THE GIFTED: A Banner Year For The X-Men

Fox TV’s mutant adaptation pushes all the right buttons.

The trailers for The Gifted were uninspiring. They promised a stripped-down superhero show reminiscent of the pre-Iron Man era, like NBC’s Heroes a full decade after Heroes seemed like a good idea. You wouldn’t be blamed for skipping yet another dour-looking entry from a studio that didn’t seem to know what to do with the X-Men, yet somehow in 2017 it feels like they’ve finally figured it out. Wolverine swan-song Logan smashed all critical and narrative expectations. FX’s Legion was a head-trip unlike anything superhero media has produced, and by the looks of both Untitled Deadpool Sequel and The New Mutants, it seems like Fox’s divergent path with these characters is catching on – which brings us to what ought to have been the dark horse of this year’s X-Men saga. As it turns out, The Gifted is a loaded, thoughtful cross-section between mutant lore, melodrama and modern social metaphors in ways that its predecessors haven’t quite managed to be. It’s surprising, it’s relevant, it’s diverse, and above all else, it’s an operatic reflection of contemporary politics rooted entirely in character. In other words, it’s the X-Men show you’ve probably been waiting seventeen years for.

To begin with, the show has a couple of interesting hooks that never quite made it to the initial marketing. Like both Logan and Legion, its place in the overall X-Men continuity is irrelevant, taking place presumably sometime after the original trilogy of X-Men films, wherein mutants had just been introduced to the world, but sometime before things get totally apocalyptic, like in Days of Future Past. Point being, it focuses on the yet-unseen (in live action) nexus between the system beginning to fail and the system having failed completely. Sound familiar? More pertinently however, whether by design or by coincidence, it shares its DNA with its 2017 X-kin in one other major respect. Where Logan saw the X-Men series itself passed down to Wolverine’s daughter and Legion lasered in on the son of Charles Xavier, one of The Gifted’s protagonists happens to be Polaris a.k.a. Lorna Dane, the daughter of Magneto, making this the year the lead characters of most of the X-films stepped aside for the next generation in pretty literal terms.  

Emma Dumont as Polaris

The show’s premise is as follows: Xavier’s X-Men and Magneto’s Brotherhood are nowhere to be found, leaving the mutant world rudderless as the American government retaliates against accidental mutant violence through both force and legislation. It’s territory familiar to any superhero fan – the overreaction of the U.S. government to an unfortunate side effect of these characters’ mere existence – but it finds itself executed with cutting poignancy, or at least as cuttingly as a concept like mutants-as-metaphors will allow, with a new paradigm of multifaceted leaderless movements taking its cues from old world activism without the fear of singular pillars being struck down. The mutant Black Lives Matter to its Malcolm X and MLK, if you will.

The show begins with a recontextualization (and soft reboot) of the comics’ Fenris a.k.a. Von Strucker twins Andrea and Andreas, an infinitely powerful duo of siblings who can wreak untold havoc just by holding hands. The formerly HYDRA duo are re-imagined as latently powerful mutant siblings Andy and Lauren Strucker, one half of a typical suburban white American family. Their mother Caitlin (Amy Acker, Angel) is a nurse. Their father Reed (Stephen Moyer, True Blood) is a lawyer. Everything is as it should be for this epitome of American normality and privilege – that is, until a bullying incident at school forces both children to reveal their enormous mutant abilities, causing their father to have to reveal the full extent of his job: a mutant prosecutor. What will he do now that his kids are in the same boat as the innocent people he’s been putting away?

Minor spoilers to follow.

Turning a prominent Nazi family in the comics into well-meaning, misguided suburban American denizens is its own metatextual statement, but The Gifted is the kind of show that isn’t satisfied with dangling bare minimums in front of its audience and calling it work. Andrea and Andreas Von Strucker themselves eventually make an appearance, albeit in flashback, as the terrorist great grandparents of straight-A Lauren and reclusive Andy, leaving them with a violent legacy with which to contend. And while Reed finally sees the effects his job has on innocent mutants once his children are prosecuted, his apologies to the mutants who help his family escape aren’t nearly enough. In The Gifted, the realization of wrongdoing is just a first step, and those wronged by it aren’t obligated to accept mere changes of heart. Not unless Reed and those like him are willing to put in the effort to undo the evils they’ve perpetuated.

The show doesn’t shy away from how its political metaphor would function in modern day. While it never really touches on modern racism, sexism and homophobia in explicit terms (though some of the characters do draw similarities between their human and mutant experiences), the world of The Gifted sees anti-mutant bigots termed simply “racists” without batting an eye, and the government legislation that allows mutants to be persecuted is explicitly the USA PATRIOT Act. Mutant metaphors are never going to be satisfyingly one-to-one, but re-creating the effects of real US policy used to persecute Muslims after 9/11 is probably is as close as you can get.

Polaris and the Strucker family are joined by comic favourites Blink (the portal-creating pixie from Days of Future Past, recast as a mutant runaway) and Thunderbird a.k.a. John Proudstar, a Native American military veteran whose country turned his back on him on three different fronts. Rounding off the main cast is one Marcos Diaz, a new take on the comics’ Sunspot (known here as Eclipse), a former Cartel member who uses his cross-border contacts to ferry mutants to safety, and whose new mission is to protect Polaris and their unborn child. Together, along with a who’s who of other superpowered characters, they form one faction of the Mutant Underground, an organization protecting persecuted mutant refugees and finding them safe passage to Mexico.

They’re branded terrorists in the process.

Hot on their heels is the U.S. Government’s drone-equipped Sentinel Services led by one Jace Turner, a surprisingly empathetic law enforcer who, even though he’s in charge of the show’s equivalent of I.C.E. (they’re also the new “S.S.” if you’re one for Marvel acronyms), gets to have discernibly human motivations involving a loved one killed in a mutant incident, leading to a few complicated confrontations with various mutant leaders. He’s a stickler for legality over the notion of “what’s right,” though as a primary focus in the series, he’s one of a handful of non-mutant characters afforded both the narrative opportunity and in-world humanity that makes him both worthy and capable of change for the better.

Of course, this wouldn’t be an X-Men show without a proper big-bad in the form of Garrett Dillahunt’s Ahab a.k.a. Roderick Campbell, a geneticist at the head of Sentinel Services’ private contractor TRASK Industries, a company that also made an appearance in Days of Future Past. Ahab is ruthless in his pursuit of mutant abilities. Think of him as a precursor to Logan’s Zander Rice; it’s even implied he harvested the leftover Adamantium from the Weapon-X facility where Wolverine was created. Be it the search for a new Fenris duo, or worse yet, getting rogue mutants addicted to various drugs in order to control them, he embodies the worst impulses of American capitalist and military procedure. Unlike Turner, a man driven by loss and thus a man still capable of empathy, Ahab is unflinching in his inflictions of pain in the name of freedom and profit.

The show has aired ten episodes thus far (the eleventh airs January 1st, prior to its two-hour season finale on the 15th) and each episode has at its center an escalating moral dilemma. It could be as simple as the complications of forgiving past sleights when they pose present threats, or as complicated as the ethics of using mutant powers for memory implantation if it serves a worthy outcome (who knew Blade Runner would have three sequels this year?). At times, it feels like an extrapolation of what one might presume Charles Xavier taught in his Mutant Ethics lessons. What’s more, while this memory implantation dilemma comes up early on in the form of Dreamer (the show’s version of Beautiful Dreamer, whose thick pink breath can both implant and extract thoughts), a similar conundrum arises a few episodes later via a mysterious telepath named Esme, whose own use of implantation and mind-reading carries with it similar implications under vastly more urgent circumstances – only this time, none of the other characters are in on her schemes. While we’re made privy to a multitude of viewpoints on this ethical problem the first time around, the second time it’s left entirely up to us, the audience, to work through it on our own. “Challenging” is one of the last words I expected to use when describing The Gifted, but here we are.

[If you haven’t guessed, Esme is in fact Esme Cuckoo of the Stepford Sisters, one of five incredibly powerful clones of long time X-favourite Emma Frost, in a show that also makes reference to the notorious Hellfire Club. Yeah. They went there]

While its lack of bright costumes is an inevitable outcome of its premise (these mutants can’t afford to stand out), the show is not afraid to be big and colourful about its powers. Polaris’ bright green magnetism and Eclipse’s white-hot sunlight beams combine during an especially romantic sequence to recreate the Northern Lights. The likes of Blink, Thunderbird and Dreamer are all afforded visually potent incarnations of what could easily be non-visual powers (teleportation, tracking and memory magic) and the Strucker twins even get to have some cool moments of their own. Andy rips things apart. Lauren forms binding forcefields. Together, they’re able to see through the same eyes and bring down even the most hardened structures at a molecular level. It’s kind of awesome.

Percy Hynes White and Natalie Alyn Lind as Andy & Lauren Strucker

At its core, The Gifted is about doing what’s right. Not in black & white terms, but rather figuring out what the right thing is in the most complex situations. Every episode hinges on this, imbuing conflicting character viewpoints with a sense of urgency wherein the stakes are state-sanction torture, normalized through the kind of institutional demonization that turns well-meaning neighbors into gun-toting fanatics. It’s worth catching up on, if you’re willing to get past the fact that the pilot was directed by Bryan Singer. His involvement beyond that appears to be in-name-only; one assumes he’ll soon be dropped given recent allegations against him.

While the show still maintains the familiar X-Men blind spot of an ostensible queer metaphor without a single queer character (thus far), it maintains a stunning consistency between episodes, never dropping in quality and slipping up only once in the most minor fashion, that too in service of telling a complex story (the mechanics around the memory implantation seem reversible but are conveniently never availed of). Its dedication to both its teen and adult characters and their viewpoints is a worthy successor to a legacy of live-action adaptations spanning nearly two decades. What’s more, it falls towards the very top of that list, feeling like the most accurate translation of the comics at their most nakedly political.

The Gifted is the kind of “show we need right now” show that’s relevant without resorting to black-and-while pandering, opting instead to dig into the nuances, betrayals and redemptions of every single character while centering the widely varying effects that persecution has on them. It’s a show that’s unflinching in its portrayal of systemic persecution, and one in which nearly every viewpoint on the side of “right” feels justified, making good on the promise of a modern, complex X-Men saga that fills the void of the recently departed original class of movie mutants –  both by staying the course, and by making up for lost narrative opportunities. It’s a treat for comic fans, and one of the best genre shows going.