You Want Monday Movies to Accept You. But You Can’t Even Accept Yourself.
X-Men: First Class is very enjoyable much of the time. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are fun to watch as optimistic Xavier and vengeful Magneto. Matthew Vaughn’s mise-en-scene makes the most of the plot’s anchor in the Cuban Missile Crisis (revealed as an instigation by evil mutants) and connects the dots with a light and sexy Jet Age touch. January Jones looks exactly right as Emma Frost, although it’s hard not to hear a little bit of Betty Draper’s insecure petulance creep through in a wrong note. Some of the minor characters are wonderful — Caleb Landry Jones plays Banshee as a sloppy, rotten doofus having nothing but fun as he gets a grip on his powers. The training montage is refreshing, dominated by Xavier’s winsome pep talks, which demonstrate a smart aspect of his characterization: raised in spectacular abundance, he has the luxury of seeing the best in people.
The X-Men stories have always stood above the superhero scrum because of the mutants’ analogy to civil rights and the excluded and oppressed everywhere. This edition is no different, but it often bends off pitch, ricocheting between coy references (Xavier “outs” Beast in front of his employer, prompting the joke, “you didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell”) and heavy-handed thematic pronouncements. Mystique’s story is the strongest demonstration of this theme: when Magneto praises her in her mutant form, she recognizes that she’s never gotten that unqualified love from Xavier, whose kindness has always come attached to the requirement that she fit in.
Like all analogies, the equation of mutants to blacks or gays frays at the edges. I haven’t gone back to the books as an adult, but one of the things that creeps out in the movies is that Magneto’s Malcolm X may have the stronger side of the argument with Xavier’s MLK. Humans always do want to suppress or exterminate mutants. The humans may even have a better argument than Xavier: there doesn’t seem to be any way to prevent mutants from asserting violent superiority. This is the brute fact on which the longstanding X-Men books’ civil rights analogy must ultimately scuff its knee. “Gay marriage hurts straight marriage” is a much harder proposition to demonstrate than “beings with infinite mastery over magnetism threaten public safety.” It occurs to me that the only way out is through: what would it look like for there to be a pro-mutant non-violent civil disobedience movement? To really double down on Xavier as a practitioner of ahimsa. I would also like to see them pick up the original X-Factor storyline, where the original X-Men go into business under cover of being mutant control operatives.
Seeing the movie brought me to revisit my general disaffection from comic book superhero movies. In response, a friend commented, “If you didn’t like X-Men 2, I kind of think you just don’t like superhero comic books [...] it’s a well-plotted action movie with generally well-used characters and some solid emotional arcs. It’s basically as good as a classic superhero comic book gets.” But I do like superhero comic books! Just not, all that much, the movies. X2 had a few good bits — I remember admiring the high level of body count — but it doesn’t stick in my mind as a favorite. I had to ask myself if I had outgrown action movies in general. I found that I lose interest when the stakes grow too large. If the world hangs in the balance, then I want to see true mythic reach, as in the Lord of the Rings series. That’s a hard note to hit with men-in-tights. I suspect the answer is small screen, long form. Comic books are serials. Let’s give them a few more chances in a properly serial visual medium. Heroes Season 1 was terrific; the ratio of saving-the-cheerleader to saving-the-world was appropriately high. Powers looks promising; producer Charles Eglee’s credits include Dexter, which may be properly considered as a superhero serial.
By the time the climactic battle of X-Men: First Class rolls around, the movie has shed its light touch and proceeded into full bombast mode. The themes of mutant acceptance and the underlying clash at the heart of Xavier and Magneto’s friendship get stated and restated after perfectly valid demonstrations. The score follows suit. This is a movie that builds a great store of goodwill before exhausting it. I think that feature-length storytelling is the problem.
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