Who are the bad guys in history? It’s a question that can make historians squirm and laymen wonder why historians squirm. Simply put, a sentiment too often forgotten is that morality can be subjective. This is one of many points made in one of this year’s top 50 superhero movies, the surprisingly philosophical, “X-Men: First Class.”
Also it's not in 3D! Hooray!
By setting the story in 1944 and 1962, the film floats any questions about our own modern world with the grace, tapestry and costume design of the better Oscar-baiting movies. And by predominately setting the movie against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis (or “the October Crisis,” for my Russian readers), the film reaches to be something just a little bit more than a forgettable, comic book, superhero flick. “First Class” doesn’t completely escape its genre’s almost inherent shortcomings, but the strong, visceral, direction by Mathew Vaughan allows the movie to be quite accessible for non-comic book readers.
The historical element of the movie hits upon a proper series of events—most notably that America placing warheads in Turkey motivated the Russians to put some in Cuba. It’s only a modest coincidence that the distance between Turkey and Moscow is roughly the same as Cuba to Washington, D.C. However, the film disregards any actually humanity within humans and they’re own ability to plan with, trick or terrify one another, or otherwise cognitively function. Both American and Russian leaders become physical pawns, despite that many actually wanted what the film’s chief antagonist, Shaw (played by Kevin Bacon), wanted: a nuclear war. Essentially, when both sides are rendered to infant-level ability, awareness and ambition, the audience can no longer imagine the, non-baseball-playing, Reds as an appropriate villain...nor can we accept the baseball team has a bunch of bad guys now that I think about it.
While humanizing Russian soldiers (and warmongers on the Stateside) in a very light way was central in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Stranglove,” it still forces the narrative question in “X-Men” of “what is villainy?” The single most rounded character is Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr. And as a side note, the performance was absolutely rocked by Michael Fassbender (“The British guy from ‘Inglorious Basteds’! I knew I recognized him!”). Erik is given the most horrifying prologue to the story’s events this side of “Sophie’s Choice” but remains emotional and angry--instead of just marrying Kevin Kline. He is given the audience’s complete sympathy but slowly smothers it after obtaining a piece of serenity and begins to think bigger than his own, immediate, pain. Unfortunately for every Mumbling Joe out there, Erik goes in completely the wrong direction from a raging (and mostly forgivable) animal to a calculating terrorist. I’d argue, though, that Erik is only a terrorist in thought; as he consistently has a murders-per-attempt batting average on par with Dr. Robotnik.
The failure to solidify Erik as an antagonist stems from just knowing too much about him, really. The aforementioned villain, Shaw, and all of the bad guy minions are given no history and never flash the least bit emotion or personality. They are simply inhuman in the worst possible story-telling way. It’s stunning how little information the audience needs to sympathize with anybody. Erik gets two scenes and it’s almost over-kill...I mean, over-the-top. Had there been a scene where Shaw got slapped around by his father or tried to save a puppy, he would’ve been so much more. In same vein, Holocaust victims were tattooed—as alluded to in the film—so that Nazi soldiers wouldn’t have to risk learning names or personal histories. It’s a lot easier to hate an idea than a person.
More cinematically speaking, Kevin Bacon fails to find any character traits, nuances or depth within the, brandy-swirling, character Shaw that would separate him from the blandest James Bond villains. Continuing on a more traditional review-level, I’ll note that the movie had several plot contrivances. Interestingly, they all seemed to surround Hank McCoy, whose perpetual inventiveness struck me as akin to a live-action Dr. Hubert Farnsworth. Indeed, McCoy nearly started every scene with, “Good news everybody! I’ve just invented a Whatever Machine that can do exactly whatever we need something to do!”
In fairness, the film’s best moments overshadow the film’s worst—which really does force a wide variety of intermittent cheering and groaning. Regrettably, the movie has a low, low body count among mutants and the humans that die have less emotional weight or consequence than swatting a somewhat large fly. My guess is that the filmmakers forgot that literally hundreds of mutants occupy the X-Men universe (not to mention the freedom to just create new ones), and so saving all the characters for a sequel seems just flatly unnecessary. There is also a reasonable fear that the filmmakers won’t have the patience to keep their (probable) series of films set in the past in order to play with other elements in history such as Beast having a blurry picture taken of him and mistaken for Sasquatch. Or better yet, Magneto controlling the “Magic Bullet” that kills JFK. Or Mystic impersonating the President in 1974 to erase 14 minutes from the supposed “Watergate Tapes,” wherein Prez Tricky Dick Nixon actually conferred with Magneto. Maybe this is all getting a little too Watchmen-esque but the best part of that movie was the history re-writing in the opening credits.
Also, is it just me or would the best title for the “First Class” sequel be, “X-Men: Second Class Citizens”?
Also, also--and this is very important: staying for the end of the credits will elicit nothing but groans from the audience…because there is no scene. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience leave a theater so angry after watching a pretty good movie. Quite the magic trick.