X-Men: First Class part 1
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.
We begin where we began the first X-Men movie, with young Erik Lehnsherr, a Jewish boy, being separated from his parents in a Nazi prison camp somewhere in Europe, some time in WWII. It’s a primal scene, a boy separated from his parents, the sort of scene that forms the spine of a Spielberg movie, given added weight by its being rooted in history. By separating Erik from his parents in a prison camp, by actual Nazis, the movie gives him a historical resonance — he is now representative of a people, and not just a people, but a whole time.
Is that a good idea? Is that the business of movies, to take the central trauma of the 20th century and make it a superhero origin story, stripped of metaphor and presented as stern, cold-eyed drama?
Honestly, I don’t see why not. As I say above, movies have always done this. Birth of a Nation is no more historically valid, and quite a bit less tasteful at this point, than First Class. Many have argued that Schhindler’s List is tasteless too, and still others have argued that no representation of the Holocaust for the purposes of “entertainment” are valid. And yet, the Holocaust was a historical event — it involved real people in real places doing real things, and affected millions upon millions of people. If those events aren’t cannot be dramatized, how do we come to terms with them culturally? I can’t imagine a viewer who comes away from First Class thinking they’ve been an eyewitness to history, because the metaphor of Erik stays in place: he is a literal Jew during the Holocaust, but his suffering, and his destiny, are still tied to metaphor. He’s Superman, with his powers, only without Krypton. Can we absorb that, culturally, for what it is? It seems to me we already have. Moreover, it seems to me like it is a long time coming. In any case, the world accepted First Class without a squeak.
Young Erik, in his agony, bends the metal of the gates separating him from his parents, and he falls unconscious. At that exact moment, it seems, in upstate New York, young Charles Xavier, in his palatial estate, wakes up, awoken by an intruder. Xavier, we see, is the opposite of Erik: he is privileged, wealthy, a defender of his rights instead of a victim, startled awake instead of beaten unconscious. The parallel is made complete by having Xavier find that the intruder is his mother, as though, somehow, Erik’s loss is Xavier’s gain. But here the screenplay throws us a curve: Xavier’s mother is, of course, not his mother, but the young Raven Darkholme — Mystique. How does Xavier know his mother is not his mother? Because, apparently, Xavier’s mother isn’t a very good mother, and Raven’s doing a poor job imitating her. So the screenplay pushes the disparity between Erik and Xavier, then throws us a curve, then pushes through again, giving us two boys and their mothers, one who desperately wants his mother back and one who has his mother around but apparently doesn’t care that much for her.
Xavier doesn’t even blink when Raven reveals herself. Instead, he beams, making the disparity between him and Erik complete. Erik is the disenfranchised victim of brutal discrimination, while Xavier, the coddled youth, rushes to embrace the different.
While I’m on the subject of Mystique, her nudity here pushes the boundaries of taste in a different direction. The facts of life of a superhero — that you’re essentially always walking around naked — is made disturbingly literal with this character, who is naked even when she’s wearing clothes. That’s a winking titillation when the character is a babe in her 20s, but the little girl who presents herself to Xavier is just a naked little girl. And we are reminded that Mystique’s power, any attractive woman’s power, is in the hold they have on our attention. Mystique (as in “the feminine mystique”) is a mutant, a monster really, who presents herself as a sexually-charged beauty, uses her nudity as a provocation and a threat. Her beauty and nudity says “Come and get it” but her blue skin, yellow eyes and lethal disdain keep the viewer at a distance. To see this character as a little girl shows us, for the first time, and unforgettably, that Mystique’s anger and bitterness, her hard shell as it were, stems from being helpless and naked as a girl.