Sunday, June 19, 2011

A few belated thoughts on X-Men: First Class ...

I know the comics blogosphere has moved on to bashing/playing apologist for Green Lantern, but work and the odd business that comes with going on vacation has prevented me from being on time and possibly relevant. So let us travel weeks back in time and discuss X-Men: First Class.

First things first, I did like the movie. I've never liked the X-Men movies as much as the majority of the geek community but it was a large step up from X-Men: The Last Stand. What would have otherwise have been a mediocre reboot was elevated by the characterization of the central characters and the performances of James MacAvoy (Professor), Michael Fassbender (Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique) and Kevin Bacon (Sebastian Shaw). I don't think it's a great movie, but it's an enjoyable movie, and considering I had low expectations for this movie given that it takes its title from a solid, unique X-Men comic series that this movie has nothing to do with I was overall pleasantly surprised.

Yet, I always have a certain problem with the X-Men movies ... nay, the X-Men franchise in general, and that's this. Now, let's say you're a preteen girl with limited funds. Let's say said preteen girl is interested in superheroes. She watches the 90s X-Men cartoon but for the backstory largely learns about said superheroes not from comics so much but from the trading cards and profiles she reads on the Internet. Basically, this is how it plays out.

Cards/Profiles: "Hey Kid! Look! We have girl superheroes! Lots and lots and lots of girl superheroes! We have ones that fly and ones that control the weather and ones that make fireworks and ones that fuck your shit up and eat a whole sun! Read us! We are fun! Come play with us forever!"

Actual Stories: "Giant mutant horde fights other giant mutant horde. Wolverine mostly does everything."

That's not to say that I've never enjoyed an X-Men story or never found X-Men stories that didn't follow that formula, but the first three X-Men films, as much as I liked aspects of them, were basically that formula. Also, did I mention Wolverine is my least favorite X-Man and Storm my favorite? Yeah. So I've basically been brokenhearted since 2000.

Still, for all the heavy focus on Wolverine, and as much as I appreciate how this movie focused more on XavierMagneto (they are one word) and Mystique, I still feel like the first three movies had more for my metaphorical preteen self than this one. Did no one in the boardroom go, "Hey, so ... in our metaphor for racism it seems like all the people who end up on the good side are white American males. Should we think about this?"

Granted, I'm far from the first person to complain about this and whatever I write here probably won't be as eloquent as what David Brothers said. But sheesh, we couldn't have even had a good team that spanned the globe, even the white parts of it? I know there were some bad accents in the last films but what is an X-Men story without terrible accents, anyway?

So given that in the end we close with no female superheroes, this is what we do have.

Mystique - Now, despite her small amount of lines, I've always liked the movies' Mystique. I even dressed up as her in high school, which was probably a bad idea given that I was too lazy to add the spines and didn't cut my hair so nobody knew who I was. (Some guys liked my costume, but probably for the wrong reason.) Still, as much as I appreciate what a good sport Rebecca Romijn was for wearing all that makeup and terrible contacts in the first three films, the future Katniss Everdeen was definitely a step up, and her storyline was compelling. It's essentially a tragedy (the girl who could have been good turns evil), although the star of the tragedy doesn't see it as one.

Emma Frost (January Jones) - On the other hand, Emma starts off as a bad girl who is powerful but underappreciated by her boss Shaw, who at one point requests she get him ice for his drink, spends many of her scenes in her underwear and the climax of the movie largely out of the action. In the end she switches to working for the other bad guy, most of her motivations largely unknown. I think the character of Emma Frost has been largely mismanaged in recent years, and this tepid portrayal didn't help. At least she got a decent fight scene.

Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz) - Well, her makeup and the effects for her powers were nice. Unfortunately, as others have pointed out, this was the case of the only black female character turning evil soon after the one black male character is killed, and most of her motivations for doing so are not well developed.

Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) - It's kind of standard that the role of the normal woman is diminished in comparison to the heroes, but despite Moira's importance to the plot in a lot of smaller ways, I came away without much of an impression of her beyond when Magneto choked her. Compared to the work done with Pepper Potts in the Iron Man movies and Jane Foster in Thor, I was rather bummed.

I am aware that a two hour movie isn't the time to have an in-depth exploration of every character's psyche, which is okay, but I do wish these movies ostensibly about teams weren't one-man shows. This movie does improve the formula by making it more of a three-person show, but I think my wish for a glorious team movie where all characters - male and female, all different races - get to shine is still a dream for the future.


By the way, not that this is related to anything said above, but Good God Internet, you are hard on Xavier.

I mean, look, we all agree that the prejudice metaphor has long been a part of the X-Men mythos but as a result of this it occasionally runs up into ideas that are rather retrograde, such as the idea of proving yourself to be the "good type" of minority. It's totally an issue that should be talked about, and is a problem to be expected, given that the principal creators of the franchise were 1960s-era liberal Jewish men and thus saw it through that lens rather than the lens of 21st century progressives. I do think that comics and sci-fi lean on racism as a metaphor in ways that are often uncomfortable and borderline offensive rather than working to make their stories more diverse (i.e. District 9 and James Cameron's Avatar), and X-Men can occasionally fall into the trap.

But are we really going to side with the guy who wants to solve the problem by killing many people and starting a war to kill many, many more? Don't get me wrong, I like Magneto, but the guy's least death-filled plan to solving this problem in the comics is to bring all the mutants to their own island. I do not think the best way to dismantle the kyriarchal system is to kill everybody or take your toys elsewhere. I find fandom painting him as the good guy who knows what's really going on and how to really solve the problems as a bit disturbing.

Yes, I was there when Xavier said things like "We have the chance to be the better man" or "They're just following orders" but Magneto also counteracts this and when he does Xavier has nothing to say. Xavier is a hero who is sometimes wrong, and pays the price for it, losing his best friend and sister. He lives in an imperfect story, but he's an imperfect character who suffers for his beliefs and mistakes, and I don't see how some in fandom seem to not find that compelling.


  1. "[...] in our metaphor for racism it seems like all the people who end up on the good side are white American males."

    I was already getting that vibe by the *second* movie. Blue skin =/= people of color.

    (Haven't seen it yeeet, but I hear it *does* pass the Bechdel Test...?)

    Sometimes, having lines can be a detriment too. My brother still wishes Lady Deathstrike could have simply remained mute to uphold her (um) mystique.

  2. I was already getting that vibe by the *second* movie. Blue skin =/= people of color.

    At least the second movie had Storm, even with Halle Berry's bizarre performance of the character. It's true, though, it usually is about white guys.

    (Haven't seen it yeeet, but I hear it *does* pass the Bechdel Test...?)

    I *think* so ... pretty sure Mystique and Angel Salvadore talked, at least.

    Sometimes, having lines can be a detriment too. My brother still wishes Lady Deathstrike could have simply remained mute to uphold her (um) mystique.

    Heh. Well, I can't remember her saying much, but most of what I remember about her was the incredibly creepy way she died.

  3. Deathstrike literally had one line: a throwaway "Who's there?" when Jean(?) was swiping evidence from a lab.

    It's sorta like how Darth Maul had a single throwaway line in Episode I; why did the movie-makers *acknowledge* that these characters are capable of speech, and then have them say nothing for the entire movie?

    (at least with Silent Bob it's meant to bring a smile) |P