X-Men: First Class part 8
The joyous gathering of the new X-men recruits, in the inner sanctum of the MiB HQ, echoes what was happening in college campuses all over the world. It begins with young people discovering themselves, claiming their powers, forging new identities and enjoying their commonality and diversity, and ends with one of them destroying the Establishment leader in effigy. I was struck by the moment of Havok slicing and burning the statue of the MiB (odd that he has a statue of himself on his compound) and trying to remember what it reminded me of. Then I realized, of course, it reminds me of campus protests, where all sorts of unspeakable acts are visited upon the statues of the Great White Men who built the temples of learning but whose relavence had long since vanished. The young recruits are the campus youth movement, the Other gathered in an establishment sanctuary, free from the worries of employment (stripper, cabbie), freed from imprisonment, free to concentrate on “finding themselves,” and, thus, free to concentrate on the next thing. The next thing, in college campuses, is supposed to be “studying,” and here in X-Universe is supposed to be “finding Shaw,” but the end result in both cases is the same: “saving the world.” That’s what the 1960s youth movement, the Hippie Dream, was all about, although, like with the X-Men recruits, “toppling the Establishment” (or at least thumbing one’s nose at it) is the first step in defining themselves. The reason Bob Dylan became the “voice of his generation” was not his politics, it was his refusal to be identified, to be pinned: “Whatever you say I am, that is what I am not.” That strikes at the core of the appeal of X-Men from the beginning, and First Class is not just a history lesson, but an X-Men history lesson. Other movies pay homage (or lip service) to their comics origins, First Class actually puts its comics in historical context and thus illuminates their genuine cultural import.
Back at CIA headquarters, Moira gets a pat on the back from Director McCone. In an ahistoric moment of clarity, McCone decides it’s perfectly reasonable to send a bunch of super-powered mutants to go solve an international crisis. When Stryker splutters at the enormity of this harebrained scheme, the MiB says “these ‘freaks’ are dedicated, hardworking [looks for word] people.” “Patriots” is what we’re expecting him to say, but they’re not patriots, they can’t be, some of them aren’t even Americans, and besides, patriots are boring, Captain America is a patriot and he’s a dim-witted tool of the patriarchy compared to the hip youngsters of X-Men, nothing could be less hip in 1962 than to be a “patriot.” (Also, the MiB probably wouldn’t call them “dedicated and hard-working” if he had seen their statue-destroying rap session.)
And sure enough, the “grown ups” come back from their Establishment meeting to find their recruits in the midst of an Animal House-level dorm party. (Animal House, it should be noted, is also set in 1962, as was its dramatic precursor American Graffitti. 1962 here indicating “the last year of America’s innocence,” as though a nation embroiled in racial tensions, H-bomb tests, global conflict and systematic oppression of women could be considered “innocent.”) Moira, the woman who took off her clothes at a moment’s notice in Las Vegas, is shocked and dismayed at the recruits’ behavior, while Erik and Xavier are embarrassed. Mystique, on the spot and unshamed, feeling the power of her new identity, renames them “Professor X” and “Magneto.” The hip kids, the Boomers, want the grown-ups to take part in the fun, but the grown-ups aren’t biting. Lest we forget, Don Draper was baffled by the Rolling Stones and James Bond hated the Beatles — even the hippest adults of the WWII generation didn’t “get” the youth movement. Xavier’s disappointment in his “sister” Mystique shows the moment where the patriarchy, even the supposed liberal patriarchy, lost touch with its better half, and with its children — the beginning of the Generation Gap.
Erik and Xavier, perhaps to solidify their status as WWII-generation “good guys,” undertake a Where Eagles Dare – style undercover mission in Russia. They come to a checkpoint in the middle of a very Inglourious Basterds kind of wood, and Xavier uses mind control to get him and his team past enemy lines. I considered for a moment that this might be an act break, since Erik and Xavier are no longer “getting to know one another” and are instead acting upon Shaw, but “acting upon Shaw” isn’t really the thrust of their arc, it’s still “falling in love.” As before, when they went to a strip club to recruit Angel, they’re still doing “guy stuff” together, to cement their friendship. What could be more macho than dressing up like working-class laborers and getting in a truck with a bunch of soldiers on a recon mission in enemy territory? (Moira has also come along, just so, you know, things don’t get too gay.)
Xavier, Erik and Moira spy on Emma, who has come in Shaw’s place to meet with a Russian general. Moira, absent Shaw, wants to call off the mission, but Erik, not yet Magneto, but certainly not a team player, charges ahead. He was embarrassed by Mystique’s behavior back at the MiB HQ, but here, in the midst of the Establishment, he chafes at orders and regulations — he’s caught in the middle.
Emma seduces the Russian general (whose name, according to the credits, is “Russian General,” appropriately enough, since the role is sort of a “general Russian”) while Erik does his metal-manipulation thing to get the guards out of the way. Erik’s rash action propels Xavier into action (and underlines McCone’s flunky’s worries about untrained freaks being let loose into international crises), making him a kind of psychic mop-up crew in Erik’s path of destruction. The two of them corner Emma in a pretend sex-scene with the general, which they then turn into a much more provocative pretend sex-scene by binding Emma against the footboard of the general’s bed. It’s always thus with bromances — strip clubs, playing army, tying women up, everything but the task at hand.
Xavier reads Emma’s mind and learns Shaw’s plan: start WWIII, kill billions of humans, have mutants take over the world with the Hellfire club as the dominant political party and Shaw as world dictator. Shaw’s plan is remarkably similar to Blofeld’s in You Only Live Twice, with the remarkable exception that Shaw’s plan actually makes more sense.
This, the mid-movie point, represents a consummation for Erik and Xavier. The fact that it is the most explicitly sexual moment in the narrative, with Erik tying up Emma while Xavier pillages her mind, only underlines its true nature, to show the romance of Erik and Xavier in bloom.