Tuesday, June 14, 2011

X-Men: First Class can't bear its own weight

This article by Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a broad, sentimental case for reconsidering X-Men: First Class in light of its purview of history. He makes a good observation, but he doesn't really even scratch the surface of the film's politics. It's a film being championed by reviewers across the US, appreciated by critics and fans alike as a return to form for the series, and yet, under even the mildest scrutiny, its politics and fictional histories start to look twisted. And ultimately, First Class proves itself to be a very pure form of that plague of the modern blockbuster: it's a film that doesn't stand up to even a breath of critical thought, and rapidly caves in under pressure of critique.


As Coates points out, X-Men: First Class is a conceit about society and The Other, played out by a small, oppressed group of superhumans, and thematically linked to the Holocaust, one of the greatest genocidal catastrophes to ever affect white Westerners. Aside from being an emotional trigger, the Nazis also abstractly represent the repressed Patriarch, embodied by the evil Sebastian Shaw and eventually co-opted by the troubled Erik Lensherr. This is a worthy background for a film about self-actualization: the rigid, destructive hegemony of the warlike Father is an interesting counterpoint to the whole idea of modern pluralist democracy.

In First Class, there is a proliferation of White Americans and Brits, running the government, running academia, fixing the problems left over from World War II, and managing the new war against Russia. Xavier champions the emerging Western ideals of plurality, rational restraint, and assimilation, the necessary foil to both Sebastian Shaw's wealthy, power-hungry genocidal tendencies and Erik's reactionary liberation violence. What a cluster of conflicts we have here: power, retaliation, and restraint, played out in all those terms defined by Western international politics.

And from the sidelines come our minorities, Darwin and Angel; in the wake of strong men come our female characters, Emma Frost, Raven, Moira, and Angel again. And here is where First Class actually shows its true colors: in the treatment of these marginalized characters, the traces that the real world leaves on this fantasy of rebellion. That's where the film's unstated assumptions appear, and ultimately, these speak louder than any of the pandering aphorisms that Charles and Erik exchange.

The racial minority characters in X-Men: First Class are both African-American. There's nobody of any other race in sight. In a movie taking place in the 60's, during the height of civil rights activism, this is significant: this is a sign that Xavier has already reached the level of consciousness that the whole country is still struggling to attain. These black characters are a stripper and a cab-driver -- two blue-collar jobs, the employment of people just trying to get by, avoiding attention, already assimilated. And in the very first encounter with the primary antagonist, one of these two characters betrays the cause, and the other dies trying to prevent her defection.

I don’t know if this happened to anyone else, but in my theater, there were some groans and boos when Darwin appeared to defect, and then died at the hands of Sebastian Shaw. And why shouldn’t we jeer? These characters, the only two actual minorities in a whole film about being a minority, are treated in the most frivolous way possible, as triggers for our emotional response. The sting of Angel's betrayal is sharp but absolutely empty, coming from somebody who has no apparent reason to betray the rest of the group; the sting of Darwin's death is even sharper, and though we have no more than a few minutes total devoted to his real life, we have a solid 30 to 60 seconds to gape as his body burns up and falls apart. He was effectively rendered a Black Cop Sidekick with no inner life, only developed enough to be a victim, an emotional patsy with a melodramatic long death scene, and a demonstration of Sebastian Shaw's evilness.

I want to keep writing about the stupidity and callousness of this treatment, but writing more about it won't help. If you're not outraged by the first viewing, you should be angry now, since you've gotten a chance to think about it. If you're not, then maybe you'll be outraged on the second viewing. If none of the above, then you're probably not going to be very sympathetic to the rest of this critique, either.

It sucks being a non-white person in this alternate-universe 60's (New?) England, but you know what sucks even worse? Being a woman!

Now, I know women weren't doing so well in the 60's, which were still trying to correct the hyper-domesticated gender relations of the 50's. I know Sebastian Shaw is an autocratic villainous fascist superspy, so it makes perfect sense that he would order Emma Frost around to get ice from glaciers in her underwear. In fact, that line of dialog was one of the few occasions in the film where it seemed to be aware of real-world oppression -- where the actual struggles of human beings seemed to impinge upon its fantasy for a moment -- so I applaud it. There is a wealth of potential here: being a woman, born powerful, in a society that devalues you based on your gender? Being a person for whom "pride" might mean complicity in an entrenched system that constantly oppresses you? What opportunities!

But in First Class, there was a tragic consistency -- an equal treatment of all women, whether they were villainous or noble, willfully subservient or supposedly "liberated" -- in that they were all treated as trophies for the three major patriarchs. Their value within the plot was reduced to sexual interest and ideological loyalty, which were constantly conflated. Emma Frost was basically a concubine for Shaw, and Angel started the film out as a stripper. Raven's key dramatic moments had a consistent sexual/romantic component: her moment of jealousy and suggestivity toward Xavier in Oxford; her fleeting romantic encounter with Hank, which could have become an important character development, but was actually just a way of creating an artificial sentimental bond between them; her apparent attempt to seduce Erik, apropos of nothing. Moira, the CIA agent, was one of the only female characters with any institutional clout, and she attached herself to Xavier from the beginning of the film; in the end, of course, it's revealed that her interest in him went beyond "professional."

The females in this film are not oppressed minorities or the unacknowledged Other, or even independent, active characters in the field of powerful personalities. They're basically a scorecard, awarding points -- in the form of sexual and ideological loyalty -- to whoever's rhetoric is winning at the moment.

A film that deals with The Other is great, and if it can wrap it into a fantasy in order to make it easier to digest, all the more power to it. But that kind of purpose comes accompanied with some responsibilities. In a film about oppression and marginalization, you have to make sure you're always CONSCIOUS of the ways you put that oppression on display. X-Men: First Class was unforgivably blind to its own politics, and its representational devices totally sabotaged its explicit message of self-actualization and liberation.

I would have liked to say it was a good movie, just because it was fun and the young mutants were endearing -- but someone once said to me that you can't call anything "good" if it doesn't stand up to some reflection without immediately becoming "bad." Sorry, Matthew Vaughn... you're going to have to retake Earnestness in Storytelling and Critical Thinking 101.

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