Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Godzilla, X-Men, and Rightly Remembering Tragedy

Josh Larsen


By Josh Larsen

June 2, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past is a fairly forgettable entry in the increasingly crowded superhero canon, but there’s one element of the movie worth pondering: its multiple references to historical tragedies.

Based on the Marvel comic books, the X-Men movies center on humans who have been born with a variety of superpowers, from the ability to read minds to the ability to heal wounds at a rapid rate. Dubbed mutants, they’re greeted with both fear and awe by the rest of society. As such, they’re inherently symbolic figures, easy stand-ins for any ostracized group – be it the European Jews of World War II or the African Americans of the Civil Rights Era. (The comics notably debuted in 1963.)

X-Men, the first film adaptation, made this connection explicit, opening in a World War II concentration camp, where a boy prisoner with the ability to bend metal attracts the attention of his captors. By the time of X-Men: Days of Future Past, that boy has grown up to become Magneto (Michael Fassbender), leader of a renegade band of mutants who, quite understandably, no longer trust normal humans. The series, meanwhile, has gone on to reference historical tragedies beyond the Holocaust. A small section of Days of Future Past takes place during the Vietnam War, while a plot point hinges on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Perhaps because there is something flat to Days of Future Past overall – there’s no zip, no driving force, no personality to the movie – I found these references to be galling. For some five films now, the franchise has been leaning on echoes of the Holocaust to bolster its theme of intolerance. What was initially compelling now feels convenient. Not only do the filmmakers go to that well again here, but they also grab onto Vietnam and JFK’s death in hopes of siphoning some runoff significance. Both events are national scars, if not still open sores for those who remember living through them, yet the movie treats them as if they’re little more than set design. Days of Future Past doesn’t give any real consideration to the tragedies it evokes; the movie only borrows them for the dramatic needs of the moment at hand. Its relationship to history is parasitic.

The question of how to rightly remember tragedy is a timely one, given the recent opening of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Amidst the somber appreciation for the museum as a reverential monument has been a smaller chorus of naysayers. Among their objections? High admission prices and a gift shop that reportedly includes a 9/11 cheese plate.

If even a space specifically dedicated to respectful remembrance fails in the eyes of some, how can a Hollywood blockbuster hope to reference such tragedies without exploiting them? I believe it’s possible (X-Men: Days of Future Past to the contrary). In a Capital Commentary essay last summer, I offered a defense of disaster movies, in which I held up 1954’s Godzilla as an example of how such films can honor, rather than exploit, a singular event like 9/11. This summer has given us another example, one that is, fittingly, a Hollywood remake of 1954’s Godzilla.

Like its inspiration, the 2014 Godzilla is rooted in a fear of nuclear power, as well as a sense of mourning over the tragedies that the misuse of such power has caused in the real world. The original film had in mind the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while the remake also references the 2011 accident at Fukushima. In fact, the opening section of this Godzilla chronicles an accident at a nuclear power plant, giving attention to both the global implications and the personal ones for the family that we’ll follow through the rest of the film.

Unlike in Days of Future Past, the real-world tragedy incorporated into Godzilla is not simply a passing reference or a convenient plot point. It haunts the film and enriches the themes at play. As we watch Godzilla laying waste to San Francisco, the creature is simultaneously an astonishing special effect and a potent symbol for what the hubris of humanity has wrought. In thinking that we could control a volatile element of nature – nuclear energy – we’ve unleashed an awesome natural force that we’re now powerless to control. Godzilla is a sci-fi monster movie, yes, but it’s also a humbling experience.

In Godzilla, the referencing of real-world tragedy – in this case the likes of Fukushima, Chernobyl and even Three Mile Island – is symbiotic, rather than parasitic. The allusions add resonance to film, while the film offers something in return: an artful and honorable handling of history. In this way – and especially in comparison to the flippant X-Men: Days of Future PastGodzilla works both as summer entertainment and an act of reverence.

- Josh Larsen is editor of Think Christian. He also writes about movies at LarsenOnFilm and is the co-host of Filmspotting. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”