Monday, 2 June 2014

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class is the first film in the series to even attempt to capture the joyful exuberance of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's original comics. In the 1960s Marvel was issuing beautiful pop-art masterpieces that crossed archetypal superheroics with the naturalistic hesitancy of romance comics. First Class broadly adapts the key incidents of The X-Men #1 - Professor X trains his mutant students while Magneto experiments with his ability to control missiles.

While the Bryan Singer films heave with misunderstood loners deigning to interact, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn serve up two heroes that strive to teach. I had an idea from a half-remembered cinema screening that First Class' children got in the way, clogging up airtime that rightly should have been apportioned to Magneto's one-man Mossad routine. This isn't the case. The school environment that drives the second act allows us a deeper, more personal understanding of First Class' two leads.

We get to see James McAvoy's Xavier, a character usually presented as a pat patriarch, earn his position. This Xavier is basically a super positive youth worker, keen to create a stable setting that'll allow his children to excel. He doesn't needle or manipulate his X-Men, he challenges and praises them, daring them to do better. Michael Fassbender's Magneto tempers this exuberance with a calm pro-mutant militance, any cool guy posturing counterbalanced by his quiet sincerity. He's basically a dapper art teacher who'll share a ciggy with the kids.

Xavier's Atomic Age Hogwarts is framed by a socio-political milieu that takes in international brainwashing conspiracies and the Cuban missile crisis. Unusually, neither side is presented as particularly aggressive, both nations lumbered with warmongering generals being puppeteered by Kevin Bacon's ex-Nazi, Sebastian Shaw. The leader of a shadowy cabal called The Hellfire Club, Shaw plots to set the world ablaze in the hope that the radioactive fallout will genetically alter the survivors. First Class aligns mutants with those other mainstays of Cold War sci-fi, the American big bugs and Japanese kaiju. All children of the atom.

Goldman and Vaughn also steer the film away from specifically discussing X-Men as a metaphor for the civil rights movement. Perhaps they recognised that mapping two white fellows onto Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X was, at the very least, incredibly disingenuous? Ideas about individual agency do drive character arcs but they're more about self-reliance and personal pride than creating a way in which handsome white characters can feign minority status. Instead, Xavier and Magneto enjoy dilemmas keyed to their own backgrounds. The moneyed, educated Xavier purposes his wealth, using it to train an egalitarian special forces unit. Magneto is the State of Israel, getting strapped and refusing to be a victim ever again.

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