The Critical Angle is a recurring feature that uses critical thinking and skepticism to analyze pop culture phenomena. Rather than repeating the same old arguments, we put them to the test.
Today, religious studies scholar David Canham brings his background to bear on the question everyone’s been asking.
The current Krakoan era of X-men has been filled with uncanny religious undertones and symbolism since its creation by Jonathan Hickman in the ground-breaking House of X/Powers of X series. Krakoa is a mutant Garden of Eden, Charles Xavier is backing up mutants’ souls in Cerebro, forgiveness has been granted to the worst sinners, Moira MacTaggert has the mutant power of reincarnation, the Five give the gift of resurrection, and the list goes on. One could easily interpret the mutant society on Krakoa as a religious group actually living out their hoped-for goal of eternal paradise here on Earth.
But a lot of these religious undertones felt subtly but unmistakably off. I couldn’t ignore the red flags signaling that the mutant community on Krakoa might be a form of religious cult, which just seemed puzzling. Why would Hickman turn the protagonists of his story, the super heroes we should be rooting for, into something like that?
But much has happened since House of X/Powers of X. So let’s look at four major telltale signs of religious cults, how Hickman’s Krakoa originally did or did not fit these criteria, and whether things have changed.
1. The charismatic and infallible cult leader
The first and most prominent warning sign of a religious cult is the adored charismatic leader who’s become the unquestioned source of all power. Sometimes he (cult leaders are most often men) claims to be a prophet, the sole recipient of God’s revelation. Sometimes he claims to be the returned Messiah or God himself. The problem lies in his absolute authority over everything, including all teachings and decisions. In the worst cases, he completely controls the lives of every cult member.
On Krakoa, it’s made abundantly clear that the new mutant paradise is the house that Xavier built. The creative team’s depiction of Xavier in House of X/Powers of X strays too far from benevolent head of state into the territory of disturbing cult-leader — a charismatic, seemingly good-natured, but secretly manipulative person who holds absolute, unquestioned authority over his followers, and is worshiped by them as a god-figure. Xavier’s depiction throughout House of X/Powers of X is disquieting, even creepy at times. He never takes off the Cerebro-helmet, which literally keeps him connected to the souls of every mutant on Krakoa.
After House of X/Powers of X, Xavier’s appearance and the extent of his authority were tempered a bit. But he still almost never takes off Cerebro and retains his role as father- or god-figure. Only with the recent Inferno series has Xavier lost a fair amount of his unquestioned authority, with certain secrets and manipulations coming to light, followed by the increasing political power of other Krakoan mutants. Xavier losing his absolute power on Krakoa might just be a good thing.
2. Unquestioned devotion enforced through manipulation
Again, the main goal of the cult-leader is maintaining absolute control over his followers. He normally achieves this through manipulation, most often emotional and psychological. A cult member must be completely devoted to the cult and is prohibited from leaving the fold.
This might be the one element of a cult that hasn’t appeared too strongly on Krakoa. Not much manipulation is needed to convince someone to live in paradise. And I can’t think of any mutants being forced to stay on Krakoa against their wishes.
At most, I see examples of normally strong-willed and independent characters who seem a little too passionately devoted to the goals of mutantdom (i.e. Xavier’s goals). Storm comes to mind, especially when she leads the very religious celebration of the X-Men’s resurrection in House of X #5, or how she talks about the mutant struggle against humanity in Hickman’s X-Men #1.
Also, I found Xavier’s practice of referring to all mutants as his sons and daughters a bit unsettling. Especially in House of X #3, Xavier uses the bond of family to emotionally manipulate Cyclops (an orphan) into the decision to lead the X-Men’s suicide mission against Orchis. Religious cults often use this kind of emotional manipulation as a means of control.
Once again, after House of X/Powers of X, scenes of obvious emotional or psychological manipulation used to directly control a mutant’s devotion to Krakoa disappear almost completely. But Xavier, Magneto, and Moira have continued to manipulate events occurring from behind the scenes, using lots of deception, which we’ll see shortly.
3. Exclusivism and isolationism
Cults generally screen very closely who exactly is allowed to join, what beliefs they hold, what they look like and how they act. They then isolate them from all others who do not share their views or practices. This strict controlling of who’s in and who’s not reinforces an “Us vs. Them” mentality, in order to fortify the devotion of the followers.
Krakoa has been isolationist and exclusive from the outset. The very purpose of Krakoa in the Hickman era is to be an island nation for mutants and only mutants. Magneto explains this to the human ambassadors in House of X #1. “The island, you see, is ours. And ours alone,” he says. “Man is not welcome there.” On Krakoa, mutants have founded a mutant society with a mutant culture, mutant laws, mutant language, mutant teachings, etc. Anything “human” is generally looked down upon.
As the X-line of comics has developed since House of X/Powers of X, not much has changed in this regard. A few humans, mostly the romantic partners or family members of mutants, have been allowed to live on Krakoa. Otherwise, the mutant paradise is still unyieldingly exclusive to mutants, and is isolated from humanity. That’s its purpose. And recent changes in the power structure of Krakoa make me think that the “Us vs. Them” or “mutant vs. human” mentality will only take a stronger hold.
4. Deception and secrets
On the one hand, the religious teachings are often considered to be “secret knowledge” exclusive to the cult. But in a more sinister way, the cult-leadership must also maintain a level of secrecy and deception. After all, there normally is no truth behind their teachings, their claims of visions or messages from God, nor in their promises of paradise and salvation. Either the cult leader himself is insane, actually believing his own fantasies, or (as is most often the case) he’s actively manipulating his followers with lies.
Unfortunately, the establishment of the sovereign mutant nation of Krakoa is similarly built upon a foundation of lies and manipulation. Moira, Xavier, and Magneto all withhold important truths from everyone else, including Moira being a mutant, her power of reincarnation, what’s happened in her previous lives, her fake death, and her current integral involvement in Krakoa’s development.
Furthermore, even while he was one of their worst enemies, Xavier and Magneto made a secret pact with Mr. Sinister, helping him collect the DNA of every mutant. In other important scenes, Xavier and Magneto scheme with Mystique in secret, even as they scheme against her behind her back. As Magneto says in Powers of X #6, “We’re all up to something, Moira …”
For most of the Krakoa-era of X-Men, the inner circle of Moira, Xavier, and Magneto have been able to keep their deceptions secret, until the aforementioned Inferno story. Bringing a cult leader’s lies and deceptions into the open almost always leads to a huge upheaval, if not a complete dismantling of the religious cult. We’re still waiting to see how the events of Inferno will affect the future of Krakoa.
So, did Hickman turn the X-Men into a cult? Probably not. But he definitely included enough unsettling religious symbolism and imagery at the beginning of his run in House of X/Powers of X that the comparison feels justified. Xavier especially, always wearing that creepy Cerebro helmet, continues to give off serious cult leader vibes.
I think Hickman included these elements while building the mutants’ new world on Krakoa in order to seed doubts in the readers mind. I’m just still not sure what, if anything, has grown from these seeds. With Hickman’s exit (or pause) from the X-Men books, maybe we’ll never see a return of these cult undertones.
To conclude this essay, an appeal: if you have doubts about the religious group you belong to, pursue your questions to the end. Be patient; don’t feel the need to give up on your faith completely as soon as worries arise. But do ask difficult questions and demand satisfying answers. Look into your belief systems and read the scriptures yourself. Seek counsel from multiple sources.
Be wary if you encounter a religious leader who holds absolute authority and requires unfaltering and unquestioning trust. Be especially wary if those you seek advice from attempt to discipline or otherwise manipulate you into ignoring your doubts. The truth will stand up under scrutiny. Lies will unravel when challenged. Most importantly, come to your own conclusions and make your own choices.
Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture.
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