We humans are a venal, fickle bunch. We’re fine with superheroes as long as they’reaccidental (bitten, exposed to gamma radiation, struck in the face by toxic sludge); gifted by otherworldly outsiders (aliens or magical beings, or indeed aliens posing as magical beings); or if they’re otherworldly outsiders (aliens from a stricken red-sunned world, gods of thunder, Amazonians). If you’re unlucky enough to be born with your power, then we will fear and despise you. Talk about a mixed message.
(spoilers after the cut)
The X-Men has, as a franchise, been open in the way it explores prejudice in all its forms. The heroes of the story are tortured souls, forever torn between a perceived duty to help their fellow man, and a need to carve out their own destiny. A mutant nation on the island of Genosha has been founded and brought to rubble as we, fearful mortals that we are, simply could not bear to let them have a homeland. Homo Superior gets a tough ride in the Marvel Universe. But then angst always sells.
X-Men: First Class (title ganked from the 2007 series written by Jeff Parker and pencilled by Roger Cruz) shows us the early years of the X-Men. The very early years. Charles Xavier is charming, donnish, athletic and has a great head of hair. Magneto is a raffish Bond-alike, and a founder member of the group. This is a nice little twist on the common base of the X-Men legend, and works well. The partnership between the urbane professor and the wounded and driven assassin are nicely teased out and enacted by James McEvoy and Michael Fassbinder.
Setting the film in 1962, as the civil rights movement gained momentum and our fear of a nuclear conflict were all too real, is a minor masterstroke, underpinning everything that makes the X-Men such enduring and fascinating characters. It also gives director Matthew Vaughn the excuse to give the movie some Man From Uncle-style spy-fi flair. It’s a very groovy looking film, baby.
Sadly, the echoes of the civil rights movement in the film are just that. The two black members of the team are marginalised. Darwin is killed off with a shrug, and Angel goes over to the villain’s side. In one scene. It would seem that the only people of colour acceptable in the 1960’s version of the X-Men are Mystique and Beast – the blue ones. The racial bias of the film is, as many commentators have pointed out, disappointingly regressive. Setting a film in the sixties is no excuse for the outdated politics on display.
It’s the exploration of Magneto’s fall from grace that gives X-Men: First Class a little more … well, class. Erik Lensherr’s tragic past defines his future actions in this movie far more clearly than we’ve seen before. It is revenge that drives him, the hunt for Sebastian Shaw that keeps him going. The realisation that Shaw has something of a point about mutants and humanity, that he and his nemesis have common ground, profoundly changes him. It is a task that he will complete by any means necessary.
Comparing Erik to Malcolm X is a bit of a stretch, granted. But his transition from stylish assassin to messianic protector of his race is both tragic and revealing. He is willing, at the drop of a red helmet, to abandon his past life to guide his people to a safer future. He doesn’t just throw away his old allegiances; he cripples his friend. There is no room in his new life for old allegiances. Peace, as he made very clear to Xavier earlier in the film, was never an option.
X-Men First Class is an interesting aside to the fifty-odd years of history and backstory that have encrusted the franchise like thick vines. It’s nowhere near as clever as it thinks – the archaic racial politics and clunky dialogue slam the brakes on the ride at all the wrong moments. Nevertheless, there’s plenty to enjoy and some nice fanservice moments. In the moments when it doesn’t try to take itself too seriously, it’s a lively and skilfully told movie with some great performances. Michael Fassbinder in particular comes out looking like a star.
And I really think there’s room for a sixties-set superhero spy movie. Nick Fury would be ideal, if you think back to the Steranko-era battles against Hydra. With Samuel L. Jackson kicking ass. Just imagine how superfly that could be…