One of the theatrical trailers for X2: X-Men United made it clear that at least part of the film's action would be taking place at Dr. Xavier's School for the Gifted, the secret school in Westchester County, New York, at which mutant children are taught to harness and use their mutant powers. And at one particularly exciting moment in the trailer, the camera zooms in on a young boy, maybe 11 or 12 years old, his brown hair tousled with nervousness and his eyeglasses askew — he's clearly terrified as the school comes under attack by antimutant forces. The first thing that popped into my head at the sight of this wide-eyed preteen was: "Oh, no! Harry Potter went to the wrong school!"
I said it out loud in at a multiplex screening room packed with a geeky crowd there to see some genre blockbuster, and I got lots of laughter in response. The visual reference on the part of the X-Men filmmakers (as well as on the part of the trailer creator, who typically has no connection to or direction from the filmmaker) was, I have no doubt, deliberate, a treat thrown to fans, partly because Harry is his own huge phenomenon who would be instantly recognizable to fans. But there's another reason why Harry — and the idea of Harry at Xavier's — would tickle the overlapping audience for both Harry Potter and X-Men films:
School failed many science fiction fans.
It's almost a requirement of fandom: fans of serious SF tend to be pretty darn smart and intellectually curious, and kids like that are well down the righthand slope of the bell curve, well beyond the middle range of the curve that most schools are equipped to deal with. It's a sad irony for those smart, curious kids, because a school should be the one place where their particular hunger could be nourished. It's probably why many of us ending up discovering SF in the first place: it engaged our minds in a way that our schooling wasn't able to do.
So fantasies about schools for very special, very gifted kids — places that embrace and encourage their uniqueness and extraordinary talents, places at which those kids aren't the freaks but the stars — are practically fine-tuned to appeal to us. Who wouldn't want to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry or Xavier's School for the Gifted and have our specialness celebrated instead — as was most likely the case for the vast majority of people who self-identify as science-fiction fans — derided or, at best, ignored? Magical ability and mutant powers are but metaphors for simply being too damn smart to fit into the one-size-fits-all approach of mass education... and, it should be noted, even these fantasy worlds recognize that those with extraordinary talents are very rarely gladly received by the general populace: Hogwarts and Xavier's (or at least the real purpose of Xavier's) are secrets jealousy kept from the world at large. (The recent, and agreeable, film Sky High, about the school for the children of superheroes, at which, of course, their powers are nourished and honed, must be kept so hidden that it floats high in the atmosphere on a platform that can be moved as needed.)
Our educational experiences were, perhaps, more like that depicted in the 1999 film October Sky, which isn't SF but nevertheless is of immense appeal to SF fans. It's science fact, about the teenhood of real-life future rocket scientist Homer Hickam in a small coal-mining town in West Virginia, where a young man like Homer (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is expected to go into his father's line of work — coal mining, of course — and not get uppity ideas about getting above his station and dreaming grander dreams of a life that's been perfectly fine for his family for generations. Many of us, though, may have also had a teacher like Homer's (here played by Laura Dern) who encouraged us in our dreams nevertheless.
That may have been the best we could have hoped for out of high school — one or two teachers who recognized our talents and made time to aid and abet us in our intellectual nonconformity. For even some of the movies we love do not exactly offer positive portraits of smart, bored geeks taking educational matters into their own hands. In 1986's The Manhattan Project, a precocious teen builds an atomic bomb for a science fair, partly for the challenge of acquiring the fissionable material and partly to show how easy it is to do once you've gotten over that tough spot. I love this film and tend to see the bomb-building teen as something of a hero; the film itself is less enamored of him. The similarly themed WarGames, from 1983, is about a smart, bored teen who breaks into government computer and accidentally starts a nuclear war; I empathize with him a lot more than the film does, and I suspect lots of other people who were once smart, bored teens feel the same way.
Brainy kids fare a little better in 1985's Real Genius, in which they get to extend a little smackdown to those who would take advantage of their intelligence and enthusiasm. But for every film like 1969's The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, a silly comedy about a supersmart college student who thwarts local gangsters, there's a Harrison Bergeron, the 1995 cable movie about a young man whose intelligence exceeds government-dictated limits; for every Charly, from 1968, which celebrates intelligence and the pleasures of learning and intellectual pursuits, there's something like 1989's Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, which is about the intellectual misadventures of two sweet but very dumb high-school students who manage to ace a school project not in spite of their stupidity but because of it — the film is admittedly a cinematic delight, but that only adds a stamp of approval on "uncomplicated" stupidity.
Which SF film best approaches the SF fan's understanding of what our schooling really was? It could well be, very depressingly, 1997's Starship Troopers, the satiric flick in which schools and military academies are nothing but factories for churning out good little conformist soldiers that would do society's bidding cheerfully and unthinkingly. We may have escaped the worst of the brainwashing... but we almost certainly recognized that that was what was going on around us in the classroom.