The Marvel comics franchise “X-Men” has been lauded for its cultural sensitivities and perpetual relevance due to parallels commentators draw between its protagonist mutants and real-life ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities in the United States. The comic, naturally, has always been all too aware of the comparison, even going so far as to transform team founder and leader Professor Xavier and his ideological nemesis, Magneto, into dueling Martin Luther King and Malcolm X figures.
The latest film adaptation, “X-Men: First Class,” punctuates that comparison by inserting the mutants – identifiable from your run of the mill superhero because their powers come through natural biology rather than a convoluted scientific mishap – into the early 1960s. Any child who’s taken a social studies class can point out the relevance in placing Marvel’s mutants at the precipice of the American civil rights movement. Yet, even with that concession, the filmmakers still walk right into a stale racist trope of Hollywood at the apex of the first act when they kill off Darwin, the only black member of the team.
One thing it isn’t, though, is surprising. When discussing the comic book medium, academics, columnists, and self-styled pop culture pundits have swarmed to the “X-Men” as the perennial example of social consciousness and sophistication in comic books. The angle is almost always that the material subversively enfranchises younger minds with the concept of fairness and social justice by casting colorful heroes in the role of the oppressed. The “not just kids stuff” battle cry is carried to comic book fans and creators, who are understandably eager to grant sober, honorable recognition to the medium they love. Unfortunately, it’s not wholly accurate or sincere. With few and brief exceptions, serious societal themes in mainstream comic books have not been handled with the class and sophistication that revisionists would have you believe. The problem isn’t with the comic book form, it’s with the comic book industry, which used to cater to children and now caters to an ever-shrinking fanbase of adults that shout mandates at creators rather than absorbing and digesting the material. All of this, of course, is a nice way of saying that even though I’m a fan, comic books aren’t high art or literature and any pretense otherwise should be taken with a grain of salt.
Sadly, this quagmire carried itself into Hollywood with the release of “X-Men: First Class.” As popcorn fare, the film does well. The writing carries the viewer through a brisk two and a half hours without becoming too enamored with itself, and it probably ranks as one of the better comic book films in recent history. However, some reviews of the film have carried with them the same inflated praise that the franchise receives in its printed form, largely ignoring artistic failings including but not limited to an unwieldy number of characters and sloppy scene structure that makes the first hour of the film seem like an extended montage sequence littered with stiff, wooden dialogue.
The worst crime it commits, however, is the intellectual disservice done to its theme through poor execution. Comparing the plight of the film’s mutants to groups like blacks, the Jews, and women of the time rings hollow when it treats those groups so dismissively. In the opening scene we are introduced to Magneto as a pre-teen in a concentration camp, but the rest of the film is spent actively ignoring the fact that he’s Jewish and that the man he’s pursuing was a Nazi. Instead, they’re all just mutants, inexplicably identifying immediately as this new class of person that they openly admit they did not even know existed and foregoing and dismissing all previous affiliations. Also troubling – and this is owing to a theme that comes from the source material – is the fact that in order for the metaphor of mutants as minorities to work, the audience has to somehow reconcile that concerns people have with a human being that can read thoughts and literally control everyone around him with his mind is somehow equitable to the active oppression of blacks and denying or otherwise obstructing their basic rights and liberties.
Beyond problems with the concept of equitable comparison are the actual practices of the film itself and its treatment of real peoples. The aforementioned sacrifice of the Darwin character occurs in the same scene as a defection from the team that makes the protagonists an all-Caucasian unit. There’s also a female agent, Moira McTaggert, who is portrayed as a forward-thinking 21st Century woman operating in the early 1960s, but it’s not acknowledged until the character is used at the very end as the punch line of a chauvinistic joke disguised as a statement of the times.
This isn’t to say that you can’t or shouldn’t go see “X-Men: First Class.” I’d recommend you do so, and you should and will enjoy it for its merits and for what it does right. It’s a great action-adventure movie, and I genuinely look forward to future installments of the new franchise and the approach it takes as it advances the setting into the late 1960s. I will, however, say this: be wary of anyone that will attempt to portray this well-executed blockbuster as anything other than an exception in the realm of high-budget Hollywood fare. Allusions to it somehow championing causes both past and present or displaying minority relations in a unique light are intellectually dishonest, fraudulent, and bound to elicit some degree of disappointment when, once again, ignorant Hollywood rears its predictably ugly head and kills off literally the only black guy in the entire movie.
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