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Film Review: X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class (2011; Directed by Matthew Vaughn)

The Very Pretty Mutants Club of Westchester’s Annual Symposium

At once a model of masterful blockbuster filmmaking and a head-scratcher of a sociopolitical allegory, X-Men: First Class reverts Marvel’s foundational film property to the lean and thoughtful roots of Bryan Singer’s 2000 film, whose success catapulted the then-hit-and-miss comic-book subgenre to the forefront of Hollywood’s big-budget mythmaking. Relying less on adrenalized action set-pieces (although there are a few of those, of course) than on the dynamics between strongly-drawn, solidly-acted characters, director Matthew Vaughn’s First Class functions perfectly well as hyper-competent entertainment as well as political metaphor, even if the implications of the latter can range from problematic to outright troubling.

The story, by Sheldon Turner and Singer (who also produces and thus passes along a veneer of understated gravitas from his own X-Men films), focuses the ever-prevalent political allegories of this corner of Marvel universe on the central binary of differing masculine protagonists: the hardened, suspicious Holocaust survivor Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) and the generous and optimistic child of privilege Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). It extrapolates their divergent approaches onto the dominant post-WWII responses to the political lessons of Nazism, and their dialectical interactions mirror those of the diametrically-opposed Cold War superpowers, the United States and the USSR, who face off over missiles in Cuba during the film’s historically-fictive climax.

Unlike Singer’s original two X-Men films (the less mention made of Brett Ratner’s noisy and uninspired trilogy-ending The Last Stand, the better), however, First Class is a film about the powerful elite setting the agenda for world events, the representative of each side equally certain that they have the best interests of the masses in mind as they do so. Although X-Men and X2 situated the mutant team in relation to larger events, it focused our attention and sympathies on the more proletarian mutants like Anna Paquin’s insecure teenager Rogue and Hugh Jackman’s gruff anti-hero Wolverine (who gets a brief and characteristic cameo here). The Shakespearean thespianic hashing-out of good and evil in society was in good hands with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, but those films were more about offering case studies on the individual vs. society than wrapping everything into expansive metaphors for morality and realpolitik.

We can see this most clearly in this film’s opening scene at the gates of a Nazi concentration camp in Poland, which is not so much a call-back to the famously-heavy opening of the first X-Men movie as it is a direct recreation of it, but with one big twist. This time, as young Erik bends the metal gates with his anguished mind after being separated from his parents, someone sips tea and watches from a nearby window. It’s an image of the vigilance of authority and the power of surveillance, and it moves this rebooted narrative in wholly different directions.

There are NO degrees of separation between me and you, baby!

The man with the tea is Sebastian Shaw (played with expert smarmy knowingness by Kevin Bacon), who torments and experiments on young Erik in order to release his mutant potential, which Shaw, being a secret mutant himself, understands all too well (his ability is to absorb power and energy, apt for a Machiavellian figure of such immense and secretive power). Unfortunately for Shaw, when he murders Erik’s mother to spark the rage that activates the boy’s ability, he also activates an implacable sense of revenge that carries on to Lensherr’s adulthood. Now (“now” being the early 1960s) a precise and cunning young man with ingenious, small-scale control of his powers, Erik tracks Shaw through a dissembling Swiss banker (financier abuse in Hollywood movies is becoming one of their most consistent release-valve pleasures) and two retired Nazis in hiding at a remote Argentinian villa. The latter sequence shows off the dangerously handsome Fassbender to his greatest advantage, slipping effortlessly from one language to another as he draws his quarries in with suave laughter before delivering his righteous coup-de-grace.

Lensherr finally tracks his mentor/nemesis Shaw to a luxury yacht (Bacon struts from one set of retro opulence to the next in this movie, an involved visual marker of the übermensch-ian privilege that he represents), where he’s protected by a coterie of hench-mutants: a silent longhaired dude who hurls tornadoes from his hands (Riptide, played by Álex González), a teleporting red-skinned demon (Azazel, played by Vaughn’s frequent collaborator Jason Flemyng), and gorgeous blonde Emma Frost (the ever-plastic January Jones of Mad Men fame, whose cleavage ought to have its own cast credit), who reads minds and can turn to ice so that no one can read hers. As fate has it, mega-mind-reader Xavier (recently graduated from Oxford with a PhD in genetics and sizable chip on his shoulder) has fallen in with the CIA, who are also hot on Shaw’s trail and have chosen the same moment as Lensherr has to storm his boat. Xavier saves Lensherr from being dragged under with Shaw’s sleek escape sub, and the two men begin to make each other’s acquaintance.

Xavier and a reluctant Lensherr (who doesn’t trust monolithic government institutions, probably for good reasons) agree to help the CIA find other mutants, using a prototype of Cerebro, the mind-amplifying device that lets Xavier read minds at long range. They soon gather a motley crew of talented freaks of their own to counter Shaw’s. These include Xavier’s blue-skinned, shape-shifting childhood friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar-nominated for last year’s Winter’s Bone), super-smart, beast-footed scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult, of About a Boy, A Single Man, and hopefully many, many more films to come), red-headed sonic screamer Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), shy energy blaster Havok (Lucas Till), whose real name is Alex Summers (the brother of Scott Summers/Cyclops, played by James Marsden in the first trilogy), as well as the amphibious Darwin (Edi Gathegi) and insect-winged firefly Angel (Zoë Kravitz).

Shaw gets wind of these competing mutants and sweeps in while Lensherr and Xavier are on covert ops in Russia, plucking one for his team and destroying another who stands in his way. Xavier elects to move the rest of his fledgling X-Men away from government protection to his ancestral manse in Westchester and get serious about training to avert Shaw’s planned nuclear Armageddon, to be triggered off the coast of Cuba and meant to segue into an age of mutant dominion. From there, powers are enhanced, secrets are revealed, evil is defeated and/or deferred, and see you in two to three years for the sequel.

As I said, First Class lives up to the pun in its name. This is first-rate popcorn entertainment that’s also pretty smart, most of the time (the lead-up to the missile crisis is pretty heavy-handed, what with the repeated mentions of American missiles in Turkey and all). The action sequences don’t overwhelm, going for clean imagery and wondrous spectacle over furious violence (Lensherr lifting Shaw’s submarine and wrecking it on a tropical beach, for example) and privileging story and character development above sheer frenzied movement. The production and costume design are both super-stylish, going for the early-‘60s equivalent of steampunk (nukepunk? telepunk? Groovepunk?).

Additionally, the absurdly attractive cast (most of whom were evidently bumping uglies on set) bring far more commitment and passion than the material likely deserves. McAvoy may be the most familiar property here, as he’s carved out a solid career for himself playing boyishly-charming shiny-eyed idealists whose principles are firmly challenged but do not ultimately falter. He adds Charles Xavier to that resume with an ease that masks his evident effort.

The viciously elegant Fassbender, meanwhile, who stole the central scene of Inglourious Basterds and then looked a little morose and befuddled as Rochester in this year’s Jane Eyre, is writing with lighting as the burgeoning Magneto. Resplendent in a litany of swinging Teutonic turtlenecks and tailored period suits, Fassbender exerts his power over the movie whenever he’s in it, moulding it to his preferred form as his character manipulates metal. He takes a potentially hackneyed moment such as the one in which he must access his happiest memory to maximize his power and move a huge satellite dish and transforms it into a convincing mingling of exertion, anger, and joy. If Fassbender wasn’t a star before this movie, he surely must be now.

Of the rest of the cast, Lawrence and Hoult get the most attention, serving as conduits for the classic “Born This Way” subplot of misfits learning to accept their unique qualities in the face of social prejudices. The literality of employing Mystique (who hides her true blue form with her chameleonic powers, until she comes to accept them and thus herself) and Beast (who yearns to undo his mutation and, in the process, makes it irreversible and impossible to hide) is a bit much, and not nearly as resonant as Rogue’s blessing/curse, but it does, at least, deepen two classic X-characters who served mostly as window dressing in the previous films. Hoult is all awkward nerdy reticence before his transformation and becomes lost in unimpressive make-up after it. Lawrence, with her soft, rounded features and tone of jaded innocence, is a fine choice for the youthful, pre-disillusionment Mystique but may have a tougher time with the treacherous femme-fatale image that the statuesque Rebecca Romijn (who also has a cameo) slid comfortably into in the earlier films.

But, since this is me writing this review, I’m obviously much more interested in the socio-political allegories at play in First Class, and my oh my, are they ever doozies. Although Xavier’s cooperative soft-power liberalism and Lensherr’s aggressive mutant-pride quasi-nationalism have often been compared to the Civil Rights-era philosophical gaps between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively, that comparison is inactive in this film. Although Lensherr appeals to the African-American Darwin with a pretty unsubtle mention of potential mutant “enslavement”, the racial angle is downplayed. Indeed, it’s practically absent, as Ta-Nehisi Coates noted with his usual eloquence in his New York Times piece on the film. This absence is even imparted visually, as we see Xavier and Lensherr playing chess on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where MLK would address thousands a few years later, the practically empty National Mall stretching out behind them. This is that sort of film, where two talented, genius members of the elite decide the fate of millions, while the millions themselves have no say and not even a basic presence.

Your bishop may have taken my rook, but my turtleneck takes EVERYTHING ELSE.

But Xavier and Lensherr also represent the two strains of anti-authoritarian democracy to emerge as reactions to the fascism of the Third Reich. Xavier, of course, is well-meaning, patronizing secular liberal democracy, the sheltered, privileged golden child believing in an essential human decency and social justice that rarely fails to disappoint but doesn’t ever shake its basic convictions. He is America, Canada, and Western Europe in their best, most progressive moments.

Lensherr, however, subscribes to a siege mentality, an “us vs. them” paranoia nurtured in the concentration camps and transmuted into an unwavering pledge to never come close to being under anyone else’s boot again. This predilection shades his morality in stark terms, leading him to aggression, violence, and even the sort of discrimination against others that he’s looking to prevent against his own kind. Even if he wasn’t Jewish, it would be painfully clear that Lensherr is Israel, a fortified New Masada against enemies real and imagined. Of course, Lensherr never really self-identifies as Jewish, substituting instead his social-Darwinist views of mutant superiority. When he tells the Nazis in Argentina that they erased his people, he means it. His tribe is the mutants, a commitment solidified after he finishes off Shaw and takes over the Brotherhood.

But both of these viewpoints are crafted in reaction to the basic discriminatory assumptions of humans, who always seem frightened of and threatened by mutants. And, in the context of First Class, Magneto’s suspicions are confirmed; the authoritarian, perversely, is right. When the American and Soviet fleets join forces to destroy the mutants at the film’s climax, their combined payload is one big “muties go home.” Xavier stubbornly sticks to his rosy view of mankind’s ability to overcome its prejudice and winds up crippled and further sheltered as a result, but Lensherr has seen enough to make his choice, embracing the authoritarian militarism implied by Shaw’s stylized helmet.

That a pulpy summer blockbuster can also evoke such political conclusions should perhaps not be surprising to us at this point, but it’s always welcome when it happens. Taking the historical fiction route with X-Men should allow Marvel to set it apart from their other properties (although Captain America was also done as a period piece), even if it has a bit of a Mad Men + James Bond + mutants feel to it. Vaughn has crafted a nice, smart, well-acted, and intermittently exciting superhero film that, like the best examples of the genre, never feels like only a superhero film.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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