Of all the X-men installments from the movie franchise, hands down “X-Men First Class” is its star pupil. It has all the components: vengeance, thrilling action scenes that don’t try to bombard you with all the latest special effects, and quality actors that transform these original 2-D comic book characters into fleshy, multi-faceted beings (well, to be fair only the key players are well constructed while minor roles rest easy on caricatures).
There are plenty of reviews that, following the train of thought aforementioned, and will rave on and on about “First Class”, but unfortunately this in not one of them. My rave ends here: it was entertaining. My rant starts here: In its attempts to “creatively” borrow messages of tolerance, equity and racial (race and mutant are interchangeable) justice X-Men: First Class made a mockery of the very movements it was undoubtedly inspired by.
It’s common knowledge that comic book and sci-fi genres are often are laced with social commentary (Godzilla and nuclear war, Tron and religion/creation myths, Captain America as WWII propaganda, Spiderman and poverty…) and X-men is no exception. However, when addressing social issues in fantasy-esque genres there needs to be a balancing act of sorts; on one hand it must appeal to the greater public by drawing just enough parallels between the fantastic world created and legitimate (but universal) conflicts that arise in our existence that go beyond the simple good vs. evil models, i.e. intolerance, discrimination, identity politics, classism, oppression etc. BUT without being too obvious. Subtly referencing universal themes of intolerance goes a long way if your attempt is to ENGAGE, introduce and coax people into approaching a topic they would otherwise deal with peripherally and if that isn’t your goal it still is a good rule of thumb to follow because by ripping off history you risk mocking it.
Now, if you are going to tackle issues like racism, and make incessant references to both the civil rights, and black power movements like First Class definitely did, then the least you can do is a) make sure your cast is not predominantly white b) do not use blue people to symbolize black people (it didn’t work in Avatar) and c) have one of the only mutants of color killed off only seconds after he was introduced.
–SPOILER ALERT– if you haven’t seen the movie yet you may not want to continue reading but really any scenes described in detail don’t really take away from from the plot….it just isn’t that complicated of a story. To prevent tangents and spare you a terribly long read I’m just going to bullet point some of the main grievances:
On the blue people: The one mutant who seemingly has it the toughest as far as being ostracized from society is Mystique. Unlike her peers who have powers of telepathy, can fly, scream sonic waves, or bend metal with their minds, Mystique’s mutation cannot be hidden so easily. Mystique’s natural form is that of woman with scaly electric blue skin, and textured fire red hair but throughout the movie you see her effectively choosing to keep her true self hidden not only from human beings but also from mutants. After “passing” for normal–normal mind you is represented in the form of a voluptuous white woman with long blonde tresses who eerily resembles a Shirley Temple doll– for the two thirds of the film Mystique goes through some identity-searching with the help of three mutant men (because who better to assess inner and outer beauty than men) who are supposed to represent three possible ways to grapple with the standards of beauty set by mainstream society.
Hank or the Beast (the other blue person) suffers from internalized mutantism, so ashamed of his own physical deformities–he had really gnarly toes that were only a tad worse than some dance feet I’ve come across — he advocates that she go under-the-needle to fix her blue hue, Magneto touts “blue-is-beautiful” type rhetoric, while Charles Xavier’s advice is a medium of the two–the world just ain’t ready for a blue buxom yet. My takeaway: I want to cheer for Mystique when she finally embraces her blue skin and tells Hank the Beast (who ends up aggravating his foot condition and hence becomes a blue beast) to accept his big beautiful blue-self but there is no way in hell I am going to sympathize with a white woman in blue makeup ripping off phrases like “Black is Beautiful” and “Black Power” from the Black Power movement.
Lack of Black actors: So I may have miscounted but I believe in total there were four black actors in X-Men First Class. Two were mutants with speaking lines; Darwin played by Edi Gathegi and Angel played by Zoe Kravitz, the other two were extras (a prostitute and a valet). The lopsided casting upset me, but did not shock me–check racebending.com for latest H-Wood eff-ups on casting. What did have me throwing my hands and yelling “What the hell?” in the theater was what they did with the few actors of color casted in the film. In one scene the main antagonist Sebastian Shaw, a Nazi mutant hell-bent on exterminating the human race tries to persuade the young mutants to join his legion by telling them that if they can either accept him as their leader and rule the post-apocalyptic world he has envisioned once humans nuke the crap out of each other, or they can choose to be “enslaved.” On words “enslaved” there is immediate cut away from Shaw and a close up of who else but black mutant, Darwin.
The philanthropic rich guy: I know you’re supposed to really like Charles Xavier preachy non-violence schtick, because it is supposed to represent the late Rev. Martin Luther King, but the excess of wealth at his disposal for me seems to discredit whatever “struggle” he goes through being a mutant that is supposed to resonate with people of color. Martin Luther King Jr. when compared to Malcolm X had an “easier” life, but it was by any means not easy. Unlike MLK, Xavier is not black (or its equivalent in the Marvel universe, blue), nor are his powers whether they are activated or not easily discerned which unlike the other mutants makes him invulnerable to persecution. Secondly unlike MLK, Xavier is filthy rich offering another layer of privilege and protection. The fact that he gives so willingly doesn’t make me like him more, but instead I resent him because it rings of a paternalistic sentiment–and for real, when in the real world do rich people so free of greed give up so much, and without a tax write-off? When Xavier is contrasted to the more militant “by any means necessary” Magneto, the comparison leads me to deduce that altruism is a luxury afforded to the rich only. If you are victimized by oppression so horrifying like lets say slavery, or in this movie’s case the Holocaust, then you are bound to repeat the very offenses that violated your human rights. Surely themes of the oppressed-turn-oppressor can be validated through example of history but nearly all the mutants who have truly been “victimized” by society (the fairy mutant: stripper, Magneto: Holocaust survivor, Mystique:blue skin) end up joining the wrong side. Let’s suppose to make up for the fact that Xavier is not, not blue, not black, not a prostituted woman, or has any physically discernible traits that would cause people to shirk from him he is does have strong powers that allow him to know what struggle is like. Telepathy sure seems like the leveling field…except that it’s not because telepathy is not empathy and it sure as hell isn’t experience.
There are a whole lot of other issues on gender and the use of social Darwinism I could go on about but I’ll stop here (but please list what you’d like in the comments).
Overall, in its attempt to teach young adult audiences about lessons of intolerance, First Class lacked subtlety, grace and just plain common sense, when groping for social-provoking “material” like the civil rights movement for plot, motifs and overarching thematic inspiration. Bottom line: You can’t have a movie about the struggle of people of color, ripping off phrases from movements started by people of color, without people of color.
At least the previews of upcoming potential blockbusters about revolutions seem more promising. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is scheduled to be released in August, and at least that franchise picked an underdog to sympathize with I can’t possibly be offended by. Well done Hollywood, well done.
*I am not a comic book aficionado, this is a review of the movie not the comic but would love input on analysis/convo on how the comics and movie compare…