X-Men? Why call them the X-Men? Did no one pause and say, “Actually, guys, you know what, that name makes it sound like they’re all either eunuchs or transsexuals”?
Yes, yes, it’s X for Xavier, Patrick Stewart as was, James McAvoy as is, and we’ll get to him. But the X-Men really are ex-men at the species level: they’re ex-homo sapiens. You know what that means? X-Men: First Class has a very clear idea what that means. It means the Nazis were onto something. My guess is that, on this particular point, the four people credited with the screenplay never quite noticed what they’d written. (Two things you can generally assume when four people are listed as co-writers on a blockbuster: half a dozen other people did bits of the writing as well, and the film would be better if they hadn’t.)
If you haven’t been to the new X-Men yet and you just want a yes/no recommendation, this is a slightly lukewarm yes. Though it’s an odd kind of lukewarm. The film’s okay, but it arrives at okay via a far more complex averaging process than most superhero movies, being an amalgamation of things that thrilled me, things that bored me, things that made me think, and things that made me want to tear my hair out, rather than the more common diet of pretty CGI action mush mit der clever one-liners. (No shortage of CGI action or one-liners though, if you’re worried.) That peculiar warm-the-room-by-chilling-half-the-air-and-superheating-the-rest process is what I’m mostly going to discuss here, which is going to require massive spoilers. Since it’s polite to mark the point beyond which I’ll assume all persisting readers have either seen the film, or decided they have no intention of ever doing so, and since I also want to talk about the trailer at some point, let’s embed it. (Be advised that the reason I want to discuss the trailer is that it’s full of spoilers itself.)
So, Nazis. Stephen Jay Gould once wrote an essay called “Human Equality Is a Contingent Fact of History”, in which he suggested we contemplate what the world might be like if the Nazi reading of Darwin had been the correct one: if evolution had handed us a world containing several different human subspecies, some of them inherently less intelligent than others. “Would we have built zoos, established reserves, promoted slavery, committed genocide, or perhaps even practiced kindness?” It’s pure chance history never asked us to answer that question. Recorded history, at least. As Gould points out, there were australopithecines, close evolutionary cousins of ours with one third the cranial capacity, co-existing with our direct ancestors less than a million years ago.
If you tell a story in which you change the basic assumptions of most ethical reasoning, you lose the ability to appeal to conventional ethics. This is a science fiction truism. X-Men: First Class wants to be allowed to behave like science fiction – the standard movie version of science fiction, where scientific impossibilities are shoved into pseudo-science clothing and no one asks awkward questions, such as “Which exact gene complex was it that turned your eyes into laser weapons while still allowing you to see out of them?” – while retaining the framework of standard good guy/bad guy Hollywood ethics. This would be just one more additional weight to hang from the suspend-your-disbelief-here-please hooks at the theatre door, except that it also wants to deal with profoundly troubling subject matter. The entire X-Men franchise has this subject matter in its DNA, because the very first film in the series opens at the gates of Auschwitz.
I had the chance to talk with the fantasy author China Mieville a few years ago, and he cited this sequence, which the new film recreates for its own opening, as an example of what fantasy can do that realism can’t. “I think that scene is one of the most astonishing pieces of modern cinema I’ve ever seen. The funny thing is, I don’t think any fucking film theorists or cinema critics noticed. Because it’s in a bubblegum film, people don’t realise – whatever one thinks of the rest of the film, there is this truly extraordinary three minute section at the beginning. And one of the things that I think is so amazing about it is that it reinvigorates the iconography of the death camp. One of the tragedies of the depiction of the Holocaust in film and literature is that inevitably, because of the repetition, it ends up losing its power, and worse, it ends up becoming a kind of kitsch. When you see this child splaying his fingers, and the fucking barbed wire reaches out for him – I have goosebumps thinking about it. It gets at an emotional and political truth about the Holocaust with a power and a punch that a realist film could never have managed. It reinvigorates the power and the utter horror of it, and it does it using fantasy. I thought it was the most astonishing vindication of the fantastic mode as a way of talking about politics and history. It rescued that iconography from realism, because realism, when it comes to the death camps, can no longer be realistic. We can’t see it any more, it’s been too done.”
This is a typically elegant Mieville argument, in support of not one, but two positions I fully endorse – first, that fantasy can go places realism can’t, making the disdain of many critics towards it a very self-damaging piece of snobbery, and second, that the Holocaust should be hands-off material for all storytellers who can’t do it justice, which is to say, most of them. So it pains me to admit that I don’t see what Mieville sees in that scene. Have a look.
The boy splays his fingers, we see his hand in close-up, and the barbed wire moves in reponse. Even if one doesn’t know one’s watching the future Magneto discovering his mutant power and his motive for distrusting ethnic majorities in one neatly packaged moment, the causal flow is too unambiguous for Mieville’s lovely flash of horror: there are no shadows for it to hide in. The wire isn’t reaching for the boy, he’s pulling at it. He’s about to rip it apart.
The scene, in other words, does not represent the use of fantasy to revivify the overexposed imagery of the Nazi genocide. The flow goes the other way: a story about a persecuted minority is drawing on the Holocaust to complicate our moral response to its villain, and in the process acquiring baggage it has no idea what to do with. After the guards club the young Erik unconscious, we cut to the present day, where a grandstanding conservative politician is demanding all mutants be registered with the government. A regally ageing Erik and his old friend Charles argue the implications. Erik sees Auschwitz. Charles believes humans will never do that again. “They’ve evolved.” “Yes,” replies Erik. “Into us.”
Credit the original film with this: when Charles says, “They’ve evolved”, he knows he’s speaking metaphorically, and Erik, in switching the literal meaning of “evolve” for Charles’s woolly-headed New Age one, is making a grim joke. If only the new film aspired to this modest level of conceptual clarity. Early on, we see the younger Charles reading one of his academic papers aloud to his adopted sister, Raven. It’s an account of the extinction of Homo neanderthalensis. It seems that as soon as Homo sapiens arrived in any region, “their less evolved cousins” died out. The implications for Homo sapiens now that mutants have appeared on the scene are left as an exercise for the viewer. Later in the film, as the Russian and American military simultaneously arrive at the conclusion that wiping out the mutants who have just helped them avoid thermonuclear war is the only prudent thing to do, young Erik announces, “The Neanderthal is running scared, my fellow mutants!”
(Erik, incidentally, is supposed to be one of the two smartest people in this film. At least two of the people who wrote this film have also written whole scripts full of lines you can say aloud without feeling as though half your brain cells have just dribbled out onto the floor; one of those people happens to be director Matthew Vaughn, who has never previously helmed anything with dialogue this wretched. Did Marvel have a guy on set the whole time they were filming, whispering “Bombastic and dumb, bombastic and dumb, this is our property you’re working on, check your contract, we specified bombastic and dumb”?)
So Charles and Erik are on the same page: Neanderthals were “less evolved” than modern humans, modern humans are “less evolved” than mutants. (And here I’m tearing my hair out again. Scientifically, “less evolved” is a meaningless phrase, but it’s plenty meaningful when used by the two big intellects of a movie millions of people are going to watch. The meaning is, “We endorse your misconception that evolution tends towards greater and greater perfection. Do not learn better. Do not equip yourself to have intelligent discussions about the science behind drug-resistent bacteria or the politics around teaching evolution in schools. Stay ignorant, people!” All this with two words. How is it I have any hair left?) But having accepted that mutants are more genetically progressive than all the people watching them on the screen, Charles and Erik cannot agree on what it means politically. Charles is all for peaceful coexistence. Erik thinks Charles is a naive fool. The film’s story arc suggests that Erik is tragically damaged and could have been a good man, like Charles: that is, he’s a lethally dangerous proto-terrorist who’s going to kill a lot of people, but, well, his parents died in the Holocaust, and so … and so what? The film is either too canny or too nervous to come out and say “and so one can’t expect too much of him, morally”, but that’s what it’s trying to tell us. I would love to know how that message plays in the Middle East. “Tormented, vengeful and on the road to evil: sexy, though. What does Hollywood’s latest Jewish antihero tell us about America’s real view of Israel?”
However. In order to procure its big finish – hordes of missiles streaming towards a beach full of exhausted mutants, Erik freeze-framing the missiles in midair and reversing their flight, Charles desperately trying to stop him and ending up crippled for life – the film has to endorse the implications of Charles’s paper, which happen to be exactly the same implications Erik sees in the Holocaust. So while the overall shape of the film says, “Erik wrong! Charles right!”, the details say the opposite, and they say it in a particularly nasty way. The ordinary humans in this film behave exactly like Nazis when they perceive a racial threat and, given what happened to the Neanderthals, and given that Homo sapiens are now in the Neanderthals’ position, and have indeed just weathered a near-successful mutant plot to exterminate them, it isn’t obvious that they’re wrong to do so. So they will never stop trying. So if Erik lets them live, he’s at best setting up a future war, and at worst consigning his people to oblivion. This is convenient for the franchise from a story-generating point of view, but in other respects it’s problematic. If you live in a world where your species faces extinction if you fail to commit genocide, your moral reasoning may still take you to the conclusion, “I must not commit genocide.” Or it may not. It’s an interesting question, if an unpleasant one. Do Charles and Erik ever apply their formidable minds to debating it? Of course not. They’re too busy saying things like, “There is good in you, my friend.”
The curious thing is that lines of this calibre can be made to work and, here, quite often are. Did I mention that I enjoyed watching this film, hair-tearing notwithstanding? Partly for the grand special effects set pieces, which really do come off splendidly; but this is very largely because they have more emotional punch than the digital extravaganza norm and this, in turn, is because the characters in them have been brought to life by first-rate actors. The film’s three biggest assets are James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and the collective abilities of an excellent supporting cast. (Jennifer Lawrence, the revelatory young actress of Winter’s Bone, is Charles’s adopted sister. Kevin Bacon has huge fun as the villain. And we get such minor treats as Michael Ironsides and The West Wing‘s Oliver Platt in spear carrier roles.) I expected Fassbender’s Erik/Magneto to be the best thing on the screen but, good as he is, McAvoy is quite a lot better: better, actually, than he has been in years. I found him bland as white bread as a junior Tolstoyan in The Last Station, and his earnest young lawyer in The Conspirator never rises above the level of a moralistic and highly formulaic plot. What were the odds he’d turn in a good Charles Xavier? Rich, well intentioned, ever so noble Charles, the mutant whose superpower is understanding people with a side order of getting the last word – bland and moralistic, right down to his bones. Even Patrick Stewart couldn’t make me like him.
McAvoy doesn’t try. His Charles is overconfident and very slightly slimy, a womanising golden boy who loves his wealth and power, thinks he deserves them, and expects the world at large to agree. McAvoy revels in the chance to play a full-steam-ahead arrogant born-to-rule prat, and yet never overdoes it: you can see the potential for this Charles to grow up as easily as you can see that he needs to. Isn’t it odd that the best performance McAvoy has produced for years should be in a film whose scripting kept making me want to beat my head against the collected works of Stan Lee?
Fassbender, on the other hand – if Fassbender has a weak performance in him, I’ve yet to see the evidence of it. Erik is a showy role, in a mold I wish Hollywood would stop using, the man driven by anger after someone messes with his family. (“We want Liam Neeson to torture people to death without becoming unsympathetic … hmm … I know, let’s have someone abduct his daughter.”) Fassbender doesn’t sidestep the predictable elements of his character the way McAvoy does, but he does make the role work, to the point where Erik’s final showdown with the man who killed his mother – a scene which on paper I should have loathed, being a sadistically drawn-out execution in which we’re meant to side with the executioner – held me quite spellbound. The way he holds his body in this scene conveys the absolute self-control of someone who is nonetheless choosing to let himself go: performing rage as though the emotion were sacred. I enjoyed this character as played by Ian McKellen; I enjoyed him here. I kept wishing the dialogue was up to the level of the acting. But then I also kept smiling at the way the acting transcended the dialogue.
Erik’s rage, by the way, is both the door to and the brake on his mutant powers. Initially he can only access them when furious; but the fury keeps him from focusing his mind sufficiently for full control. Charles has to teach him to inhabit his own emotions without being possessed by them, a process which ought to have been the psychobabble equivalent of the film’s harebrained evolutionary science, but which McAvoy and Fassbender turn into one of its best scenes. As is the way of these matters, Bacon, our would-be genocidal villain (“Radiation gave birth to mutants – what will kill the humans will only make us stronger!”) (I swear that’s verbatim) roams about the world in a nuclear submarine. Erik attempts to lift this sub out of the water early on the story, before he’s met Charles, and fails, nearly drowning in the process. The moment when Erik saves the day by successfully hoisting the sub aloft therefore carries all the emotional resonance of his near-death, and of his new friendship with Charles. Or it would do, had not most of the potential audience had the scene’s teeth pulled by seeing it in advance, as a throwaway “Look! We have special effects!” moment in the trailer.
Which brings me to the obligatory critical complaint that these movies cost too much, and therefore have too much riding on them to be allowed to fail, even though some of them inevitably will, and therefore get launched into the world with insanely frenetic promotional campaigns that often involve, as in this case, doing foolish and unnecessary harm to the actual experience of watching them. It’s a pointless complaint, I do realise. Despite the occasional counter-example –heavily promoted films that “fail” on their opening weekend and then go on to build their numbers on the back of good word of mouth, as How To Train Your Dragon did – the industry perception is that the only safe way to make your money is to do it on the opening weekend, before people have a chance to pick up on any negative buzz. This requires all-out publicity. So if you’ve got a good special effects scene in your would-be blockbuster, it’s going in the trailer. These are the current operating conditions and it will be a while before economic shifts and technological tectonics force a change: probably it will be the whole of the remaining reign of the superhero movie as the dominant cinematic lifeform. I should just accept that I need to avoid trailers. (Much easier for me than for most movie-goers, by the way; media screenings are usually trailer-free. But I’m addicted to watching the things online.)
I really did enjoy most of those special effects scenes, even though they drove me crazy. As I’ve written elsewhere, I grew up reading superhero comics. And now, two or three times most years, a window opens in the air and I get to peer through at actual superheroes, doing actual superheroic stuff. Let’s not pretend I have any difficulty locating my inner twelve year old for these moments. I love seeing submarines dragged out of the sea by a man armed with nothing but a look of extreme constipation. I love seeing teleportation used as a devastating tactical weapon in a well constructed fight sequence. Aerial dogfights between a man flying on reflected sound waves and a woman with dragonfly wings? Pure clover. If we can live in a world where an actor of Fassbender’s calibre gets to play both an IRA hunger striker in one of the best films of the decade and a conflicted mutant terrorist who juggles submarines in, as Mieville would have it, a bubblegum film, that’s firmly in the win/win column as far as I’m concerned.
But damn it, my inner 12-year-old isn’t actually brain damaged. Is internal logic really too much to ask of a film with a bigger budget than some of the world’s smaller countries? I don’t expect a major Hollywood production to confront us with a serious examination of how the genocide-as-self-defense concept might change its moral weighting in a world with multiple sentient species, but to raise the issue without seeming to notice? Likewise, I don’t expect our mutant heroes’ superpowers to make any kind of scientific sense, but there’s an absolute requirement that they have their own set of implied rules. Speculative fiction law #1: in a world where anything is possible, nothing matters. One of your minor characters can generate ultra-high energy sound waves? Neat. You want him to bounce them off things and surf on the reflected energy, thus learning to fly? Sure, especially since you make it clear this is tricky and dangerous, giving us a reason to care about this character who was, frankly, pretty much just part of the scenery until now. You need to locate a sub under water and you want to use him as a sonar set? Hang on, that doesn’t work at all: you’ve never suggested he has the ability to receive and interpret reflected sound waves, as well as emit them. You might as well have him discover he has the power to hear bad guys talking under water and have done with it. Petty niggling? No. The whole climax of the movie just fell apart, because, as it turns out, Erik couldn’t have lifted that sub out of the water. He had no way to know where it was. Oops.
The film’s real implied rules boil down to “Because we say so, okay?” This can be restated as, “Who the hell cares, it’s a superhero movie,” and also as, “Look, our audience doesn’t expect this stuff to make sense, they just want fight scenes. Our fight scenes rock, you have to admit it.” And I do admit it. But still. This is where I find myself wanting to hit someone over the head with a large sign reading, “Pop culture is allowed to be clever!”
So often – so often – I walk away from films like this feeling as though I’ve just spent two hours watching a motorway traffic jam. No fluency of motion, no joint purpose beyond making it to the exit, just a bunch of folk who can’t help getting in each other’s way, because the complexities of large scale social organisation dictate that designing a city properly, or indeed the kind of movie that can only be made with vast amounts of other people’s money, is really difficult. (Why yes, I do live in Auckland.) That was the story with X-Men: The Last Stand, and again with X-Men Origins: Wolverine. There is no actual law stating that a film in this genre shouldn’t be zestfully well written and intelligently plotted; if there were, Matthew Vaughn’s last directorial outing, Kick Ass, would never have reached the screen. And yet.
X-Men: First Class is no traffic jam. It’s so smart on so many fronts. It does so many things right. But whenever it seems about to zip into the fast lane and roar off into the distance, it graunches a gear and has to swerve to miss a truck. It seems so determined to provoke X-Men: Second Class jibes, so wedded to the notion that its audience are idiots and should be treated as such. It comes up with good jokes, and then repeats them, in case we didn’t get it. It tosses us a nice little cameo from a popular franchise character, and then lingers on it and lingers on it and lingers on it, in case anyone’s failed to register who they’re looking at. You could say “Glass half full”, I suppose. But I’m more inclined to say “Glass ceiling”. Even when superhero movies can glimpse the land of the clever, seemingly just within reach, it’s so very, very rare for one to be allowed to go there.