When Hollywood movies depict mutated human beings — sometimes beautifully, grotesquely, or bizarrely transformed in appearance from the Homo sapiens norm — they draw upon traditions that are thousands of years old. Throughout recorded history, human myths, legends, and folktales have described recognisably anthropomorphic beings that nonetheless deviate from species-typical human morphology and/or possess greater than human powers.
Sometimes we also find them in travellers' tales and natural histories, which describe strange, yet humanlike, beings that dwell somewhere beyond the well-mapped places — perhaps, for pre-modern Europeans, in exotic regions of Africa or Asia — or beyond all maps in unknown lands, in Terra Incognita. These days, Terra Incognita is more likely to be another planet than an inaccessible part of the Earth, though the more literal idea of an unknown land on our own planet has not been lost entirely, as with the various versions of King Kong and the extraordinary killer apes in Michael Crichton's novel Congo and its movie adaptation.
The eternally-fascinating idea of a powerful quasi-human creature took its first recognisably science-fictional manifestation in the early decades of the nineteenth century, when Mary Shelley's Frankenstein depicted the use of science to manufacture life — the famous monster.
As described by Shelley, Victor Frankenstein has researched magical and similar lore before turning to science, and he exercises a power that had previously (in many earlier narratives) been portrayed as the domain of magicians or even gods. He is, indeed, a figure of Prometheus, bringing new powers to the human realm, but a quintessentially modern Prometheus, as intimated in the book's sub-title, one whose dubious gift (as Shelley portrays it) is the fire of science.
Then the idea of mutation gained in scientific rigour and credibility, opening up enormous possibilities for narratives of super powers and scientifically-rationalised transformations. Early-twentieth-century scientists began to speculate that spontaneous mutation of life forms played a role in the evolution of species, providing biologist with a far more powerful account of how natural selection could operate (since natural selection needs a source of differences, as well as environmental features that select some differences rather than others, and a coding mechanism by which "successful" variations can be passed on to later generations).
Biological science took a dramatic step forward in 1927, when H.J. Muller used irradiation to bring about mutations in fruit flies. The possibility of doing something similar to other animals, and particularly human beings, seized the imaginations of many story-tellers.
Stories of mutated humans first became common in the science fiction magazines of the 1930s, with mutation often providing a rationalisation for narratives that described the exploits of superhumans. Of the many science-fictional tales from the 1930s that concerned superhuman beings, Olaf Stapledon's novel Odd John (1935) is surely the best-known today and one of the finest of its kind ever written. Arguably, it was not equalled until the 1950s publication of More than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon. Here, Sturgeon depicts a group of mutants with psychic powers who can merge minds and form a single "gestalt" being of great power.
The explosion of the first atomic bombs in the 1940s, followed by continued nuclear testing in the 1940s and '50s, led to an even greater focus on genetic mutation in science fiction stories and movies. Among the mainstays of 1950s film were mutated monsters, such as the giant ants of Them! (1954). From this time, we see many more tales of mutated animals and humans. These include monsters, superheroes, supervillains, and freaks who belong readily to none of these categories but may nonetheless have strange powers.
Quite early in the history of narratives about superhuman mutants, authors saw the possibility that a superior race or species might be subjected to persecution and forced to struggle. This theme is present in A. E. Van Vogt's Slan (which started to be serialized in 1940), and has since become most prominent in the popular X-Men comic book, television, and movie, franchise (which commenced in the first X-Men comics in 1963).
In the world of X-Men, some mutants, most notably the charismatic and vastly powerful Magneto, seek world domination, whether out of personal megalomania or from a sense that this is the only way to survive the persecutorial tendencies of Homo sapiens. Magneto himself shows mixed motives, but his undoubted megalomania has been induced, in part, by persecutions that he suffered even before his powers developed fully. By contrast, the X-Men attempt to protect humanity and bring about a reconciliation of Homo sapiens and Homo superior.
An important feature of the X-Men universe is that the mutants are not presented with repugnance or fear — indeed, the fear of mutants expressed by many ordinary humans within the diegesis turns out to be counter-productive. When mutants are persecuted, it provokes some of the most dangerously powerful mutants to schemes of domination and revenge.
Most notably, the storyline is open to symbolic interpretions, according to which it is not about mutations and super powers at all, but about the persecution of minorities. Read in this way, the mutants can be analogues for many kinds of oppressed groups (such as African Americans, Jews, and homosexuals), and the many writers who have worked with the franchise have brought out these comparisons quite explicitly.
At the same time, the mutants can be read simply as social misfits and isolates — not unlike young people who read comic books and science fiction, and are frequently stigmatised as "nerds". For them (speaking here from observation and personal experience), even the "evil" mutants have a certain allure, and the battles between "good" and "evil" mutants function as a rather harmless power fantasy. Of course, Van Vogt's work depends on similar kind of identification by the readership: hence one half-mocking, half-serious catch-phrase of science fiction fandom, "Fans are Slans."
Popular culture is somewhat divided in its presentation of mutated humans, emphasising both that the idea is "cool" and that such beings could be dangerous to the rest of us who lack their powers. Here's an interesting discussion of Hollywood's depiction of superhuman or posthuman beings more generally, written by Charlie Jane Anders (with some interesting discussion in the comments that follow). Among other points, Anders suggests that the X-Men movies are something of an anomaly in Hollywood; their relatively sympathetic depiction of the superhuman mutants, who are their main characters, is atypical. Other Hollywood images of mutated human beings, so Anders argues, show them to be monstrous and dangerous, with no overt equivocation about it. Indeed, the most sympathetic Hollywood images of posthuman beings are those whose origin can be traced to superhero comics.
I'm sure that Anders is correct about this, and it's easily explicable. After all, there's plenty of fear in any community about others who may, for one reason or another, be disruptive of ordinary assumptions about how the world works. Give those suspicious "others" great powers, and they become even more troubling. At the same time, Hollywood seeks to entertain by the presentation of conflict, danger, and suspense, so it is always likely to depict anything new as dangerous, rather than innocuous or beneficial.
Yet Hollywood also gives a certain glamorous, alluring, "cool" quality to whatever science-fictional innovations it portrays, often cancelling out (all or much of) the technophobia implicit in its cultural products. As I and others have remarked in the past, the technologically-created dinosaurs of Jurassic Park and its sequels actually end up seeming more cool than they are dangerous, and much the same applies to the grim, merciless, unhesitatingly homicidal cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator.
For reasons like these, Hollywood's anti-mutant war is a rather equivocal one after all — covertly, if not overtly, it tends to produce a sub-text that mutants are cool as well as dangerous (as are cyborgs, robots, modern-day dinosaurs, and aliens from space). In this sense, its texts are at war with themselves as much as with science and technology, and (short of some kind of large-scale sociological study) it can be difficult to gauge the net effect on audiences. The technophobic elements may predominate on balance — at least some of the time, or even much of the time — and they are certainly worth exposing and challenging, but the sub-text of techno-allure is also worth our attempts to trace and understand. There's much room for sensitive discussion and exploration of Hollywood's ambiguous war against the mutants.