Movie Review: X-Men: First Class

I wasn’t planning to see X-Men. I never got into the series, despite liking Patrick Stewart from Star Trek. But a couple of my old high school friends invited me, and it’s always good to see them again, so…

It was fun, it had good visual effects, it’s not so true to the original comics (apparently), but it feels like a successful “reboot”, and the series didn’t even really need rebooting. Well, apparently the one about Wolverine wasn’t great. Whatever.

Before I actually review the movie, I’m going to link to this New York Times article that my estimable friend Jim found a week ago: “You Left Out the Part About …”. I’ll come back to this at the end of the post.

X-Men: First Class is an action movie. Oh, it has a plot, it has little bits of morals put in here and there, but when you make a film about superheroes these days people expect to see the super abilities rendered in the awesome cinematic glory we love. In these terms it doesn’t disappoint. (Or maybe it did, some of my friends who watch more action movies than I do were also “meh” about this one. I enjoyed it.)

Having no formal X-Men background at all, I had fun trying to match each character’s first on-screen appearance with the jumble of characters I had in my mind from the X-Men universe. (I didn’t do too well, and I was convinced the girl with heterochromia was actually a latent X-Man. Oops.) This is well in keeping with the movie’s “prequel” style; apart from the fan service jokes about future events, the whole point of the movie is basically to set up the original situation, with the creation of both the “X-Men” and the “Brotherhood of Mutants” being established here along with the personal backgrounds of Magneto, Mystique, and Professor X (and the other characters to some extent).

And it takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a very real event even if merely something out of history for our generation. In fact, the movie starts during the Holocaust, as if determined to class itself as something more serious than a kids’ film or simple action movie. Which it is, but not by much.

Spoiler-less verdict: Actually, that was it. This is an action movie that trades some action for a measure of class. But it’s not a must-see.

Spoilers begin here. Warning: this became less of a review and more of a rambling diatribe on the state of movies. It’s not bad enough to deserve all this negativity, but despite liking it I just can’t get that excited.

If X-Men weren’t an action movie, you might say it’s mainly a movie about two things: acceptance and growing up—wait, hold on.

X-Men is mainly a movie about two things: acceptance and growing up. Tackling them in that order, Raven and Hank1 represent the main characters on the fence for “acceptance”: they’re the ones whose mutations alter their physical appearance in a way that has to be hidden. (Well, Angel too, but hers is easier.) And although the movie is a little clumsy about it, for the most part you feel it: they just want to be normal. Personally, though, I’m with Erik on this one…Raven should get to be Raven. Hank should get to be Hank. “Mutant, and proud.” TBH, though…I don’t know if Hank’s feet would ever be normal. (Raven? Possibly…her shape is still almost all human, and didn’t we go through this with Elphaba already?)

So, that’s the obvious level of acceptance. Beyond that is the whole issue of whether or not mutants can be accepted in society, and to be honest Erik’s pessimism is probably right there too. He puts it bluntly: “Identification, that’s how it starts. And ends with being rounded up, experimented on. Eliminated.” Charles doesn’t offer much of a counter-argument. Are we enlightened enough to accept a group of people that different? We can’t even do that today.

(And there’s the usual stupidity about even calling them a group. Most of the mutants aren’t related, don’t necessarily share ideals, and don’t have the same powers. Their only common bond is a negative: they are not within human norms. Whatever those are. Unfortunately, the same sort of thing happens all the time in real life.)

On growing up: the movie treats Charles and Erik as the grown-ups, and the other six light-side mutants as still kids. Their initial growing-up moment is when Darwin2 dies, but even then Alex still bullies Hank, Sean feels young, and Raven doesn’t actually fight. (Alex bullying Hank actually really bothered me. I think the character actually would do that…he’s not a nice guy. But already it shows how badly things go when people are different.) And Erik has had a very different experience growing up, and what he learns is some measure of self-control and some appreciation for life. …Sort of. As for Charles, well, he’s already in his Professor X role from the time he meets Raven as a kid, i.e. the beginning of the movie.

Come to think of it, why doesn’t Raven fight? I guess her power isn’t directly useful for combat, but still. Emma Frost never actually fights…she just uses her sexuality to achieve her ends, then gets easily captured by Charles and Erik. (Okay, she stopped Erik’s first attack, but that was barely a fight.) And Angel…well, she fights, but not physically. It’s all a war of projectiles in the air, and even when she gets hit, it’s “just” her wing.

So Hollywood doesn’t like to show women getting beaten up. I guess that’s not news. What about everything else? There were certainly plenty of opportunities to see the women of X-Men in skimpy clothing. Again, it’s Emma Frost’s primary tool for manipulation (well, and her telepathy). Angel was a stripper. Even MacTaggart pretends to be a stripper to spy on Shaw, which means she’s in her underwear like everyone else. (At the same time, the cinematography didn’t emphasize that at all, which a lesser director might have done, but I don’t think that makes up for it.) That means Raven’s the only one—oh wait, she comes out naked in front of Charles, after presumably having sex with Erik. I guess having bumpy blue skin exempts you from MPAA censorship, but it doesn’t do much to help this not-so-subtle accusation of sexism I’m leading up to.

Okay, it was a pretty passive sexism, but basically, there was plenty of female skin in this movie, and very little male skin. And yes, the target audience is probably skewed towards straight males; I’m not trying to make a fuss. But I do notice these things.

Speaking of MacTaggart, she doesn’t do anything. I was sad that it seemed like non-mutants were useless in this movie—even the “good guys” just used them whenever it was necessary. We let this go in a lot of superhero stories, but it’s an interesting point…this movie really does make it seem like humans are useless. Just like in Harry Potter, Muggles are useless, and Slytherins are evil. In the Star Wars books, things are a little more grey: occasionally a Jedi will feel guilty about mind-tricking his/her way past a bureaucrat. Or whatever. But not too often. When people treat other people like they’re inferior, they’re certainly not making friends. It would have been nice to see MacTaggart come up with one good idea, see her take down one of the mutants, whatever. Instead, we get the “I-know-it’s-a-joke-but-it’s-not-funny” line, “This is why we shouldn’t let women in the CIA”. Great representation of non-mutants, X-Men.

Makes Erik’s point a little less valid, IMHO.

Okay, I’ve blathered on for a long time, so I’ll just put the rest of my review in bullet points:

  • As someone who can’t watch Doctor Who cause it’s too much “soft science fiction”, X-Men bothered me a little when it tried to explain the abilities as “mutations” in human DNA. This is nothing new for the X-Men universe, but it’s of course a little silly…anyway, I was able to get over that when they stopped talking about it, and I didn’t mind them having DNA that Hank could work on later.
  • The music was a sort of “generic action movie in the style of Hans Zimmer”. Not a surprise, since apparently the composer, Henry Jackman, is one of Zimmer’s apprentices, like Klaus Badelt of Pirates of the Caribbean fame. (No relation to Hugh, BTW.) Anyway, I actually liked it quite a bit, even if there weren’t any iconic moments, clever uses of recurring motifs, or memorable tracks.
  • Who the heck is Azazel? In the comic books, apparently he’s not a human at all. We don’t really get to see him here.
  • Who the heck is the tornado guy? Apparently his superhero name is “Riptide” (and his real name Janos), but I don’t remember them naming him at all. I don’t remember him talking at all.
  • Why did Emma Frost stay in prison, when she proved she could have easily busted out? (Why do I keep calling her by her full name? “Frost”, “Emma”, and “White Queen” all seem wrong.)
  • Why did Sean look so much like Ron Weasley?
  • I didn’t realize Shaw was Schmidt at first. Oops.

To sum it all up, this movie was The Incredibles. Except with more focus on the action, real-world events, and trying a little too hard. (Acceptance and growing-up? Okay, really this is a movie enjoying being an X-Men origins story.) But I enjoyed it.

To close off this post, however, I want to return to the issue of race, and Coates’ article that was linked at the beginning. It’s true that in the end, all of the “good guys” are white. (Beast is white. Raven is white and she defects. Angel is not white and she defects first. MacTaggart is white.) Yes, the comic books started out with tokenism too, since white was and is the default in America, but the movie isn’t true to the comic books anyway.

Okay, how about Erik being Jewish? A Holocaust survivor? And the whole film’s about acceptance—I said that before. Maybe that’s why, then…the stereotypical American willing to accept a mutant white person or a non-white person, but not a mutant non-white person. That would just be too much!

Harsh, but possibly true? I don’t know. What I do know is that this is yet another movie where all the main characters, good and bad, are white, the token Latina woman defects, and the token black man is killed off so fast they don’t even bother introducing his real name (Armando). Passively racist, again…but something that needs to change.

It’s not that they weren’t all perfectly good actors, or cast members. And I’ve said before,

The victory is of course not when the heroes are East Asian and the villains are white (except perhaps for historical stories). But it’s also not when there sits a statistically representative ethnicity mix of heroes and villains. The victory is this: when, say, an all-white cast of heroes and a Middle-Eastern cast of villains is picked for The Second-to-Last Airbender, because in this case, they really are the best actors (available and wanting) to play the roles. And nobody has any objections.

(excerpt from a post called “Diversity”, follow-up here)

But we need stories whose leads aren’t white, groups that aren’t automatically male dominated. And when your movie is even a little about acceptance, these things become important.

  1. This movie is when everyone gets their superhero names, so for most of it they talk to each other with their real names. I think that’s great. Now, though, that’s how I think of the characters, so I’m mostly going to use real names in this review. Sorry if that’s confusing for some. ↩︎

  2. I didn’t use Darwin’s real name because, IIRC, it was never used in the movie. A little more on this at the end. ↩︎