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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.

My copy of this comic book sits in a basement in Chicago

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.

June 6, 2011 - Posted by | Monday Movies, race | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I totally agree with you — there are a lot of things that should be done in a high-quality serial form now that inexplicably aren’t. What if HBO had done Harry Potter instead of trying to shoehorn everything into a few movies, for instance? (I haven’t read Harry Potter or watched the movies, but others who are fans agree with my assessment.)

    This weekend, we tried to watch The Town and got only a half hour into it before The Girlfriend brought forward a “life is finite”-style argument against finishing it. It felt kind of like they were trying to rewrite The Wire in Boston, with Ben Affleck as the ambivalent Stringer Bell. The most fun part was throwing out Good Will Hunting lines at appropriate moments — for instance, when the hostage is assured that “it’s not your fault,” I yelled out, “Don’t do this to me, man!”

    (Speaking of which, that is seriously the most incomprehensible scene in the history of cinema.)

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | June 6, 2011

  2. The talking basketball ate my movies

    5/30/11 – Crazed Fruit – Ko Nakahira 1956
    5/31/11 – Too Big to Fail – HBO
    6/01/11 – Animal Kingdom – Aus 2010
    6/04/11 – Akitsu Springs – Yoshida 1962

    I am interested in superhero stories only as a horrible sociological phenomenon. Silverberg’s Dying Inside answered everything about power fantasies 40 years ago:extraordinary talent embraced as identity is alienating, tawdry, and pathetic.
    Social Network…well, artists with heroic fantasies like to keep revisiting this theme ad fucking nauseum. Tolstoy, Philoctetes. So why does this banal adolescent anxiety need to be amped up to 1111 in post-capitalist America? It physically hurts me to try to care.

    Comment by bob mcmanus | June 6, 2011

  3. i watched three French comedies or drama, can’t tell, _Wild grass_, _Leaving_, an old one with Alain Delon, ah, _L’eclisse_
    should edit my netflix queue to make it kids friendly

    Comment by read | June 6, 2011

  4. I, too, saw X-Men: First Class. After the third movie, I was afraid the series had played out and was surprised my wife suggested it. But I thought it was at least as good as X Men 2. It certainly seems like they trip a bit over timelines and storylines if this is supposed to be the same “universe” as the first three movies, but who really cares about that? I enjoyed seeing Xavier show some weaknesses throughout and a less serious side in the beginning.

    Also, this is a bit of a spoiler, but did they really have the brother die first? Is that like a Hollywood joke now where it’s a cliche that has turned into an anti-cliche or something?

    I like the idea to explore more serials. There are a lot of storylines in these movies that seem like significant subplots that get resolved in a sentence or two. In making the movies, I can’t really blame them because this one was already 131 minutes but it’d be nice to see more patient storytelling.

    Comment by Matt in Toledo | June 6, 2011

  5. Seriously, about Darwin. At least when House fired him, he took 8 episodes to do it.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | June 6, 2011

  6. “The Cape” was a legitimate failure–speaking of TV shows serialized as comic books. But then, it was an hourlong NBC drama. Aren’t CW shows exactly what is being called for? I mean stuff like “Supernatural,” “Smallville” and “Vampire Diaries”? As I keep saying every week, “Game of Thrones” is great (more proof that if Peter Dinklage doesn’t win all the awards he is eligible for that the entire world is absolutely stupid; even the guy who plays Robb was pretty good this week): I don’t see why a series of short episodes wouldn’t work for something like “Harry Potter.” Done, of course, with an appropriate budget and sufficiently talented writers, directors, etc.

    We watched the most recent “Resident Evil” movie. Incoherent, as to be expected, but what was really great–and we didn’t know going into the movie–was that Michael Scofield essentially reprised his role as Michael Scofield. I hope he did this for the irony (or whatever) rather than because his life is that sad.

    I hope none of the above was unjustly “arrogant.” I wouldn’t want to offend anyone’s frail sensibilities.

    Comment by Craig | June 6, 2011

  7. Yglesias gets it succinctly, as is his mutant power.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | June 8, 2011

  8. Someone on one of the many podcasts I listened to yesterday commented that one reason superhero movies tend to suck is that they always spend a ton of time on the origin story, which is usually the least interesting part of the superhero comic. And then they compound the problem by continually going back and “rebooting” the franchise to tell the origin story again.

    Whatever else you thought of Smallville, it certainly forced the writers to move the heck on from the origin story eventually.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | June 8, 2011

  9. Is it not the case that traditionally, origin stories tended to come up only after the characters were established?

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | June 8, 2011

  10. Are there any superhero stories where an explanation of origins is steadfastly refused? Not on the level of a conspiracy–say, like Wolverines bones and claws–but on the level of completely refusing the legitimacy of the question itself?

    Comment by Craig | June 9, 2011

  11. That was the great running joke in Dark Knight — every time the Joker introduced himself, he gave a different origin story. Of course, it was done with a villain, but are there any heroes that have enough of a trickster quality that would allow that kind of thing?

    Comment by Josh K-sky | June 9, 2011

  12. They haven’t bothered with an origin story yet in Chew, but I suppose that’s not a mainstream superhero. Grant Morrison’s Animal Man turned the whole origin question in on itself in its extended metafictional dismantling of the comic book world. Swamp Thing had an origin at one point, but then dismissed that origin as secondary to Swamp Thing’s eternal earth elemental nature. But then by that logic Thor doesn’t have an origin either, and I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about.

    Actually, the X-Men themselves, in their comic versions, didn’t really have an origin story that I can remember, at least not in the sense of how they got their powers. They were just born with them.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | June 11, 2011

  13. Habitues of the Weblog are encouraged to review “Big Josh” Malbin’s opinions and recommedations on comics.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | June 11, 2011

  14. […] as a way of bypassing the usual pitfalls of origin stories, this is simply brilliant. It provides an inarguable logic for choosing our hero and gets it out of […]

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