This on DVD today, and because I wrote this and forgot to post this back when the movie actually came out, I figured I might as well post it now.
X-Men: First Class has a classic story arc, above average performances, and it does a pretty impressive job of weaving its own story into that of the (inarguably compelling) Cuban Missile Crisis. Unfortunately, the virtues that make the X-Men so interesting fifty years later–tolerance, celebration of diversity, and self-acceptance–are embraced, it seems, only by the villains.
Though we are always meant to sympathize with Magneto (who can blame a Holocaust survivor for losing faith in humanity?), I’m a little baffled by the idea of recasting him as the hero for mutants. His violent methods should hurt the mutant cause more than they help it. Everything he does reinforces the stereotype that mutants are dangerous, and inflames public sentiment that mutants should be hated and feared. And yet, by the end of this movie, the audience is with him.
And this is why the movie ultimately fails. [Cut for spoilers.] The problem with First Class is that Magneto is absolutely right on just about everything. Xavier is absolutely wrong and comes across as the worst kind of effete liberal, impotent and misguided, if not outright delusional. While Magneto has seen firsthand what happens when men hate and fear a group of people who are different, Xavier has led such a sheltered existence with his wealth and (invisible) mutation that his idealism comes across as irritatingly naive. To him, mutant powers are for picking up chicks in bars. It represents no threat to anyone, and no one has ever had cause to treat him as a threat. Of course he believes mutants will be accepted and easily integrated in society–that’s been his experience as an extraordinarily privileged, white, and seemingly human male in a society heavily tilted in his favor.
Magneto, on the other hand, has different takeaways from his very different experiences. He knows that humans will never accept mutants, which the movie helpfully bears out in the final battle on the beach. Xavier believes, up until the end, that the CIA will welcome them as heroes. He is shocked, shocked I tell you, that Magneto’s skepticism turned out to be an understatement. The government, their allies, turn on them pretty much instantly–just as Magneto said they would. Even if the humans they had met did accept and praise and worship them, Magneto is again right that the acceptance would never feel complete. He says as much in a heartbreaking discussion with Mystique when he explains that she would never be considered beautiful by any “normal” standard. He, Mystique, and all the other mutants will always be outsiders held up to human examples and standards that couldn’t possibly be met. Xavier, on the other hand, half-heartedly tells Mystique not to worry her pretty little head about her looks because she can always make herself look conventionally pretty–a callow and insincere response.
Magneto has the strongest sense of self and of purpose. He knows what he is–a monster, both morally and genetically–and accepts that. His revenge against Shaw is a course of action that Xavier hollowly objects to, but it feels right and just nonetheless. Again, the audience is on Magneto’s side: he is in the right to be killing a true evil of history. Xavier, on the other hand, doth protest too much, and winds up seeming cowardly.
Xavier should be winning each of those arguments, and occupying the stronger position in all of those scenarios. He should have more human allies, or some kind of evidence to back up his assumption that humans are accepting and tolerant. Friendless and wrong, Xavier looks like a fool with a pipe dream. Then there’s Mystique’s crisis. Where’s the pep talk about how standards and norms have always changed and always will change, and it’s their job to get the ball rolling? Or the assurances that she is indeed beautiful as she is, and one day everyone will see the person that he sees? And as for Shaw, where is the argument to save Magneto‘s soul? Shaw made Magneto the monster that he is, but Xavier should be the one telling him that it is and always will be a choice; that killing just breeds more killing; and that Magneto is risking becoming the very man he despises. I don’t just mean some bullshit emo-angst when Magneto cuts him off with the magic helmet, or some tearful flashbacks to their moment looking at the radio dish: I mean an actual, articulated, and mature argument for why it’s so important for Magneto to be the better man and see a new future, rather than repeat old history.
The problem here is that Xavier’s traditional ideals–of tolerance, the advantages to diversity and integration, peace, and the self-destructive drawbacks of Magneto’s aggressive style–go entirely undefended. Xavier believes in what he does blindly, with no credible motivation other than extreme privilege. He’s impossible to take seriously as a philosophical leader because he never bothers to articulate any of his philosophies. Are the strengths of his beliefs supposed to be self-evident? Or does the movie really just not believe in them? Magneto’s argument is forceful and persuasive on the one side; Xavier has no argument on the other. The writers left his quiver empty.
I was never a comic reader and my only experience of the X-Men is through the animated TV show and the many movies, so I write without any familiarity with the long and complicated canon of the comics. That said, I think I can safely argue X-Men have stood in for every marginalized group in history. It’s not a coincidence that Magneto is Jewish and a Holocaust survivor. Whether you buy the absurdly reductionist MLK, Jr./Malcolm X parallel or not, the stories have always incorporated the rhetoric of the civil rights movement. The X-Men face extreme prejudice, must struggle with whether or not to “pass” as human (if they can), and confront mob violence and mass fear at pretty much every turn. Their struggle is one of social justice and activism. The pre-First Class movies shifted the language and rhetoric to more closely reflect the LGBT experience: mutants mostly became aware of their powers during puberty, and many struggled with the decision of whether or not to “out” themselves to their friends, families, and communities. With that kind of history and foundation, I was appalled at the lack of diversity in the cast, and the implications of the pairing off at the end. This movie has one “good” PoC, who is killed off almost instantly, and the other PoCs all join the “bad” side. What kind of message is that?
While Mystique and Beast both struggle with issues of identity and finding a place in this world, Xavier does not. His place is the same as it’s always been, and if he has a vision of where mutants stand in the grand scheme of things we don’t see it. Xavier even reveals himself to be intensely amoral, mind-wiping Moira. By the end, the foundation of the “good” X-Men is shaky at best. Its principles come off as naive; its leader, kind of a dick; and its team of heroes, a disappointingly homogeneous group of white dudes.
So while it was fun, compelling, and enjoyable, X-Men: First Class‘s only articulated vision of the future is Magneto’s. He has strength, passion, and a plan. What does Xavier have? And if the answer is nothing, what’s the point?