X-Men: First Class part 10
As the fantastic merges with the historic, no less a personage than John F. Kennedy is brought in lend weight to plot of X:Men: First Class. The footage is real, as is the footage that follows, of stores being sold out of canned goods and people stockpiling fallout shelters. Fallout shelters were big news at the time. The Twilight Zone had featured an episode about a fallout shelter a year earlier than the Cuban Missile Crisis; Bob Dylan, in February 1962, recorded a song about them, “Let Me Die in My Footsteps.” What seems quaint now, the idea that one could run and hide from a nuclear war, was, unbelievably, very real and present to the general populace. I myself was a mere tadpole in October of 1962, but my parents assured me, yes, for a few days, you pretty much just didn’t know if the world was suddenly going to end. In its way, it’s a comforting thought, that this level of madness was brought on by fantastical mutants bent on world domination, as the reality of the situation is too mind-bending to absorb.
In practical terms for the adventure narrative of First Class, the Cuban Missile Crisis is a clue for our protagonists to find Shaw. Remember, “to save the world” is not their goal, only “to find Shaw.” Xavier to stop him (to make the world a better place), Erik for his private, personal revenge. Xavier is high-minded, Erik is low-minded. Xavier may be who we want to be, but Erik is who we are.
In his submarine cruising beneath the Russian ship carrying the missiles to Cuba, Shaw has drinks with Angel and gloats about his imminent victory over the humans. Shaw is like one of the “Masters of War” Dylan sang about, the man who has no loyalty but to his own bottom line, the man who longs for war because it’s in his interest. And power, as Henry Kissinger once said, is the ultimate aphrodisiac, as we see Angel snuggling up to Shaw in Emma’s absence. Shaw’s treachery may wipe out the human race, but that’s an abstract concern — what the viewer registers is that he was once snuggly with Emma, now he’s snuggly with Angel — he has no loyalty whatsoever. (It’s kind of hard to see at this point what a winged woman really brings to a party involving nuclear missiles and mass death, but I guess she could come in handy somehow.)
In contrast to Shaw’s sleazy romantic opportunism, back at Xavier’s ranch Mystique and Beast (who Mystique still calls “Hank”) re-connect about the appearance-altering serum Hank has developed. Hank can’t wait to take it, to “look normal,” but Mystique hesitates. What’s happening, on a subtexual level, is a discussion of the notion of “passing” — if one can “pass” as normal, should one? This, too, was a key issue of 1962, as minorities were entering domains formerly held exclusively by whites. Was it better, at the time, to pretend to be something you’re not, in order to raise your stature? Or was it better to stand out from the Establishment and assert your right to be Other and demand parity? Hank is convinced he must appear to be “normal” (how the serum will let him keep his big feet while making him appear to be “normal” is a different question), but Mystique, infected by Erik’s fervent militarism, isn’t so sure she wants to be “normal” any more.
While Hank and Mystique sort that out, Xavier and Charles retire to the drawing room for some chess and some argument. (Chess, I realize, has been Xavier’s and Erik’s game of choice for a long time, but it’s worth noting that chess was also, in 1962, a hugely popular international sport, covered by the media the way we now cover tennis or soccer, precisely because of the Cold War — the Russians, for various reasons, had been the World Chess Champions since 1948, and chess championships became a political hot button and high international drama. Small wonder a chess game figures prominently in 1963’s From Russia With Love.) The conflict buried in their friendship is now brought to the surface: Xavier wants to show the world how wonderful it is to be a mutant, and Erik knows that to expose himself as Other is to mark himself for extinction. (Funny how Mystique changed her mind about Hank’s serum because she was inspired by Erik, yet here’s Erik saying that the safer thing would be to not draw attention to themselves.) The scene is a kind of Yalta conference, with Xavier and Erik deciding how to deal with the world once peace has been struck. In this regard, you could say that nuclear weapons were the superpowers mutant superpowers — you have to use them, or else people will try to kill you just for having them.
Back at the lab, Hank takes the plunge and injects himself with his serum. Like all self-made serums in every fantasy, it has unintended effects. Not only does it “bring out the beast” in Hank, but — holy exchange of bodily fluids! — Mystique’s blood makes Hank blue as well. Blue, without the ability to change back.
Mystique, having broken with Hank but not aware that Erik’s chain of thought has run to a different place, goes to Erik and tries to seduce him. Erik turns her down, leading to the movie’s second-funniest joke, where Mystique turns from Jennifer Lawrence to Rebecca Romijn. Erik accepts her desire but pushes her inner conflict to a place where she can no longer hide. To live openly, honestly, he says, she must appear as she truly is. She is thinking about beauty, and luck with boys, but Erik is talking about — surprise — world domination. The Cuban Missile Crisis, for Erik, is an all-or-nothing gambit — either he perishes in his quest for vengeance, or he, like Shaw, becomes the leader of a new dominant class of people, there is no alternative. He can’t save the world without drawing homicidal intent toward himself, if people know that he’s stopped WWIII, they will know his Otherness.
Mystique, now emboldened, ditches her clothes and goes to find Xavier, in the kitchen, in the same kitchen where they met years earlier. She’s there to tell him off, like the subject of The Feminine Mystique, to tell the condescending white male patriarch that his ideas are outmoded and constricting, that his notions of freedom are really just another kind of slavery if it means muting one’s voice in order to “get along” with the Establishment. Xavier knows that change is coming, but he wants to meet it halfway; Mystique has been radicalized.