The Best and Worst of ‘X-Men: First Class’ — Moral Complexity and Depressing Racial Politics
X-Men: First Class has been out for around a week, and you've probably already seen it by now. It's a fun movie with a strong visual style set in the sixties, and while the script could use some tightening, it's definitely one the most entertaining Marvel flicks to date. For our review, we're going to focus on the best and worst aspects of the film, because while the highs of X-Men First Class are very high, the lows, particularly the racial politics of the film, are... well, you know.
The hands-down best part of X-Men First Class is Michael Fassbender as Magneto. While the Magneto in the comics is stuck in the superhero/supervillain dichotomy, complete with having kids who were raised by talking animals and regular flip-flops in morality. Fassbender's Erik Lensherr is much more nuanced, and understandable. He's human in a way that the Magneto in the comics is not.
There are two lines that are crucial to understanding Magneto in X-Men First Class. They're from the trailer, but no less significant. This:
Xavier: We have it in us to be the better man.
Magneto: We ALREADY are. We're the next stage of human evolution; you said it yourself!
Xavier: Listen to me very carefully, my friend. Killing Shaw will not bring you peace.
Magneto: Peace was never an option.
reveal a surprising amount of depth for the character, and I say this as someone who has enjoyed Magneto over the years, whether as a super-terrorist or as a symbol for young mutants.
Those lines unlocked two closely-related things about Magneto. The first is that he's lost, and he's very, very aware of that fact. His innocence, his peace, was stolen, and that's not something that you can ever get back. He's haunted by his past, and rather than attempting to move past it or ignore it, he's embraced his hardship. It's painful, but it fuels him.
The second thing is that Magneto is convinced of his race's superiority, and in the world of the X-Men, he's technically correct. In a world where humanoid beings can shoot lasers out of their eyes or eat stars, baseline human beings ("flatscans") exist at the whim of mutants. Magneto has tremendous power, despite his pain, and that means that he has ways and means to go along with his hopes and dreams. He can enforce his superiority.
The combination of Magneto being born better but raised worse gives him an opportunity to do what must be done, no matter how ugly. Magneto is irrevocably broken, and he can't get more lost. He can do what needs to be done. He's a martyr in the making, and someone willing to turn his own pain into a protective blanket for his kin. His own life doesn't matter, so long as he spends it for the lives of his people. He isn't suicidal, not exactly, but he is down with dying for the cause.
At the beginning of the movie, this means involves hunting Nazis and murdering them in revenge for his family. By the end of the movie, it means protecting mutants from baseline humans, even if it means sacrificing hundreds of human lives. Either way, Magneto's position is that some people deserve to die, whether they are Nazis seeking a freedom that they do not deserve or humans who are just following orders. Self-defense through overwhelming offensive action.
Call it morality via immorality. Who puts the bullet in the head of someone that deserves it? Is it terrorism if it's necessary?
Michael Fassbender managed to create a Magneto who is chilling, believable, and sexy. He fits in the '60s, and he makes you wish that there was a series of movies of Magneto and his Brotherhood terrorizing the world while wearing stylish turtlenecks. While his accent slips off and on, he gets across all of the pain, arrogance, and sadness that Magneto requires. Fassbender gives the best performance in the film, barring one really unfortunate series of facial expressions about two-thirds of the way through, and leaves you hungry for more.
It sucked to be black in the '60s, and that goes double if you're a black mutant, apparently. Edi Gathegi, who played Darwin, was the first and only team member to die, and he died in one of the dumbest scenes in any movie anywhere. Zoe Kravitz, Angel Salvadore from Grant Morrison's New X-Men, betrayed her team and joined up with the bad guys because, er... I'm sure she had a good reason, she just didn't bother to tell us. We'll get to her, though. First? Darwin.
Darwin basically served two purposes in the movie. He was there so that when someone said "slavery" when talking about mutant rights, the camera could focus on his face in one of the cheapest bits of direction I've ever seen. Yes, of course that would make the black guy mad. Congrats! You've got a rudimentary understanding of history, and I'm really happy for you. Way to hammer home the civil rights metaphor at the heart of the X-Men in the clumsiest way possible.
Darwin's other purpose was to die to give Shaw some cheap heat. This comes after Shaw had a henchman murder every single human being in a large building by dropping them out of the sky (a terrific scene) and after we find out that Shaw's plan is outright nuclear armageddon and genocide. It's the equivalent of the US government releasing a newsreel in 1944 that features Hitler strangling adorable little kittens as a way to show how evil he is. News flash: we already know. Darwin's death is completely unnecessary, and what's worst, it doesn't even make sense. Here's a faithful paraphrase of Darwin's death. The dialogue is correct, though abridged.
Shaw: So, tell me about your mutation.
Darwin: Well, I adapt to survive.
Shaw: Adapt to this. *puts a fireball in Darwin's mouth*
*Darwin dies slowly over the next thirty seconds while making a sad face*
*white people are sad*
*every black person in the audience rolls their eyes so hard because the black guy on the team died not only first, but like a punk*
For those of you who haven't seen the movie yet, Shaw does the equivalent of this classic move from Dan Hibiki of Street Fighter fame:
And here is how I felt watching this scene:
Get outta town. Really? Here's a recap: "What can you do?" "I can survive anything." "Okay, well, I'm going to kill you now because... just because, shut up and die."
Do you see the really basic problem with this scene? It doesn't follow the rules set up by the movie. Darwin, in fact, had spent the last ten minutes or so showing off his power to his friends. Why did this work? Why didn't Darwin's power work? Who knows, because Darwin is mentioned maybe once after that, and then as motivation for the other X-Men to man up and learn how to fight.
If you were to carve his death out of the movie and have Shaw merely try to murder him, the effect would've been the same. Shaw still would've been evil and the X-Men still would've been traumatized. In fact, if you'd carved Darwin out of the movie... you would get the same result. He was an extra character. The movie is too full, and really only Beast, Magneto, Mystique, and Xavier get a chance to shine. Banshee gets something like ten whole lines. Darwin was absolutely wasted as a character, despite a solid performance from Gathegi. He was wasted, and that's symptomatic of the larger problems with X-Men First Class.
Since the cast is so full, everyone's motivations are thin, to say the least. Angel is okay with being ogled as a stripper, but hates how the humans look at her wings. That makes a certain kind of sense. She's in control when stripping, and is careful to lay down ground rules in that interaction. The other situation is one of mocking bigotry, which she has no control over and is a terrible thing. She hates the latter so much that she signs up with a genocidal mutant who has just murdered dozens of humans right in front of her. She does this after what was seemingly less than a month of knowing that other mutants even existed, and she deserted her other mutant friends without a second thought.
Even worse, right before she does that, an off-screen human is like "Take the mutants, they're hiding in here! Just don't kill me!" shortly before being killed. This is a couple minutes before the slavery shout-out, and was put in just in case you don't get that no one likes mutants, not even the people meant to protect them. Get it? Racism!
Nobody beyond the main characters have much of a reason to do anything until Darwin bites it. The interactions tend to be one person saying something and another person agreeing. "Hey, do this." followed by "Sure, okay." "Boy, being a mutant sure is cool," followed by laughter and a "Yep, sure is!" And then, at the absolute nadir of the movie, Shaw goes, "Man, humans sure do hate us." and Angel responds, "Yeah, they do!" We're never given a reason to care about the majority of the X-Men, beyond the fact that they are sexy young people (and they all are, really) and theoretically who we're supposed to identify with.
The worst, most clueless part of X-Men: First Class is that both black mutants die or turn evil in the exact same scene. Did no one on staff realize this? Did no one get how bad that looks? You make a movie out of a series that borrowed heavily from the civil rights struggle and then murder the black guy and turn the black woman into an implied love interest for the villain?
I'm not saying I want balance, with one good black guy and one evil guy. I think that's dumb, to be perfectly honest, and would be extremely suspicious of anyone who wants that kind of parity. But at least let me believe that black mutants have actual reasons to do things or have powers that work as intended. "I can survive anything. Oh wait, no I can't, I'm dying" is crap!
The metaphorical black people in X-Men: First Class are blue and white, not black. It's a Civil Rights tale with the actual oppressed class that inspired the struggle stripped out. It's like the moral of the movie is "Black, er, blue is beautiful!" I can totally buy mutants that are evil and black mutants, but I didn't buy it here because the writing team barely even tried to sell it. They just threw it out there and expected you to nod your head and play along.
That's boring. No -- it's insulting. "You can inspire us, but you cannot be part of our story. Thanks for the ten dollars, though, sucker." In a movie that's otherwise a treat for X-Men fans, it's horribly disappointing, a reminder that ugly racial politics are still the rule of the day in Hollywood and that only white people really matter.
The worst of X-Men: First Class is doubly crap because of the pro-mutant slogan that pops up a few times in the movie. Xavier and Mystique say it repeatedly, with a nice pregnant pause in the middle of the phrase: "Mutant... and proud." It's a clear play on "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud," one of the greatest black power anthems of all time. The song is about being refusing to bend to someone else's hatred and empowering yourself. It's explicitly meant to inspire pride in black Americans. These are all worthy goals, and part of the memetic make-up of the X-Men franchise. But when you cut out or minimize your black characters, this part of the song:
I've worked on jobs with my feet and my hands
But all the work I did was for the other man
And now we demands a chance
we're tired of beating our head against the wall
and workin' for someone else
still proves to be depressingly relevant.