So I played hookie today to see the latest reboot of the X Men at the opening screening. I must admit that I was a little worried after the train wreck that was the last film in the franchise and the move to push it off it’s traditional memorial day weekend slot; but, I love James Mcavoy. Despite his decision to participate in Wanted, I trust that he has the keen sense of science fiction and fantasy folklore necessary for the complexities of Professor Xavier. I was also curious to see the interim years between the concentration camp and the battle weary Magneto of old.
Eschewing special effects driven drivel that has defined the genre of late, First Class returns us to the basics of storytelling and relationship. We are introduced to a bevy of mutant characters without the feel of the high school lunchroom that usually happens in films that have to introduce a lot quickly. (Except in the scene where they choose new code names, which was a bit of a show and tell.) And all though the film gives us the prerequisite young people behaving stupidly scenes, it leaves most of the heavy lifting to its seasoned lead actors: Kevin Bacon, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender. In fact, the two most compelling things about this film are the relationship between McAvoy and Fassbender and Fassbender’s compelling portrayal of a concentration camp turned long term abuse survivor working through the horror of his traumas with his abuser-father figure. Magneto’s violence is always tempered by Fassbender’s inflection of pain and pathos and McAvoy’s striking ability to display profound depths of compassion without a single word. The connection between these two actors and these two characters is better than the vapid connections the studio thinks will bring in audience, i.e. pre-professor X drunken college days, his awkward “ack put that blueness away” relationship with Raven/Mystique, and especially his ridiculous connection with Rose Byrne’s character which was so throwaway I don’t even remember her name.
The only relationship in the film as compelling, exempting for a moment the conflictual relationship between Magneto and Shaw that the film does not spend enough time on for obvious reasons, was the short encounter between Magneto and Mystique. Again and again, Magneto offers her unconditional positive regard and the holding space to have faith in who she is on the inside and the outside. His kindness with her starts from the moment he sees her. And it is their relationship that gets at one of the central questions of the film: do you embrace who you are or hide in shame? Interestingly, young Professor Xavier seems to share in some of the shame that these young mutants carry. When asked by Mystique if he could love her in her real form, he seems as though he has eaten something slightly off, though he tries to be positive. When he sees her naked later, the top-level reading of him as prudish gives way to a deeper level reading that might explain why she ultimately chooses Magneto.
The way the film frames questions of identity lends itself to dual layer readings constantly pitting the X Men against Mutants who simply want to live their lives and recognize from the battlegrounds of history that there may only be one way to do that. In the intial Singer films, which I loved, they steered clear of any implication that Xavier might be engaging in compensation but this film dares to look at the interpersonal pain of each character and ask very hard questions in what is ultimately an extremely positive way. When Magneto asks Xavier about arrogance it is powerful enough to make you reflect on the meaning of hero complex and why so much self-acceptance on the side of the X Men is peppered with shame and attempts to hide, change, or fit in.
What divides Xavier and Magneto will always be the willingness to do harm and the driving force of fear versus hope in their lives. Again, rather than take these differences lightly, the First Class follows in the footsteps of Singer by exploring what these two world views ultimately mean in a world that is operating outside of the existential crisis the mutants are having with themselves and each other. Xavier’s consistent message of mindfulness in the face of trauma, exclusion, and violence, shows us the better part of both men. While Magneto’s willingness to ask hard questions about genocide and arrogance hit home for both his warped mirror image in Kevin Bacon’s character and his possible best Self reflected back at him through Xavier.
The film is not without slippages however. Despite a bevy of female characters,acting in main, supporting, and background roles, none of them manages to make it through this movie without walking around in their underwear at least once. Several of them play sex workers in seedy clubs that are often scenes that combine fantasies of male sexual power and actual state power (ie the power to destroy or save the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.) and physical violence trotting out the trite connedtion between arousal and violence that Singer helped put to bed in the first two films. In one of the more benignly demeaning scenes, Magneto and Xavier sip wine on a bed while Angel spreads her wings and the three of them exchange sexual innuendo. Meant to make male audiences laugh and certainly the least of the many scenes in which powerful women take off their clothes to prove they are capable or get their jobs done in this movie, the underlining absence of female subjecthood throughout the bulk of this movie is disconcerting.
On some levels, Raven’s character counters the stereotype. She explores her insecurities with great depth despite Xavier’s dismissing them as “concern about her body” and she tries her best to reflect back a sense of pride in oneself to Beast even as he tears them both done. Though much of her angst falls into the same tired, offensive, trap of a girl pining for a man who will never really see her and acting out sexually when she doesn’t get what she wants, when she walks into the light naked in this movie, she does it not as titillation but as a fully realized Self whose body is all her own.
It is a much more powerful message than the psuedo-feminism of Frost who sits in her underwear rolling her eyes about men while she projects an image of herself into the mind of a Russian diplomat to get him to do what she wants. If Frost can project her image into the head of a diplomat, why does her image need to get naked to get the job done? And if Frost is powerful enough to block Xavier and sense when he has grown stronger, then why is she so often using sex as her prefered weapon? And if itmis because of Shaw’s warped connections to sex and violence, why not make that more explicit, since itmismhinted at more than once.
Lastly, ask yourself this question at the intersections of race and class, why are all the women blonde and blue-eyed in this film except for Angel, the only mutant woman of color? While Rose Byrne has brown hair, she isn’t a mutant, AND she is a CIA agent who puts up with endless sexist remarks about her competence because she is a “girl”. In other words, she plays the Diana Prince to the amazonian Wonder Women around her. In the same way “pretty” is explicitly linked to white and blonde, Rose’s hair color is meant to mark out the stereotype of “smart woman” even as she too is relegated to running around in her underwear under the in your face gaze of several men. I suppose some will justify this trite tropes by pointing out Byrne gets the man in the end, unlike the blondes. But she doesn’t actually get him, he wipes her memory without her consent and she seems happy about it because she remembers vaguely he kissed her first … More successfully empowering than hollywood pseudo-feminism is Byrne’s character’s intelligence, integrity, and success despite the sexism in her workplace. She is instrumental in stopping Magneto’s planned massacre as well as in getting the mutants on board to stop a nuclear war. It’s just too bad these feats culminate in her empty headed kiss memory.
The people of color in this film are central enough in the background. Two of the first mutants they pick to join the still forming X Men are played by black actors and meant to be Latinos. (I am going to just leave you to ponder that casting on your own for now … You should note, there is a Latino actor with an important role on Shaw’s team but he has no lines, and sits in the background until it is time for him to use his power) In the show and tell turned frat party the young members have post-recruitment, both characters get to show their stuff just as much as any of the others. And when push comes to shove Darwin is the only one who acts, dragging Havoc reluctantly into it, to stop Shaw and his crew after they massacre an entire base. For his efforts, Darwin is the first and only mutant to die. Angel on the other hand, is the first and only mutant on Xavier’s team to join Shaw. So both black actors are eliminated from team X Men before they even start training. All of the people of color in the film are also absent from most of the promotional material and when they are pictured, it is usually only Angel (played by Lenny Kravatiz’s daughter) and she is in the back. ( see image at beginning of this post for an example.)
I have to say that despite these glaring slippages and the pointless partying scenes in the beginning of the movie, I found X Men First Class a compelling film with several important reflective questions about identity, power, and humanity. In embracing the complexities of the main male characters it gave us a chance to look at both the Self and the Shadow of each man and wonder what we would do in their place. It’s messages of self-esteem and self-respect, healing, and forgiveness are all things we could spend more time cultivating in this world. It also gives us several distinct reflections of masculinity that run counter to man=big gun and damsel in pseudo-feminist distress storyline that dominates summer blockbusters; and as I have implied some of that masculinity has queer window dressing all over it. And it manages all of this in a slick summer package full of special effects and nods to movies’ past.
Go see it and tell me what you think.
(PS. the director has said that the sequel will need a new opponent for Magneto because Xavier is in a wheelchair, so look for me to revisit ablism next year when that film comes out.)
all images are the property of 20th Century Fox (2011) “X Men: First Class”