This is not a review. If you’d like to know whether I recommend X-Men: First Class I can say simply: It was good. You should go see it. Matthew Vaughn manages to put together the cerebral, subtextual X-Men film that we’ve been missing since 2003. First Class moves through it’s paces swiftly, deftly, and though by the end of the film I wanted to take its musical composer aside and explain that not every use of mutant powers in the movie needs to have all the string and brass instruments in the orchestra thrown at it, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
But precisely because First Class was good, and because it played the allegorical stand in for prejudice-targeted-minorities the X-Men were meant to be like a fine aria, it is also important to point out the places where it fell short of the mark with actual, real, prejudice-targeted groups. (The rest of this post contains spoilers.)
First, there’s the matter of minority characters in the movie, which is a fairly simple one to explain. By the end of the film every single non-white mutant allies themselves with Magneto or Sebastian Shaw.
If I may play Devil’s advocate against myself for a moment, the Chronicle makes a very interesting and legitimate argument for why this would be so, and it’s all about privilege and the different and legitimate responses to prejudice:
The film also explores the privilege that often play out in marginalized groups and mutants being no different. For instance, there’s a privilege dynamic between mutants who can pass for human: such as Magnus and Xavier and those who are visibly a mutant: Mystique and Hank… Just because you’re marginalized in one respect, doesn’t mean you don’t have privilege in another..
…I believe Darwin chose to stay and fight for a government that fears and hates him for the same reason Jackie Robinson played baseball for an all-white team. For the same reasons blacks have served in the military and fought to protect a nation that actively oppresses them. Or for that matter gays who aren’t even allowed to be visible. It’s easy for us to say they were stupid/wrong to make those decisions but the truth is, Darwin wasn’t blind or naive… He knew the score and understood the dynamics. I surmise he believed that his sacrifices would make things better for future generations or at least gain ground in the struggle for equality…
Just as I can’t fault Angel for abandoning the government to side with Shaw and later Magneto. She gets denigrated for being a woman, a person of color, and a mutant, even by the CIA agents who were supposed to be protecting her. Why the fuck should she stay and fight for a nation that should burn in hell? She’s not wrong for saying fuck that noise and siding with her people.
This is a legitimate argument, and, if those themes were intentional, a brilliant depiction of the myriad and unconnected ways in which a person can be considered “other” and how they might respond to oppression. However, it would have been nice if the one non-white mutant who decided to ally himself with Professor X’s peaceful, cooperative mission wasn’t killed outright by his own kind in the same scene. Darwin’s death in the first act crisis is the first mutant death of the movie, and, in fact, is the only mutant death in the film other than that of the Big Bad, Shaw. It’s an incredibly head-deskable moment in a film that not only is about the treatment of unjustly loathed minorities, but is set during the Civil Rights era. With his death, and the defection of Angel, the X-Men become an all-white team.
No, blue does not count, and it seems an even more obvious stumble as you finish the movie and realize that Havok, Banshee, Angel, and arguably Darwin could have been replaced with any other mutant characters. Shuffling the characters around so that the team didn’t wind up lilly white would have been very possible. Their character arcs and powers had no effect on the plot. Just make sure one mutant on each side can fly, and you’re done.
X-Men: First Class skims over the Civil Rights Movement’s contemporary ties to its setting, i.e. smack in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Matthew Vaughn has acknowledged this in interviews, saying (with a legitimate storyteller’s concern) that the Civil Rights was too big of an issue to offhandedly hint at in a movie already widely concerned with a specific political event, and that the Movement might become part of a sequel, should a sequel get made.
But the movie does hint at the inequality of women in the era… and it does so offhandedly. Moira McTaggert, a woman who has already managed to defeat enough prejudice to become a CIA Agent, wears full on Emma Frost Playboy Bunny style lingerie while on a stakeout (it is possible that she planned it, knowing her targets would be inside a casino, but the movie does not imply this). The transgressions of male characters against the women around them are played mostly for laughs: Moira’s gender is routinely mocked by her superiors in front of her as if she was not present, Shaw snidely asks Emma Frost to freshen up his drink, and while we are certainly not invited to side with the jerks at the CIA or Sebastian Shaw, neither are we invited to see Moira and Emma’s struggle for equality as being in any way a parallel or similar struggle as that of the mutant race.
The only characters who were are invited to think particularly badly of for shaming women are Professor X and Beast, who spend many of their interactions with Mystique body shaming her blue form.
Jane Goldman, co-writer of the movie, actually adressed this before the film’s opening:
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… 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 [Mystique].
I believe her, not because I am an optimistic human being, but because X-Men: First Class was an incredibly tight film, top to bottom. There wasn’t a single scene that didn’t advance the plot or the emotional arcs of the major characters, and so I readily believe that a story arc that was only connected one character, and a non-mutant at that, was left on the cutting room floor.
However, it would have been nice if that stuff had made it in. What we’re left with is a movie does a good job of subtly making a couple major “good guys” look like slightly misogynist, privileged jerks when you compare them to Magneto’s proto-Brotherhood of Mutants, with it’s natural-beauty-positive, reactionary, take-no-shit from non-mutants philosophies.
And here’s where I remind you that X-Men: First Class is still really good an you should go see it. Really! Go read my first paragraph again.