Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Written by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Oliver Platt
Once I saw the glistening and snow-white January Jones declare herself to be the villainous mutant Emma Frost, my first thought was, “I wonder if she’s afraid that she’s been typecast to appear exclusively in films that take place in the 1960s?” Jones already plays the quintessential 1950s housewife/reborn 1960s liberated woman in the TV series Mad Men, and in that role, she has already taken part in an episode structured around the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (the season two finale, “Meditations in an Emergency”).
The plot of X-Men: First Class makes more liberal use of the same near-catastrophe, by crafting an alternate history in which a group of evil mutants (of which Emma Frost is a prominent member) engineers the crisis between the USA and USSR, in an attempt to destroy the human race and make the world hospitable to the new generation of mutated human beings—mutants with sundry powers and quasi-supernatural capacities, not least of which must include (one would assume) universal invulnerability to radioactivity. The chief villain, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) is also a 1960s echo. Assuming the role of a double-breasted, tight-pants-ed Bond villain whose lines and swagger are refracted through Austin Powers, Bacon had the unenviable and difficult task of acting a part that is only 67 percent ironic. If my memory tells me that he was lightly stroking a white kitten at any point during this movie, it is to the credit of the writing staff and the character that they created. But the writers were also able to mine a quarry that never stops yielding shiny objects which fascinate the public: the events of the 1960s.
I am now feeling a bit guilty about writing so flippantly about a movie that is, after all, 33% serious, so the first thing to do would be to point out that the heart of this story—a heart which the director did not allow to beat as vigorously as it could have—is the relationship between Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and the soon-to-be villain Magneto (Michael Fassbender) who in his younger days (and the time span of this film) is named Erik Lensherr. Xavier is a privileged son of a well-to-do New York family with a transatlantic accent; Erik is not as lucky as a child, having seen his mother shot before his very eyes by a Nazi during the Holocaust. What both men share in common, however, is an early awareness of their mutant abilities, which they take to be gifts. They also share a conviction that the rise of mutated human beings will herald a new horizon for the human race.
But what the two men do not share is the most important thing: an ideal. Xavier believes it is reasonable to hope for a future in which mutant and normal human can coexist peacefully. But of course, the intelligent, Oxford educated, cosmopolitan Xavier would hold such a dream. Erik, on the other hand, had all of his dreams destroyed by a totalitarian ideology, and he has never indulged in utopian ideals. He prefers simple vengeance. Both men agree, however, on one practical goal: that Sebastian Shaw, Emma Frost, and their lemmings must be stopped before they bring the two world powers to war. Erik also has some ulterior motives, however. Sebastian Shaw had been the Nazi who shot his mother. He would like to shoot him; Xavier tries to convince him that killing will not bring him the peace that he desires.
The conflict between Xavier and Erik is the morality tale within the script, and it lies somewhere beyond the central story of the movie. The story which pits Sebastian and the bad mutants against Xavier, Erik, and the young, alienated, but innocent mutants they can gather to their side, is only the plot of the movie, not its main concern. A point to ponder about this plot, incidentally, is the fact that the alternate, X-Men universe has non-humans both causing and resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis. The point in which humankind came so close to dramatically (and negatively) altering its own future becomes, in this film, an event which humankind cannot control. There are moral and philosophical implications there that the reader may wish to think about.
The morality tale is more significant. It reaches its climax after that final battle, when Erik and Xavier confront each other about what mutants should really do in this brave new world of armed human beings who do not accept them. The decisions that each man makes will have repercussions for the entire world. The repercussions of this standoff run throughout all the X-Men movies.
My favorite among those is still the third one, X-Men: Final Stand (2006), with its final scene of cataclysmic romanticism in which Wolverine tells Jean Grey, “I love you” before he kills her. There is no such poetry in this film, even though there are stretches of compelling drama. Nevertheless, I would have preferred more Erik v. Xavier debates, and less of the young mutants showing off their powers and talking like teenagers (they are teenagers, but still). Ultimately, in the spectrum of comic book incarnations, this movie is closer to being campy like the 1966 Batman rather than tragic like The Dark Knight. It serves the purpose, however, of extending the franchise: I do want to know more about the X-Men and the world that they are trying to create.
Santiago Ramos is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Boston College.