Ironically, on June 6, 2011, during the same weekend X-Men: First Class was released to theaters, the two top film critics for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott, crafted an interesting piece entitled “In Defense of Slow and Boring,” defending the power and importance of the “boring” film, i.e. the arthouse films that are typically not driven by commercial concerns or toward presenting high entertainment, but strive to some greater significance. The central film spoken about in their piece was the Terrence Malick film “The Tree of Life,” and how to some, it was brilliant, and to others, who sought more entertaining fair, found it to be boring and pretentious (I have not seen the film yet myself – though I do want to – so I have no opinion on it). It’s an extremely good essay, even if, in the end, it’s just another entry on the extended debate between cinema as escapist entertainment and cinema as high art. So, you might be asking, what does this have to do with X-Men: First Class, a high concept, big budget, mass-entertainment superhero film (which is being released today on DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital download), of which this piece is ostensibly about? Simply put, many of the best films, and the ones that I think largely stick with us, are those that exist at a nexus between art and entertainment, of escapism and meaning. They address both sides of the debate, and build a bridge between those viewers that just want a thrilling ride and those that want their ride to ultimately go somewhere significant. X-Men: First Class is absolutely not one of those movies, though after I had finished watching it, I couldn’t help but yearn and lament that it is precisely what it could, and should, have been.
Now, as a scholar, I have focused mainly on Post-September 11 media and popular culture, so the resurgence of the comic book superhero film after its critical and commercial collapse in the 1990s was and is of keen interest to me. While most of the modern superhero films are initially presented as little more than aspiring blockbusters, there have been a select number that, somewhat surprisingly, managed to be both grand popcorn entertainment and intriguing allegorical drama, such as Spider-man 2, Iron Man, and both of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films. Fueled by the deeply held emotions and underlying tensions of a post-terrorist culture, these films incorporated issues of ethics, moral philosophy, personal responsibility, and the tenuous and fluid nature of good and evil into the often ludicrous worlds of costumed superheroes, and as a result managed critical responses that were often otherwise reserved for Academy Award nominees. However, after reaching a creative, critical, and commercial zenith with The Dark Knight a few years back, superhero films have been on a noticeable and marked decline in critical response, fan opinion, and commercial returns. Nearly a decade into the resurgence of the superhero film, the genre (if you want to classify it as that) finds itself at something of a crossroads, critically and commercially. With the global and national economy, natural disasters, and the role of government supplanting the fear of terrorism in the popular imagination, combined with a very noticeable excess of poorer output (ahem, Green Lantern) and less intriguing choices in subject matter (Ghostrider, Fantastic Four), superhero and other comic book films have shown signs of having engendered genuine fatigue with fans, critics, and audiences alike (and it is especially noticeable at the box office). As a result, the films seem to have lost the ambition of the blockbuster exemplars of just a few years ago, and this summer had no less than four major superhero films that arrived with fairly marginal prerelease “buzz” and very specialized hype geared to very limited audiences (namely the sort of people who recognize the name “Guy Gardner” or care what a “Cosmic Cube” is). Stuck in between the fairly flat Thor and the terrible Green Lantern (and safely removed from the strong Captain America) was X-Men: First Class, the latest installment in the X-Men movie franchise, and upon whose shoulders was the future of a film property that had seemingly squandered what was once a world of potential.
Telling the origin (or an origin) of the relationship and development of Professor X and Magneto, the two contrasting ideologues of the X-Men universe, First Class can’t really be called a bad movie, but I certainly think it was given a noticeable surfeit of praise upon its release three months ago. For those unfamiliar with the two iconic characters in their comic or film incarnations, Professor Charles Xavier, or Professor X, is a powerful telepath (mind reader) and the leader and founder of the X-Men, a group of superheroes who believe in Xavier’s vision of a peaceful world wherein normal humans (homo sapiens) and mutants (homo superior) – individuals granted amazing powers through inborn genetic mutations – peacefully coexist. Opposed to Xavier is Erik Lensherr, or Magneto, a ferrokinetic (defined by the ability to manipulate magnetic fields and thus mentally control nearly all metal), who, in contrast to Xavier, believes that mutants are the next step in human evolution, and with the aid of some incarnation of his terrorist/supremacist group, the Brotherhood of Mutants, tries to help the process of natural selection on its merry way by leading mutants to their rightful place as rulers of the Earth. Though Magneto’s presentation often wavers between villain and antihero, his tactics against normal humans typically border on the genocidal. First Class tries to relate the backstory of how the two men, formerly best friends and allies, eventually became mortal enemies. It certainly manages during its 132 minutes to be highly entertaining and, periodically, very compelling, but despite its qualities, it also remains unfortunately shallow and misguided.
Now, to some, that may be perfectly satisfactory, but to one who understands the appeal of the X-Men and their history, this particular story told in a fairly superficial manner becomes a particularly disappointing experience. The X-Men, through its long and tortuous publication history, has come to be defined by a mix of good and bad. The bad comes in the form of its continuity: the X-Men were singular and unique among other comics in that their success came primarily on its appeal to very dedicated, hardcore fans. Stories set in the X-Men universe could often be fairly complex and complicated, told across multiple publications, with legions of characters that ranged from being fascinating, richly layered, unique individuals facing deep, existential dilemmas (such as the noble genius with the body of a monster named Beast, the beautiful, mysterious young woman incapable of touching another human being named Rogue, and the popular postmodern Heracles called Wolverine) to those who were frankly little more than a gimmick. As a byproduct of this, however, the various X-Men comics have become notorious for their dense continuities, which are often criticized (including by myself) for being almost impregnable to the casual reader. However, while the X-Men series falter in their continuity, their success has always been on the strength and appeal of its characters and its deeper subtexts. Truly, what has always set X-Men stories apart in the world of comics media is its shared, core allegory about the nature of prejudice, the evils of intolerance, and the minority perspective. Mutants are, essentially, a racial minority group feared by the majority of normal humans, and though most of the heroes’ battles are typically against Magneto and other megalomaniacal mutants, their victories were always fleeting in the face of their lack of societal acceptance. X-Men comics were also the first to evince and endorse a multicultural society; many of the mutant X-Men, though bound together as a genetic minority, nevertheless came from a variety of different countries, races, religions, and cultures. As a result, despite their shared plight, they were rarely a homogenous unit and the interpersonal conflicts that would develop and be resolved among the various incarnations of the team were sometimes the leading source of drama for the various series, as opposed to the traditional superhero derring-do. It’s often understated, too, that the comics were highly influential in their medium for their portrayal of female characters. Though still crafted to be sexually alluring to the predominantly male audience, characters such as Storm (the first major black female comic book character), Rogue, Jean Grey, Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost, and others demonstrated that strong women could bolster and carry comic book narratives that were, and still are, too often viewed as a “boys only” club.
To understand further where First Class ultimately succeeds and fails must also mean understanding where the film stands within its franchise. Though once lacking significant mainstream recognition, the X-Men were popular enough during the 1990s that a feature film would be inevitable. Directed by Bryan Singer, who was not a fan of the comics or of comics in general, the original, refreshingly intimate, and low-key X-Men (2000) wisely pared down the massive continuity to a core group of key figures, and especially kept the focus on the franchise’s most popular character, the amnesiac fighting machine Wolverine, played near perfectly by Hugh Jackman. The result was a good summer action movie with strong character dynamics that also offered a star-making turn for Jackman. It was successful enough to be followed, three years later, by X2 (subtitled popularly as X-Men United), which seemed to carry the franchise light years forward, using the groundwork laid by the first film to create a tensely paced story that eschewed many of the conventions of the traditional superhero film. Instead of facing a super-powered supervillain, the X-Men, as well as their nemesis Magneto, found themselves opposing a human enemy who was the living manifestation of the prejudice and intolerance that subjugated them all. Cleverly interspersed with allegorical touches about the similarity of possessing mutant powers to LGBT identity politics (director Singer is himself gay), the end result was one of the better super-hero films yet made (other’s opinions may differ), and the franchise seemed poised to set a new standard in quality among what was then a broken trail of collapsed superhero film series.
However, it was clear even then that the streamlining of the X-Men continuity came at a price. Besides losing or marginalizing a vast number of storylines and characters, which was absolutely unavoidable and necessary, the X-Men portrayed in the films were often no longer identifiable as being representatives of various cultures and ethnicities. With the sole exception of the German character Nightcrawler (whose appearance was already entirely demonic), X-Men who had, in their original incarnation been foreign born, such as the Russian Colossus (who was another comic first – the sympathetic Russian), the African Storm, and the Austrailian Pyro were all recast as specifically American (at one point, literally the most exotic character seemed to be the Canadian Wolverine).
Then, as the story goes, it all went to hell. Bryan Singer left the series to take the reins of Superman Returns (a project for which he was regrettably ill-suited), and 20th Century Fox Pictures, demonstrating what would become an emblematic indifference to the quality of their Marvel film properties, hired perpetual critically anathemic director Brett Ratner to helm the series’ third film. X-Men: The Last Stand was a commercial success but a critical and popular disaster that was widely scorned in all quarters. Three years later, Wolverine had his own origin story told in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which was not only terrible but managed to almost completely “de-claw” and thoroughly undermine the appeal of its main character. Both films shared in common an impulse displayed by Fox to throw as many X-Men characters as possible onto the screen, regardless of whether they belonged or could be executed properly. To fans, this betrayed a deeply cynical approach that seemed designed to exploit the gullible archetypal “fanboy” with the expectation that he or she would buy their ticket simply at the promise of seeing their favorite characters oncreen, without realizing such contempt would, and did, yield continuously diminishing returns.
In this context, X-Men: First Class was made as an attempt to bring the franchise back to its earlier standard of quality. And certainly, it would be unfair to ignore the quality the film has on display. As mentioned, the story centers on the meeting of a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbinder), whose separate paths – Xavier as a CIA contractor and Lensherr as a Nazi hunting Holocaust survivor – both lead them toward the shared goal of defeating a megalomaniacal evil mutant named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), leader of a pro-mutant terrorist group called the Hellfire Club. For Lensherr the hunt is very personal, as Shaw, in a previous identity as a Nazi scientist, experimented on the future Magneto after discovering the young boy’s powers while he was interned at a Nazi concentration camp. After learning that Shaw plans to force the United States and the Soviet Union into a nuclear showdown so as to pave the way for a mutant takeover, Xavier and Lensherr, with the help of CIA agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne), start recruiting young mutants to go against Shaw and his Hellfire Club. Included in this group is Xavier’s adopted sister, a blue-skinned mutant shapeshifter named Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and closeted mutant science whiz Henry McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), each of whom will eventually become better known as the villainess Mystique and the hero Beast.
As a movie, under helmer Matthew Vaughan, First Class is fast paced, exciting, and occasionally quite witty, with a number of very dynamic set pieces that make excellent use of the nature and mechanics of the X-Men universe. Magneto, for instance, makes inspired use of an enemy’s metal fillings, and in one fun sequence gives new meaning to the phrase, “drop anchor.” However, there are definitely times where the film suffers from its crackling pace, as moments that should have some narrative and emotional resonance are quickly glossed over to make way for things that are far less interesting, therefore causing the film’s best material to lose whatever poignancy it might have otherwise mustered. Among its other strengths, though, the film also makes handsome use of its highly stylized and retro 1960s setting. The costumes are fantastic, perhaps even worthy of an Oscar nod, and many of the sets and scenery are highly evocative of the early James Bond films, especially Shaw’s snazzy submarine-cum-bachelor pad.
The film works best, at least initially, when dealing with the development of the relationship between Xavier and Lensherr. The dashing and dynamic Fassbinder gives a star-making performance on par with Jackman’s in the original X-Men, and McAvoy does a surprisingly good job bringing youth, wisdom, charm, and idealism to the part of the future Professor X. Kevin Bacon, too, hits the right note in playing the villainous Shaw. Benefiting from being cast against type, Bacon brings restraint to an antagonist’s role where a more traditional villain actor might have seen it as a showcase; he doesn’t try to upstage the action or the story, only play his role in it.
On the other side, though, are the frankly bad parts of the film, which unfortunately have much to do with the eponymous “first class.” Again falling victim to the Fox mentality of throwing as many new characters into the film as possible, as well as the decision to make this a prequel more than an outright reboot (an admittedly overused approach that would have actually worked here), the roster of what should be presented as the X-Men’s iconic first class is generally filled out with characters for whom it would be generous to call “B-teamers” in the comics, such as Havok, Banshee, and Darwin. As had been the problem in the previous two films, the characters bear little resemblance to their comic book counterparts. Banshee, for instance, who in the comics is appropriately Irish, is here just a WASPish blond teen pretty boy who happens to boast a high-pitched scream. Even more anachronistic is the plasma-generating mutant Havok, whose main claim to fame is being the brother of the more popular X-Man Cyclops, who in the film’s continuity hasn’t even been born yet. I personally don’t like to get too caught up in the inevitable differences between comics and their films; if the filmmakers truly thought adapting these characters in this way was best for the film, than I was willing to be convinced. But I wasn’t, and with the X-Men, as mentioned, the unique traits of the characters are pretty much the central appeal. In essence, it repeated precisely the same issues on display in the earlier installments: to fans, their characters are unworthy of inclusion here, and to non-fans the film does absolutely nothing to make them appear to be the slightest bit interesting or worthy of being the inaugural X-Men. Worse yet, the written characterizations and performances of the young X-Men are generally terrible, with almost everyone looking and performing like they were rejected by the Disney Channel. Academy Award nominee Lawrence comes across fairly bland as Mystique and Hoult does a pretty awful job as Beast, though he isn’t aided by makeup that seems better suited for a mall opening than a major theatrical blockbuster.
The actual Hellfire Club is also a somewhat underwhelming bunch, featuring a red-skinned teleporter named Azazel and an individual who throws tornadoes apparently named Riptide, neither of whom are ever even burdened with dialogue. As the popular character of Emma Frost, January Jones falls far short in a role that was already underwritten, and which again failed to capture a large part of the original character’s appeal (her scathing wit), though she does look appropriately gorgeous, with her transformation into the character’s diamond-skinned form certainly evokes memories of the gilded gals from Goldfinger.
The film’s biggest and most nuanced quality issue, however, lies firmly in its script. While there are a number of very good scenes and some very intriguing payoffs layered in its plot, the narrative threads aren’t carried through to a satisfactory conclusion and a number of dramatic character changes are simply not earned. Magneto’s transition from roguish avenger to mutant supremacist is eloquently handled but ultimately quite abrupt. The Magneto of the comics and the earlier films was also portrayed as a genius, scholar, and scientist, while in this film he’s not much more that an ideological Jason Bourne. Though his arc is still better than that of Mystique, who performs a completely abrupt about face to join Magneto and betray her foster brother, with the greatest narrative cause seemingly being the fact she was a villain in the first three movies, and thus had to be one at the end of this one. After the film was over, I honestly felt that I needed at least one more film’s worth of narrative to truly justify both character’s changes. As it is, X-Men: First Class shares a problem in common with the previous series installment, which told the story of Wolverine and his lifelong nemesis Sabretooth, and with other prequels, such as the second Star Wars trilogy and its focus on the Vader/Kenobi relationship, where what seemed fairly epic when once presented as a backstory loses a great deal of its grandeur when actually played out before us.
In the end, First Class is ultimately a film that is stylish and glossy but ultimately more sizzle than steak, but its complete lack of real substance is not alone my greatest source of disappointment in the film. As I recounted earlier, the X-Men, as a cultural product, have always risen above others in its medium through the way it has allegorically addressed the issues of prejudice and intolerance. In First Class, sadly, outside of a very muddled and nonsensical subplot about whether Mystique and Beast should strive to hide their inhuman appearance, there are painfully few moments in which the issues of prejudice core to the X-Men’s existence are even tacitly represented. That, in and of itself, is not that a terrible thing, and normally if the movie chose just to be accepted on the terms of being an empty action spectacle, I could forgive it that oversight. Why I can’t completely do that, however, comes in the fact that the filmmakers chose to set the film during the early 1960s, and thus took upon itself a greater responsibility to the era in history it was representing. This makes the omission of much of the identity politics and allegory almost disturbing for a film that is set during an era which saw the peak of the Civil Rights movement. Indeed, to watch the film, one would think that the entire era was defined only by Jack Kennedy, the Soviet Union, and haute couture. A film with even a modicum of ambition beyond being just an easily digested blockbuster would at least have used its fantastical story to give some attention to the racial problems and tensions of the period in which it’s set. Instead, it excludes it entirely, thus not only undermining the subtextual appeal of the X-Men themselves, but suppressing a very important part of American history – and more specifically, African-American history.
Thus, viewed in hindsight, one word that manages to describe First Class extremely well is “white.” The film makes use of many institutions and icons of mid-20th century white paternal domination – from the Kennedy administration to the Swingin’ Sixties, Las Vegas, the CIA, Oxford University, the Nazis, and the Soviets. The film acknowledges that Magneto is a concentration camp survivor, but otherwise barely brings up the fact he’s Jewish. Most damning, however, are the ways in which the film treats its other two minority mutant characters, the African-American Darwin (Edi Gathegi) and the Hispanic Angel Salvadore (who is played by the light-skinned black actress Zoe Kravitz), which stand as mind-boggling in their retrograde thinking. Darwin, especially, is just such an amazingly transparent example of tokenism that it almost manages to be sickly funny. Introduced as a cab driver when Xavier and Lensherr find him, which makes me wonder if anyone making this even realized that’s an Amos ‘n’ Andy reference, Darwin is the first and only member of the X-Men in the movie to die, which he does by sacrificing himself early in the plot to the Nazi Shaw to save his other teammates. There is even a painfully obnoxious and awkward moment were Lensherr is speaking about mutants being treated as slaves, where the camera cuts directly to Darwin, because, I’m guessing, he’s black, and only black people can be and should be regarded as representing slaves (the moment actually elicited audible groans when I originally saw the film in the theater). As for Angel, a former stripper, she immediately turns on the nascent X-Men to join Shaw’s group after he promises her power and a better class of life, thus classifying her as ungrateful, selfish, evil, and the stereotypical Latina whore.
Both these examples are themselves disturbing, but sadly not outside the pale for mainstream Hollywood. But the film otherwise seems to do whatever it can to seemingly run from anything that could even be mildly interpreted as their heroes combating intolerance. In a montage sequence where Xavier and Lensherr traverse the United States rounding up the members of their team, none of the young mutants are shown to be victims of prejudice in their own lives – even the future Beast is living a closeted life as a US military scientist. Yet even in the earliest X-Men comics, published in the early 1960s, most of the X-Men joined the team specifically to escape prejudice. The character Iceman, for instance, joins the group after Professor X just barely saves him from a lynch mob after he’s put in jail for using his powers, which for a 1963 comic book audience would have certainly brought up contemporary references to Emmett Till and other instances of anti-black lynching. The film actually includes an obvious variation of this, as Havok is instead the one Xavier and Lensherr find in prison, after he himself asked to be placed there to protect others (!). Even Lensherr’s internment with the Nazis seem to absolve them of any great wrongdoing; it’s fellow mutant Sebastian Shaw, moments after mocking the Third Reich’s dream of a Master Race, who shoots the future Magneto’s mother dead as a way of triggering the young man’s powers.
It’s fairly well known that the very real world antecedents to Xavier and Magneto’s respective ideologies were, always and obviously, the pacifism of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the militant black nationalism of Malcolm X (the comparisons can be obviously problematic, of course). But whether it was Vaughan or 20th Century Fox who made the final decision, the obvious historical contexts that would have enriched the movie tenfold here were ignored, making this already fairly shallow film completely counterintuitive to the X-Men’s long legacy as progressive, mutlicultrual superheroes. By the film’s end, the inaugural class of X-Men are literally a group of young white men (and yes, I do count Beast as being coded as white, despite the blue fur) protecting humanity from nuclear annihilation, not minority representatives looking to “uplift the race.” Truthfully, it seems the reasons this film was set in the 1960s were threefold: that’s when the X-Men were first published, someone somewhere wanted to ape the fashion sense of James Bond and Mad Men (without noticing how the latter serves as an examination of the mores and attitudes of its era), and the filmmakers wanted to tease nuclear annihilation without having anyone feel there was any real threat of anything actually happening. History, after all, clearly went marching on.
X-Men: First Class, as a popcorn movie, would probably make for a mostly entertaining rental, and as long as you try not to think too hard about it afterward, that should be good enough. But in comparison to what it could have been, First Class is exceptionally frustrating. This could have been an interesting, epic, and entertaining story about the forging of a friendship against that backdrop of racial conflict, reflected personally in the identity politics of mutants, and placed in a historic era where race relations in this country made a giant step forward. This honestly could have been something we haven’t seen in years – a truly great X-Men movie. But it’s not. And with prospects of a second film still somewhat undecided after a good but not great box office take, it also may not have been the film to reverse the fortunes of the fading franchise. Someday, hopefully, someone will see the decades of fascinating characters inherent in the X-Men universe and will craft an epic, dramatic, enthralling, and exciting movie on par with The Dark Knight or even X2. But make no mistake: First Class is not that movie.
But where the relative lack of ambition in X-Men: First Class may become truly lamentable for fans of good comic movies is if it is an indication of what the genre may now be facing going forward: ever dwindling blockbusters looking to dazzle you with CGI, gimmicks, and superficial storytelling, but with aspirations of depth, allegory, ideology, and resonance left entirely at the door.