X-Men: First Class part 9
While Erik and Xavier, er, “have their way” with Emma in Russia, Shaw and his team make their move on MiB HQ. Shaw is striking back at Xavier for poking around with Cerebro (the shots of Xavier with his head in Cerebro, ecstatic and lit from within, tie him to 60s mind-expansion gurus like Timothy Leary and John C. Lilly). First they kill all the humans, then they come for the mutants. You can come with me and be free, Shaw says, or stay here and live in slavery, and the camera points to Darwin, because, you know, slavery. In the scheme of First Class, this is like the Students for a Democratic Society (which formed in — you guessed — 1962) crashing the peace-and-love party. Shaw, of course, is no student, he’s been around forever, he’s more like an outside agitator, a warmonger disguised as one of the hip kids, fomenting rebellion because, well, that’s the business he’s in. “You can join me and live like kings and queens,” he says, looking at Angel, but we’ve seen how Shaw treats Emma — there will be no equality in Shaw’s version of the future. Angel, she of low self-esteem (she is a stripper, after all) comes with Shaw, but Darwin and Havok try to stop her. Darwin, sadly, goes from being the non-stereotypical black guy to being the stereotypical black-guy-in-the-movies, and becomes the Noble Sacrifice to the cause, the first one to die in the fight against evil.
Shaw then travels to Moscow to persuade the Russian general to put nuclear missiles in Cuba, as an answer scene to the one where he persuaded Col Hendry to put missiles in Turkey. The placement of nuclear missiles in Turkey and Cuba, for those not up on their Cold War history, was a very real concern at the time, and seemed like madness to sane people. For a movie in 2011 to suggest that it was not madmen but power-hungry mutants who arranged for the missiles to be placed thus doesn’t even stretch the truth that much. “We are the children of the atom,” says Shaw at one point, and we all were in 1962 — the Bomb’s awesome power drove everyone — world leaders especially — a particular brand of insane.
Erik and Xavier come back from their own Russian sojurn to find MiB HQ wrecked and Darwin dead. Erik and Xavier, so recently getting along so well, now begin to split apart. Xavier wants the kids to go home, Erik wants to fire them up to avenge Darwin. (That would make Darwin the Agent Coulson of First Class.) Xavier splits the difference in their approaches — he will train the recruits, but do it at home, his home.
Meanwhile, back at CIA HQ, McCone (who was a real guy) and Stryker (who was not) have Emma in custody, in a room, and in a costume, designed to remind the viewer of the most famous scene in Basic Instinct, to tie that dangerous blonde to this one. (Catherine Trammel, the character Sharon Stone played in Instinct, was an inversion of the Hitchcock Blonde, the unapproachable ice queen. Catherine was blonde but also provocative, aggressive and wantonly sexual. Emma is, on the other hand, much closer to the Hitchcock ideal, especially as played by January Jones: remote, chilly and disdainful of desire.) McCone, being a straight arrow, wants to “turn Emma over” (to whom?), while Stryker wants to throw out the law. “There’s a war coming,” he says, and it’s better to give up liberties for security. That, of course, ties Stryker to not only Dick Cheney, but to warmongers like Robert McNamara, who pressed the case for the war in Vietnam when he knew it was unnecessary, wasteful and tragic. By making it Stryker who pushes for totalitarianism instead of McCone, it also places one more X-Men character into world history: the real-life director of the CIA, the screenplay asserts, would never hold a US citizen without due process, it would take a comic-book character to do something that crazy. There’s a war on, “but with whom?” asks McCone, as well he should: the Cold War was as much about going toe-to-toe with the Soviets as it was about America’s war on its own people, its own Other.
In the War Room, the assembled brass, led by the Secretary of State (the screenplay does not identify him as Dean Rusk, so there is no reason to suspect that Dean Rusk ever had to deal with a mutant conspiracy to destroy the world) agrees to blockade Cuba in order to prevent the Soviets from putting missiles there. This, too, more or less lines up with historical fact. That this vote takes place in Dr. Strangelove‘s War Room gives it only the slightest spin into fiction. In a similar room in the Kremlin, the Russian general holds a vote for his own entry into war.
In between the two dark rooms of power, Xavier welcomes his charges, his kids, under sunlight, open spaces and fresh air, to his home. While the Establishment votes to make war, Xavier, from his position as benefactor, extends a hand of generosity. He places his team into training, giving them each the tools they need to develop their skills. For Erik, skill is not the problem, but redirecting his anger is. Erik believes he’s only effective when out of control, but Xavier, a control freak if there ever was one, pushes Erik to build his talent without anger. Xavier is an idealist, after all, because it’s easy for a hugely wealthy young man to be an idealist, but Erik is a pragmatist: he doesn’t want to save the world, he wants only revenge. Xavier is process oriented, Erik is result-oriented. What’s more, Erik rankles at the very notion that he is there to “learn” from Xavier. He might be his lover, but he won’t be his student. Rather the opposite: as far as Erik is concerned, it’s Xavier who has some things to learn about the harshness of the world. He may be an inspiring teacher, but he’s also a condescending pedant, absolutely sure of his rightness. Like Shaw, he wants to help mutants, to give them their freedom and raise them up. And, like Shaw, the underlying presumption is that his way is the only way to be right. Erik, on the other hand, strikes a more libertarian bent. He, too, wants mutants to be free, but he doesn’t want them to follow any rules at all, he wants them to think for themselves and make their own decisions. He goes to Mystique to press his point, making her heart the battleground between him and Xavier.
Meanwhile, Beast and Mystique’s budding relationship flourishes as Beast finally analyzes the blood he took from her a few reels back. Mystique’s blood, it seems, is unique, it will keep her looking like a teenager when she is middle-aged. That’s a kind of grim news for someone whose whole problem is her appearance, but she sits on Hank’s lap to look in his microscope, simultaneously feeding his desire to be taken seriously as a geek, and teasing his Beast nature out of him.
At the end of the long, eventful “training montage,” Xavier challenges Erik to move a gigantic radar dish. I don’t know whose radar dish it is or how they feel about Xavier and his freaks monkeying around with it, but Erik initially fails to move it. Xavier, for the first time, asks permission to read Erik’s mind, a marker of how far they’ve come in their relationship. Xavier, who has used mind-control indiscriminately throughout the movie so far, now grants Erik his mental privacy. A curious inversion, when the romantic partner grants his lover less intimacy. He dredges up a memory of Erik with his mother, a memory of intense love and tenderness, and tells him that his good memories can outweigh his bad ones if he allows them to, and make him more powerful. Love, he’s saying, is stronger than anger, which was, of course, the revolutionary idea of the 1960s. Erik’s tragedy, like Bruce Wayne’s, is his ultimate inabilty to let go of the past. His trauma is his self-identity. But for now, Xavier has shown him the way to enlightenment, and he is visibly moved.
They look as though they are about to kiss when Moira leans out the window and announces that Kennedy has launched what we know today as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then as now, nuclear war is the ultimate romance-killer.