special." (On one level, of course, they're right, since almost every mutant has a unique set of abilities not replicated by another-the exceptions seem to be telepaths.) But as they discover one another they discover that they share mutated genes that give them special powers and abilities, and the sense of being not "normal." In this sense each of them has trod a lonely path until finding each other.

There is a part of the film when a bunch of teen/young adult mutants are sitting around talking about their powers and abilities, excited to recognize themselves in others, to feel relief at being able to be themselves, not to have to hide. The issue of "hiding one's true nature" has parallels with homosexuality, race, and most any other attribute that leads people to feel different when around "regular" people and thus when people find others like themselves, they feel enormous relief. If each one is a freak, then together they are a band of freaks, no longer alone. Seeing this scene made me think of what it is like for academically gifted children who have hide their talents in order to fit in-to finally find other people like themselves and no longer need to pretend. (Click here for more information about gifted children. For readers particularly interested in this topic, I also recommend Ellen Winner's fascinating book on gifted children.)

It's Hard to Look Different

Being gifted-having talents, powers, or abilities significantly above that of the average person-is one way of being different. Another way is to look significantly different, which can range from having a different skin tone, body physique, or facial feature (e.g., "stick-out ears") to an outright physical deformity. People who look different may be stigmatized and experience discrimination. This form of prejudice is intense and western society has become less tolerant of even minor physical differences, like stick-out ears, for which cosmetic surgery in children is now an option. Click here to read some interesting research by Jim Blascovich and colleagues about how people interacting with a stigmatized individual feel threatened when doing so.

In X-Men: First Class, two characters particularly struggle with the difficulty of looking different physically: Raven and Hank (future Beast). Raven's naturally blue skin even has scales. Hank can doesn't have it so bad since his differentness is confined to his feet which are monkey-like. He may be able to hide his feet in shoes, just as Raven can hide her blueness by using her powers to appear "normal." But for most of the film, they share a desire to be normal versus to pass as normal. [Spoiler alert] By the end of the film, they both stop passing as normal, but for different reasons. Hank deals with his physical deformity (which is, after all, what it is) by injecting himself with what he thought would be a cure. Wrong. It amplifies his mutation and turns him into the Beast, a blue-furred ape-appearing person; he has no hope of passing as normal. In contrast, Raven, touched by Erik's belief that mutants should feel proud of their differentness, decides to stop passing.

Their struggles about being physically different highlight real issues about acceptance by others and self-acceptance, and the pressure to conform in order to fit it. Readers interested int his topic can click here to read about Erik Parens's book on this topic: Surgically shaping children: Technology, ethics, and the pursuit of normality.

Optimal Performance Requires Some Arousal

In the film, we learn that Erik was intentionally tortured while growing up because his power only manifested itself when he was either angry or in pain. Thus, to learn more about his abilities his "mentor" Sebastian Shaw inflicts pain on him or makes him angry (mostly the former, it seems). Yet as an adult, Erik is unable to harness his power to move large metal objects: He can't stop Show's submarine from fleeing. Charles Xavier helps Erik harness his power to even greater levels by showing him the sweet spot for maximal power:  "between rage and serenity." (That is, the maximal force of Erik's power requires less anger and more calm.)

Yerkes-Dodson Law

If you've taken an Introductory Psychology course, this concept may be familiar to you, although with different words. Charles is espousing a variant of the Yerkes-Dodson Law, in which optimal performance on a task occurs with a moderate amount of arousal: not too much arousal will lead you to feel scattered and lose focus, and not enough arousal (because you are understimulated or bored) will cause you to lose focus. (Click here for the original paper.)

Charles is reframing the Yerkes-Dodson Law so that rage = overarousal and serenity = underarousal. The midpoint between the two is the sweet spot.

The film is full of other psychologically resonant moments about the power of teamwork, how good leaders can persuade, and the importance of belonging. Plus, the film is great fun. If you've seen previous X-Men films, you'll enjoy little prequel connections to the other films (thus allowing viewers to feel a sense of community with the X-Men franchise). If you're an X-Men comic book fan, be prepared for non-canonical stories!

That said, this may be the best X-Men film yet.

Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
 Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is


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