X-Men: First Class
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
James McAvoy (Prof. Charles Xavier)
Michael Fassbender (Magneto)
Kevin Bacon (Sebastian Shaw)
January Jones (Emma Frost)
Rose Byrne (Moira MacTaggert)
Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique)
[Spoilers ahead, you have been warned]
Another weekend, another superhero movie. No magic hammers or wishing rings in this one. Instead, there are mutants, Soviets, and Kevin Bacon. The story is a jumble of three loosely related plots: the origin story of Prof. Xavier and the X-Men, the efforts by Xavier and company to foil Sebastian Shaw’s genocidal plans, and (by far the best storyline) Magneto’s quest for vengeance against Shaw (a Nazi collaborator). All that, plus a sexist homage to the Forgetfulness Kiss from Superman 2.
I’ll note that X-Men: First Class (XMFC) was better than Thor, though that’s setting the bar fairly low. And it was better than X-men Last Stand, though that’s setting the bar so low one has to be careful not to trip over it. Thor had a tedious moral about humility, but at the end of the day the movie was about nothing more complicated than Chris Hemsworth’s abs. XMFC is a movie that wants to express an opinion on important topics, including vengeance, intolerance, and minority rights. Like the comic it was based on, XMFC explores these topics through metaphor, but the results leave much to be desired.
Since it’s introduction, the X-Men comic has relied upon metaphor to imbue the concept of mutants with social relevance. In the early 60’s, the X-Men were a metaphor for the civil rights movement. Mutants were “hated and feared” by the rest of the world, but the X-Men fought to protect humanity and demonstrate that mutants could be loyal, tax-paying citizens. Mutants were black people … except that all the mutants were white. The comic celebrated tolerance, equality, and the loftier goals of the civil rights movement, but without ever acknowledging the movement’s existence. I’ll revisit this problem below.
Over the course of the 80’s and 90’s, the mutant metaphor shifted from race to queerness (this change was most evident in the Legacy Virus storyline, an HIV-like disease that only targeted mutants). The change may have been driven in part by a genuine commitment to LGBT rights, even at a time when public hostility to queerness was overt and widespread. But the shift was also necessitated by the success of the civil rights movement. In popular media, black characters were no longer relegated to the role of servant or comic relief. Even in the backwoods that is superhero comics, black heroes were becoming more numerous and prominent. The most prominent of all was the X-Men’s Storm, who led the team for nearly a decade. In a world with black heroes, addressing race issues primarily through metaphor is difficult to justify.*
The X-Men have always been a metaphor for teen alienation. While all teenagers occasionally feel hated or oppressed, most comic readers are nerds (also, geeks, dweebs, and dorks) who feel especially awkward and unappreciated. So what better escapist fantasy than a world where all the misfits have superpowers that they use to save the world? Plus, they get to hang out with their fellow (improbably attractive) misfits at a posh school called
Hogwarts Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. The makers of XMFC clearly understood the teen alienation metaphor, which was why all the mutants bitched and moaned about being freaks and outcasts. Then they went to the School for Gifted Youngsters, and they suddenly realized that they’re young, beautiful, and have awesome superpowers.
Yet for a film that’s set in the 60’s, there were surprisingly few references to the civil rights movement. Perhaps acknowledging the African American struggle for equal rights would raise too many questions, such as how would the emergence of a superhuman race affect relations between normal blacks and whites? Would race relations improve when faced with a common evolutionary threat? Or would ancient prejudices persist even within the mutant community? These are interesting questions to explore, but that would require a very different kind of movie (one where fewer things blow up).**
While it largely ignores race, XMFC takes full advantage of the queerness metaphor. Because mutants are hated and feared, they must find ways to blend in with the “norms,” though they do so only by denying who they truly are. Mystique’s character arc is largely an “out and proud” storyline. As a shapeshifter, she can easily blend in, but only by constantly hiding her natural, blue form. By the end of the film, she’s embraced her gorgeous blue self. There’s also a moment where Prof. Xavier accidentally “outs” another mutant who works for the CIA, which leads to a humorous dig at “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” And there’s an obvious overlap of the queerness metaphor with the teen metaphor. After all, what subset of teens feels more hated and misunderstood than those struggling with their sexual identity?
But metaphor only goes so far. As I mentioned above, the X-Men comic largely abandoned the civil rights metaphor as broader cultural attitudes changed and black characters entered the mainstream. Similarly, attitudes regarding the LGBT community have changed enormously over the past few decades. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will (probably, eventually, hopefully?) be repealed, and a majority of Americans now support gay marriage. So instead of veiled references to queerness, why not include an actual queer character in the ensemble cast? Hell, the film could have gone the safe route by including a lipstick lesbian. Not exactly freaking out the norms, but it’s better than nothing. I’ll also point out that filmmakers can’t fall back on the excuse that the source material gives them nothing to work with. There are at least a handful of queer X-Men that I can name off the top of my head. Why not use Northstar? He’s gay … and Canadian! Who doesn’t like Canadians? But just as blacks were nonexistent in the early X-Men comics, so queers are nonexistent in XMFC. In all likelihood queer characters were excluded because of the fear that a sizable minority of consumers would refuse to see a movie that promoted “alternative lifestyles.” So the (presumably liberal) filmmakers expressed their support for LGBT rights, but only in a way that wouldn’t hurt profits. Using the mutant-as-queer metaphor seems less a subversive or daring act than a cowardly one.
X-Men: First Class reveals the limits of political expression in the current crop of big, summer blockbusters. Movies can toy with political views, but even the least controversial opinions must be expressed in a vague or indirect manner. It’s far safer, and more profitable, to pretend that you have no opinion at all.
* There are thoughtful ways to use the mutant-as-minority race metaphor in the 21st century, and Grant Morrison did so during his X-Men run. But it requires an intelligent writer with an appreciation for how racial identity and race relations have evolved since the 60s.
** Even if the metaphor was present, it’s hard to overlook that, of the two mutants of color, one gets killed and the other goes evil. Celebrating racial equality in the abstract doesn’t mean much when characters of color are still thrown under the bus.