X-Men: First Class does something I haven’t seen a superhero movie do before. It’s not just a period piece, that’s unusual enough, but it also places its fantastic characters, Gump-like, in the middle of historical fact. Captain America: The First Avenger, released concurrently, went back in time to place its difficult-to-like protagonist in his proper context, but then wove a fantastical story around him involving ancient Norse artifacts and a guy with no face. First Class not only places its characters in history, it puts them at the center of the darkest, most traumatic events of their time.
That kind of treatment skirts the boundaries of taste, turning, for instance, the Holocaust into comic-book fodder: First Class almost runs into Inglourious Basterds in its treatment of history. No one goes to the movies for a history lesson, but movies have always taught us, from their inception, through their dream-logic, who we are as a people and as a culture. It’s not the job of cinema to tell us how things are but how things feel. You can say that First Class tastelessly warps WWII, but Triumph of the Will did that before anyone even knew what WWII was. The Bryan Singer X-Men movies cloaked their tales of discrimination in colorful metaphor, but First Class demands to be considered “important,” and, to an astonishing degree, it succeeds.