Pop Cultural Identity Management: X-Men – Part One

xmen-days poster

X-Men: Days of Future Past, on every level, is about identity.

June is Multi-Modal Month here at findBIOMETRICS which, as we explored in the featured primer, is a celebration of diversity. This being the case, all month in Pop Cultural Identity Management we will be looking at a film franchise that doesn’t only feature a multitude of scenes containing biometric technology but also has diversity and uniqueness at it’s thematic core.

I am speaking of the X-Men film franchise, the most recent entry of which – X-Men: Days of Future Past – is still in North American movie theaters. Today I am just going to look at this newest superhero movie and how it portrays biometric technology.
In part two I will look back at X-2: X-Men United and X-Men First Class (the two most popular franchise entries) and talk not just about the examples of strong authentication, but also the over aching themes of identity and how they can be applied to our industry.

Gifted Youngsters

Let’s start off with some background on X-Men. Essentially boiling down to a parable about human diversity and the fight for equality, the story revolves around the conflict faced between regular humans and an emerging population of mutated people with the eponymous “x-gene.”

Mutants with the x-gene have special abilities that create identity-defining superpowers. A particularly powerful and compassionate mutant named Charles Xavier (or in more appropriate comic book tradition, Professor X) begins a private boarding school to foster the unique abilities that would frighten the non-mutant population.

(This movie trailer also does an excellent job of summarizing the general idea behind what on paper sounds like a ridiculous sci-fi thrill ride) 

In X-Men: Days of Future Past this problem of discrimination has lead to a not too distant future in which mutants are being hunted down by killer machines that can target the gifted youngsters and their professors based on remote DNA biometric sensors.

This is a technology that is not only horrifying in its genocidal implication, but incredibly fantastical. The current DNA and genetic scanning technology still requires that a physical sample of hair, blood or skin, and even though this kind of biometrics is making incredible advances all the time, there is nothing short of Hollywood magic that could allow for automated, long distance scanning.

Days of Future Past takes place around the year 2020, so clearly something went terribly wrong in the past. In order to course correct the timeline, putting history onto a path where miraculous DNA scanning technology isn’t being used to hunt down and kill special people, Kitty Pryde (a mutant played by Ellen Page) sends Wolverine (Hugh Jackman)’s consciousness to the 1970’s so that he can prevent a public misunderstanding from leading to the construction of the sentinels.

It all turns out even crazier than it sounds.

Technologies of Future, Days of Past

In the 1970’s Hugh Jackman finds himself surrounded by biometric technologies that are only now becoming commonplace in the real world. Two instances in the film feature access control security systems, both guarding items important to the plot.

It is here that I would like to invoke this blog’s defining mantra: there is nothing interesting about a locked door.

This idea finds itself manifesting in two ways: one in which a multifactor iris/face recognition system works perfectly, and another where a mutant uses her identity-themed x-factor to spoof past a fingerprint sensor, gaining access to government classified documents.

Both of the technologies here are far too advanced for the period, but having this technology in the 70’s does go a long way in explaining the dark miracle of the DNA scanning solution mentioned above.

Let’s look at the “everything is working” case first. The Professor X of the past needs access to a vault containing another fantasy technology (similar to the remote genetic scanning of the genocidal robots) that will help him find a mutant using his token psychic powers. Misuse of this device can lead to nightmarish consequences (more on that in Part Two), and it needs to be only accessible to the most heroically responsible characters in the movie.

If Professor X has to re-authenticate because of a false read on his eyes or face, a superhero melodrama turns into a comedy. The super serious scene turns into something quirky and out of place (like the breathprint false rejection we examined in Alien: Ressurrection).

In contrast, earlier in the movie a shape shifting mutant named Mystique needs access into the movie villain’s secret vault containing plot-important information. If any other character ran into the barrier of the villain’s (incredibly advanced for the 1970’s) fingerprint access control terminal then audiences would again be watching actors with ridiculous names hum and haw about how to break in, probably eventually getting caught while trying to MacGyver a wood glue spoof over enemy lines.

Instead, because there is nothing interesting about a locked door, Mystique shape shifts her thumb and spoofs the sensor, avoiding cinematic death by boredom.

Secret Identities

In just the most recent X-Men movie there are at least these three instances of biometric technology. As a film franchise about identity-based conflict it is very appropriate that biometrics factor in to the plot so often.

In two weeks, we will take a look at other examples of this in two more X-Men films, while also digging a bit deeper into what these movies have to say about the public’s fear of being measured by technology.


Do you have a favorite instance of biometrics in pop culture you would like to see in this blog? Contact Peter B. Counter through the findBIOMETRICS about page and let him know via email.

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