This post will contain spoilers aplenty. If you haven’t seen First Class and want to maintain your surprise, do not read ahead. Also, up front: I’ve never read any X-Men comics. I want to, after seeing this movie, but at this point, literally everything I know about X-Men I learned in the films.
First things first: guys, this was straight-up awesome. I mean it was awesome. It is narratively tight, well acted, well written, well directed, well edited. It has funny moments both subtle and overt. (Full disclosure: I laughed about ten times more than anyone else in the theatre, and I’m not sure everything I laughed at was intended to be funny (though not in a so-bad-it’s-funny way, more humour coming from a lack of irony and a lack of self-consciousness)). It is exciting and it is engaging and I loved the shit out of it.
That said, I’m not so much interested in writing a traditional review as I am in exploring what this film did and didn’t have to say about race, gender, oppression, and minorities. Walking out of the theatre, I was struck by how morally open-ended First Class was. While later films obviously paint Magneto as a villain, this one draws him much more sympathetically. His arguments resonate. Given the evidence as presented in the film, there’s no reason not to agree with him that the only way for mutants to survive is to cast humans as the enemy and consider themselves at war. Matt Yglesias discusses this in two short pieces he wrote over on ThinkProgress:
… In the text Magneto is clearly in the right and Xavier’s X-Men are a bunch of dupes. The film is a pretty serious departure from the conventional depiction in this regard, but it’s quite thoroughgoing. Magneto’s mutant pride attitude is in every way more admirable than Xavier’s preference for the closet, and Xavier’s political view that mutants and humans can coexist peacefully if mutants avoid provocations is directly contradicted by the events at the end of the film.
There are obvious parallels here to race relations in the US, with Magneto as a Malcolm X figure and Charles Xavier as an MLK figure. I’m not saying, and I don’t in fact believe, that First Class is intended as an allegory for the history of race relations in the US, but I do think that in crafting different possible mutant responses to their treatment at the hands of the government, the writers of this film and the writers of its source material cribbed heavily from real life.
These parallels are especially interesting to consider in light of the film’s historical setting: 1962, the Bay of Pigs. Brown vs. Board of Education was eight years old. The Civil Rights Act was two years from being signed into law, and the president who would do so had not yet been forced into that role. Malcolm X’s chickens hadn’t yet come home to roost and King had not yet had a dream. And yet First Class ignores race as a plot point entirely. Director Matthew Vaughn acknowledges that, basically saying that it was too big of an issue to tackle, and while I get that, there’s a difference between choosing not to tackle an issue and acting as though it’s not there. Ta-Nehisi, as always, says it better than I could:
I’m not arguing that X-Men should have been “about” the Civil Rights Movement … The appropriate comparison for me is Mad Men. The show is about an exclusively white world, but it is never blind to race. I can’t think of only one “racial” story-line, and I am fine with that. But race is always there, in the subtext, in the side comments, in the jobs which black people work … These debates often devolve into a call for tokenism. But tokenism isn’t awareness …
Here’s where it gets really weird, though. First Class ignores race as a plot point, but that leads it to trip over race constantly in some pretty uncomfortable ways. The film contains, arguably, two characters of color, Darwin and Angel. Darwin is unambiguously black, and we’ll get to him in a minute. Angel, on the other hand, is racially ambiguous. She’s played by Zoe Kravitz, who is half black and half Jewish (Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet’s daughter), but I have no clue what the character’s race was supposed to be. I read her as a character of color, but I could easily see her being read as Italian or something. Anyway, let’s call it two characters of color. Does the first mutant death really have to be the black dude? Really? I’m always shocked when movies, seemingly without a shred of awareness, kill the black dude first, but First Class does it. Not only that, it does it right after a really heavy-handed moment where, enumerating the risks of mutant-human cohabitation, the villain says, “Enslavement,” and the camera rests on a close-up of Darwin’s lovely face. Ta-Nehisi says they turned Darwin into Crispus Attucks, and I can’t really argue with the analogy.
So there’s that.
Then there’s the fact that Angel winds up joining Magneto’s team at the end, leaving Professor X’s team with muscle-bound Aryan dream Havok, so-white-he-shines Banshee, and formerly nerd-orable, now-blue-fuzzy-and-self-hating Beast. (Did I mention they’re all dudes? They’re all dudes.) Magneto, on the other hand, has Angel, Riptide, also somewhat racially ambiguous but played by Spanish actor Álex González, blue-skinned “Mutant and proud”-evincing Mystique, and – oh yeah – Magneto himself, a fucking Holocaust survivor with a number on his arm. (Also, he’s got three chicks to Xavier’s zero. Winning on all diversity fronts? Check.) Matt has something really interesting to say about this, which I’m not sure I agree with as an intended message but is worth contemplating nonetheless:
Magneto is the good guy and he ends the film leading a rainbow coalition of red-skinned, blue-skinned, brown-skinned, Jewish, and female crusaders for mutant pride. The X-Men are led by a Professor Xavier who’s not just naive, but callow and hypocritical. Naturally he attracts a team of privileged white men and the self-loathing Hank McCoy. But the moral here is precisely that the struggle for justice won’t be waged by a team of enlightened white dudes. The team of enlightened white dudes is offering a kind of craven appeasement, while the multi-hued emergent Brotherhood of Mutants stands for self-respect.
In either case, these factors up against the film’s total ignorance of any real-world racial politics whatsoever create a very strange cognitive dissonance which I’m once again going to turn to Ta-Nehisi to articulate.
“First Class” is set in 1962. That was the year South Carolina marked the Civil War centennial by returning the Confederate Flag to the State Capitol; the year the University of Mississippi greeted its first black student, James Meredith, with a lethal race riot; the year George Wallace was elected governor of Alabama. That was the year a small crowd of Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and commemorated the 100th birthday of the Emancipation Proclamation. Only a single African-American was asked to speak (Thurgood Marshall, added under threat of boycott). In “First Class,” 1962 finds our twin protagonists, Magneto and Professor X, also rallying before the Lincoln Memorial, not for protest or commemoration, but for a game of chess. “First Class” is not blind to societal evils, so much as it works to hold evil at an ocean’s length. The film is rooted in its opposition to the comfortably foreign abomination of Nazism.
It’s just weird, y’all.
However, as a broader allegory for “the minority experience,” First Class does a pretty solid job. It does excellent work elucidating the frustrations felt towards mutants who can pass as human (Xavier, Magneto) by mutants who can’t (Mystique, Beast). (Insert any number of arguments within oppressed groups regarding things like conforming to the privileged group’s standards, benefits garnered from passing as a member of the privileged group, etc.) It presents a variety of responses to oppression and allows us, however briefly, to explore the various rationales behind these responses. It also nods to the oppression of women, if not very skilfully. I found the character of Moira MacTaggert somewhat implausible (I’m skeptical that the CIA would have had a female agent in 1962), but I’m pretty sure she’s comic book canon, so whatevs. What I did not find implausible were the gross comments made about and to her by the various men she works with. The women’s fashion may be anachronistic (or so I’m told), but the parade of miniskirts makes its point.
Have you seen First Class? What did you think? Inquiring minds are really, really curious.
X-Men: First Class by Neo-Prodigy
Some Concerns About X-Men: First Class by Susana Polo
Magneto Was Right by Matt Yglesias
You Left Out The Part About… by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Quintessential Mutants of America by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Magneto Was Right, Part II by Matt Yglesias
Mutie Go Home by Ta-Nehisi Coates
“X-Men: First Class” Flunkies by Naima at PostBourgie