by Thom Yee
Remember childhood? Baseball? Dinosaurs? Weird Al? Those things you were supposed to like seemingly just because you were a kid, but you really never liked them at all? For me, a comic-book-nerd kid, X-Men was that thing (though I didn’t like those other things either). To me, the appeal of the X-Men never reached beyond the obvious attraction of a bunch of cool-looking characters with different powers. While that was cool, I always liked the Avengers and Justice League-related characters a lot more, and I think that’s down to the fact that I could buy in to the basic idea of standing up for truth and justice more than I could X-Men’s persecutional allegory. I can see it’s there, it’s a conceptual characteristic very obviously worn proudly and prominently by the series, and it’s apparently a big part of why the franchise has reached so many people, but I just never felt it. I just never understood the central conceit that people in the Marvel universe would draw a line between mutants born with powers and people who got them from serums or accidents or suits of armour. They both have powers; they’re both saving lives and fighting bad guys; why would it matter how they got their powers?
The best X-Men stories that I’ve read (mostly from the Grant Morrison era) were really just great stories regardless of the persecutory aspects, and I never considered the allegory any more than I acknowledged but didn’t care about Colossus being Russian, Wolverine being Canadian, or Beast being a big, blue fur ball (okay, the blue fur is the main thing that makes Beast awesome, so yeah, I did think about that a little bit). The X-Men stories that I like(d) were and are enjoyed almost entirely on a superhero level, and I’ve never cared about any deeper meanings in the franchise. X-Men: First Class still hasn’t convinced me otherwise, but that’s okay, I don’t know if anything would.
So anyway… It’s the summer of 2011. Thor had just opened, Captain America was coming, and Green Lantern was going to give us our first taste of the new era of DC movies. There was a lot of comic book stuff going on, so much so that the world almost forgot about X-Men: First Class. Maybe because it wasn’t tied in to the quickly building overall Avengers universe, maybe because X-Men: The Last Stand (not to mention X-Men Origins: Wolverine) kind of ruined things for everyone, but whatever the reason, it’s almost insane to think that an X-Men movie starring Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, and Kevin Bacon is as ignored and forgotten as it is.
And that’s too bad — it’s the best one.
We open on young Erik Lehnsherr being torn away from his family, concentration-camp-style, a scene exactly mirroring the opening of the first X-Men, right down to the grey tones and camera angles, only expanded this time to reveal the presence of Nazi Kevin Bacon, a.k.a. Sebastian Shaw. Right from the first scene there’s a strong example of what comic fans have railed against the films as a whole: the producers really, really mix up the source material, cherry picking whatever they like from the mythology with no regard for the long-term storytelling consequences. While moves like refitting Sebastian Shaw (who’s not that great a villain anyway) or making Professor X and Mystique surrogate siblings since childhood don’t fundamentally break the overall structure, they do make it hard to maintain story integrity.
Most of you should know that First Class is the film origin story of the overarching X-Men universe, and so we see the childhood and early days of Charles Xavier (Professor X), Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) and the first X-Men team: Mystique, the shapeshifter; Havok, the blaster; Banshee, the screamer; Darwin, the guy who (supposedly) adapts to survive; Angel, the bug-winged fireball spitter; and Beast, the guy with big feet. At this point, Charles’ and Erik’s agendas are somewhat in sync, and so the natural villain role is filled by Sebastian Shaw (Nazi Kevin Bacon who can absorb energy) and his underlings, Azazel (think Nightcrawler, but red instead of blue), Riptide (foreign tornado guy with no lines), and Emma Frost (telepath/mutant who couldn’t sell her lines if her life depended on it). Also, humans Moira MacTaggert and an unnamed CIA agent (seriously, his credited role is “Man in Black Suit”) stand around doing human things like getting killed and/or nothing we care about.
Of all the choices the producers made, the most brilliant (or ‘canny, if you will) was setting the story in the ‘60s during a real and important historical event — the Cuban Missile Crisis. You don’t need a thorough understanding of old-timey America-Russian relations (plus the crisis’ name is somewhat self-explanatory), but it’s an interesting twist on the story that acknowledges the ‘60s-based origins of the characters and gives the whole thing a little more weight. It’s intriguing to consider that this is one of the only continuing superhero stories that counts (i.e., not just an alternate-universe) that stretches its story across a large amount of time. Most of the in-continuity Marvel and DC superhero stories we read operate under the [increasingly ridiculous] notion that superheroes have only been around for the last ten years or so (and this is on a continuously sliding timeline, meaning that there were no superheroes during 9/11 or “Web 2.0”, or, say if/when we get to 2019, when Barack Obama was elected). Also it’s an excuse to dress the stars in ‘60s fashion, a cultural artifact so transcendentally cool that even I, a heterosexual male, am allowed to acknowledge it. Oh, spoiler alert, I’m a heterosexual male, despite evidence to the contrary.
On the upside, all the major parts are well realized, particularly James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr. While Fassbender received (and continues to receive) accolades for the strength and conviction of his performances (and I wouldn’t dispute his acting abilities), I found McAvoy’s Xavier far more compelling for his obvious charm. He’s the only character in the entire franchise that I truly feel is someone you could at least imagine existing in the real world (as opposed to Rose Byrne’s MacTaggert who’s mostly there to further the plot… though I guess she is like a lot of people in the real world in that I don’t care about her). The costuming is spectacularly reminiscent of classic X-Men uniforms while still looking functional and somewhat realistic. And what action is there is largely great, though First Class still suffers from the X-Men movies’ general sense of limited budgets far more than its compatriots like The Avengers or Man of Steel.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to give a big shout out to Caleb Landry Jones’ Banshee, by far my favourite background movie superhero of all time. He doesn’t get a lot to do, but it’s hard not to feel a sense of joy alongside the character as he grows into his abilities and learns to use his powers to fly. It’s the kind of pure, unadulterated joy on a level that you rarely see in movies where people discover their powers. Plus, that scream he gives before jumping out of the Blackbird’s bomb bay doors is so rockstar.
On the downside, the plotting is nothing special and the execution is a mixture of lazy and less accomplished than the Marvel Studios movies (fyi, Fox still owns the X-Men film rights, not Marvel Studios). The way that characters often use their powers almost as a means of showing the audience what they can do more than in a way that makes sense for the scene, the way that many of the events are mired in typical movie moments and don’t lead to organic storytelling (see: Banshee vs. Angel because both fly and shoot things from their mouths, no character motivation necessary), all point to a movie made by people just a little bit less connected to the source material relative to Marvel Studios’ producers.
I also found it incredibly difficult to empathize with Mystique’s concerns over her appearance given the nature of her power. Sure, she may not be comfortable around people in her natural state, but who can honestly put their hand up and proudly declare that they’re not hiding things from the people around them? I’m living, like, three full-blown lies and am barely holding it together, but you don’t (usually) see me crying. I guess her point is that she shouldn’t have to hide anything, but why should fat people have to wear dark clothing? At least she can change her shape however she likes. Beyond that, I think the first moment between Charles and Mystique as children — Charles instantly accepting Mystique’s natural blue, scaled appearance — actually undercuts why the persecution allegory doesn’t work: a telepath and a shape changer aren’t inherently kindred spirits. People feel brotherhood with and persecute against others based on group similarities. Most mutants’ only similarity is that they have powers; they don’t look or act the same, they can’t even do the same things well (y’know, like all Asians are good at math or all black people are good at sports, or… maybe I should stop here). And for anyone marginalized or set apart just because of how they were born in real life, it’s hard to feel brotherhood for or sympathy with people whose defining prejudicial characteristics makes them more powerful and/or cooler-looking than the rest of us.
It’s also hard not to talk about First Class without acknowledging how badly screwed up the franchise’s continuity is. The most egregious conflict is obviously [2000s-era] Cyclops’ younger brother Havok being a founding member from the ‘60s. There’s also the way that Professor X and Mystique don’t even acknowledge each other in (chronologically) later films, let alone act like they grew up together. The idea that mutants and the X-Men have been in operation since the early ‘60s and yet most of the world still doesn’t know much about them by the 2000s, despite Professor X’s and Magneto’s individual agendas sounds implausible. And, thinking about the future of the franchise, what about the fact that Cyclops and Jean Grey are dead, Rogue is depowered, and mutants worldwide have a working cure, undercutting much of the tension of the overall concept. All that said, with next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past and the time-travel-involving film’s potential for fixing the timeline, hopefully we’ll get a stronger, better continuity for the franchise going forward. At the very least, it may offer us the opportunity to officially ignore The Last Stand.
Overall, there’s nothing particularly accomplished or unforgettable about X-Men: First Class, but what it gets right, it gets really right, and it manages to succeed, if not flourish, in a post-Avengers/Dark Knight/Man of Steel superhero movie landscape. It captures enough sincerity to linger in your thoughts (even if you need to be reminded about how good it was), and its biggest faults are at least somewhat washed away in a sea of blue-and-yellow spandex, go-go skirts, and people screaming loud enough to shatter glass. Perhaps most importantly, it at least gives us hope, its creation representing an honest acknowledgement of what a mess The Last Stand and X-Men Origins had left the franchise in.
X-Men: First Class final score: 7.5
On the Edge
-Wolverine to Professor X and Magneto’s offer to join the school: “Go fuck yourself.” Because that’s enough demotivation for two determined characters who lived through Nazi concentration camps and grew up with dreams of uniting all of humanity, mutant or human, to just immediately leave a guy alone no matter his potential value to the cause.
-On every line delivered by January Jones: Just… c’mon… pretend like you’re an actor who… knows how people might say things. You’re not that good looking.
-What Darwin should have said to Nazi Kevin Bacon’s “Adapt to this.”: “I will… because that’s my power.” Instead he just dies. Which was dumb. Because that was his power.
-Considering X-Men: The Last Stand opens in the mid-’80s, about 20 years after First Class, and Professor X and Magneto already look more like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen than James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender… that’s just a little disheartening.
-This always bugged me from the original movies, even though the obvious answer is “it’s not in the effects budget”: In X-Men United and The Last Stand, why did Colossus keep powering down, even though the fights weren’t over? If you could turn into organic steel, wouldn’t you spend most of the fight powered up and not power down until you knew things were safe? Maybe even stay powered up in general because it looks cool?
-You should really be reading Brian Wood’s X-Men comic. We’re only two issues in, but it’s already one of my favourite monthlies. It’s mandated as an all-female X-Men cast, but it’s so good I didn’t even notice. Which, I hope, is the point.
-Also, read comics.
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