By The Racialicious Team
Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised at all.
Maybe it was too much to expect X-Men: First Class to show any less of a tone-deaf sensibility than Heroes. Matthew Vaughn, the director, warned us as much:
We talked about race issues because they say X-Men was based on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but I think I had enough political subtext in this movie. We’ve already discussed in the next one, does the civil rights movement become part of … But that’s a real hot potato as well, still, so we decided to stay clear. You can only put so much in one film, so, the sequel …
I don’t know. I don’t like talking about sequels because the film could tank and then there won’t be one.
So there you go, everyone. Meanwhile, Arturo and Andrea retraced their initial impressions, and expanded on more reasons why this film can’t be considered more than a well-intentioned failure. Spoiler-riffic discussion under the cut.
Well, it’s been a few days now. Looking back at the film – and the reaction it sparked in our readers – any changes in your take on the film?
Arturo: Not really. I still feel a little forward planning – namely, making this a two-film story – would’ve at least made it more possible to avoid the missteps that undermined this movie. Namely, giving each of the characters their own arc, instead of doubling down on the Charles & Erik Awesome Show Great Job! vibe. If you’d ended the first film after the rescue – have Sebastian Shaw and company exit stage-right like Snagglepuss – while creating tension between the boys’ two approaches, you’ve got enough of a hook to keep the story going. Also, Riptide might have had enough time to get one line of dialogue in.
Andrea: I think a whole reworking of the PoC and the white female characters is/was/should be the first order of business for the franchise. See, I really try to take literature-based movies on the idea that they are, in essence, reimagined synopses of their source materials. And few things annoy me more than the phrase, “You should read the book(s)” as a counterargument when the question or argument is raised as to why such movies (tend to) suck. I shouldn’t feel like I have to read Lord of the Rings to grasp what Peter Jackson ad his team put on the screen. With that trilogy, I felt like I got the gist as well as watched a rather great epic movie on its own merit.
And I felt that way for the first two X-Men films. (I did have an ex-husband who was a comics geek and loved the X-Men series. So, he hipped me to the basics of the story.) But I think that, even without the briefing, I could grasp what’s going on. (I won’t mention that mutant jamboree that was the 3rd installment.) But, upon hearing that Darwin wasn’t quite supposed to die the way he did, that Emma Frost wasn’t Betty Draper-fied Playboy bunny but a CEO of her own company, that Moira was a DNA expert, and Angel wasn’t a stripper … that ish right there let’s me know not only do I need to read the comics but, moreover, that the creative team *didn’t* read the damn thing. Or simply didn’t give a shit.
Arturo: Funny, I actually liked the “mutant jamboree” bit in X3. We’d gotten two flicks’ worth of position papers from Charles and Erik; it was about time we got to see another part of the franchises’ appeal: People With Superpowers Fighting.
But I hear ya; Jones’ Emma wasn’t written to, say, have sold Shaw out or escaped government custody on her own (she couldn’t do the Emma mind-trick on those two G-men?), Moira was just kinda there, and Angel went from bonding with her teammates to trying to kill them with nary a second thought.
Speaking of Charles and Erik, we each remarked in our chat about the slightly off-kilter bits in otherwise good interpretations of the characters: Erik’s James Bond pose was framed in a way suggesting mental illness, while Charles, the Good Boy, went from using his power as a pick-up line to Super Spy Activist Guy within, what, a scene?
Andrea: I said it in the thread, and I’ll say it here: as much as I love me some Magneto — and completely dig his non-integrationist position and, yes, even his need for vengeance and bloodlust — I still believe that the movie franchise sets him up as someone suffering from the “mental illness” of Drapetomania. This particular movie simply showed why he “suffers” from it, basically playing the Drapetomania as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. If it was simply that Erik stated that he refused to be bothered with humans, then we wouldn’t need 40 years of books and four films of watching Erik find various ways to turn the mutants to his way of thinking, ultimately, ridding the world of humans. The comic-book and movie teams could have made a comic-book series and film that showed what events shaped Erik’s thinking, Erik getting his revenge on Shaw, telling Charles that his assimilating behind will suffer for wanting to be bothered with humans, and going off to start a mutant colony. The end.
But that’s not what’s happening for, I believe, this reason: they want to posit Erik’s position as preposterously invalid by the lesson of separatism leads to human destruction. And they show it by Erik’s obsessive single-mindedness to destroy humans and those mutants who ally with them–including Charles. This, instead of understanding that separatism isn’t suicide or homicide, but a legitimate self-healing response to dealing with oppression.
Arturo: That’s the part of superhero culture the creative team stuck to, unfortunately; there really isn’t that middle ground most of the time. Add to that their rush to show us that Charles was The Good Guy and Erik was The Villain and it was nothing but trouble. Of course, we also saw that Chuck was a bit of a jerk in his own right; telling the guy who can dump a sub on your head that it’s his fault the bullet hit you? I guess Oxford wasn’t offering Logic courses at that time.
And then, Darwin. Between that close-up on him in the “slavery” line and then getting jobbed out to Shaw, director Matthew Vaughn and company really screwed that up, didn’t they?
Andrea: I’m still mad at that! Honestly, I didn’t think the franchise would rummage that far back in the racist movie-trope closet to dig out the Kill the Colored Person outfit and accessorize it with some Magical Negro. I had a Green Mile moment watching that mess. And Kevin Bacon looking all pimpalicious really didn’t help the situation.
Arturo: Working backwards, I guess we should’ve seen it coming; Darwin’s power looked cool, but had to be expensive from a CGI standpoint. And Angel “needed” to join Team Erik so it would have a flyer to fight Banshee. And from a set-piece standpoint, the attack on the base provided an in-canon reason to relocate the team and Cerebro from there to Casa de Charles, while further positioning Shaw as a badass. (One bit that was never addressed: in the comics, Azazel the Red Dude and Mystique are Nightcrawler’s parents. I would’ve gotten a chuckle if we’d seen him trying to chat her up in Sebastian’s sub.)
Regarding the film’s genderfail, let’s consider this statement from one of the writers, Jane Goldman:
Emma, I don’t think, needs a reason to be dressed the way she is, that’s the way she looks like in the comics, and it’s absolutely what she should look like. If you want to make it realistic, there are absolutely reasons given. In terms of Moira removing her clothes, I have to take responsibility for that one. I was just trying to think of a clever in way that she could infiltrate the party, and that was the idea that popped into my head.
I think there’s definitely an element of 60s sexism, which is supposed to be not-a-good-thing, running through the movie, though unfortunately sometimes, when a film is edited you end up with a thread seeming that you’re not following all elements of all threads. There was much more of story about Moira being oppressed.
I think what was originally there is that Moira was a woman, so in the minority in the CIA, and in that sense was an outcast in her own way, just as all the mutants are. She was a victim of prejudice. That story line was supposed to reflect what was echoing and reverberating throughout the film, including with Raven.
Andrea: Of course, the company would send a woman writer to get in the press to address the movie’s blatant sexism. Typical Trojan-Horse move.
Arturo: It’s also worth noting that Goldman was a writer on Kick-Ass, which is based on the even more misgogynistic comic from Mark Millar. So her skeeve-o-meter is presumably wayyyyyy less sensitive than a lot of people’s.
As far as this question, I wasn’t encouraged by her focusing on Moira’s sexuality, which is, at least, framed in a way that we can see her sympathetically; her bosses are idiots throughout, and it was at least her choice to disrobe in order to infiltrate the Hellfire Club, which gave her agency that was denied to Angel.
Andrea: Beyond catching up with the glory that is Michael Fassbender (thank you, Sarah Jaffe!), I think this flick, as engaging as it is, really exposed the hollowness of X-Men’s rhetoric as far as marginalization. I have to say, of all the X-Men flicks thus far, this one treated PoCs and white women the worst.
Arturo: Which is funny, in a sad way, considering how it’s being hailed as maybe the best one of the whole series. Is the bar that low these days?
Don’t answer that. On the bright side, Bryan Singer, part of the creative team, says they’ll do better next time, promise – if the flick makes enough money, of course:
I don’t know if every movie has to be a history lesson. But there’s a lot of history to cover. If we sequelized this, it could inhabit a whole world of the 20th century. When [First Class] happened, Kennedy had not been assassinated and the Vietnam War hadn’t happened yet. […] What’s really interesting about the ’60s setting is the civil rights movement.
To paraphrase a certain show’s theme song, suffice to say, we probably won’t get fooled again.