“X-Men: First Class” is a smart, effective reboot (even if it’s all been said before)


First, let me state my bias upfront: I’m totally frustrated with the fact that Hollywood’s studio movie output now consists almost exclusively of remakes, sequels, and “reboots,” mostly of superhero movies. What bold, fresh stories aren’t being told these days to make way for yet another tired superhero metaphor about being “different?”

That said, as superhero remakes, sequels, and “reboots” go, X-Men: First Class, the latest in the X-Men movie franchise, is far better than most.

James McAvoy (as Charles Xavier) and Michael Fassbender (as Magneto)

In my 20s, I was a big fan of this comic book series, even before they were adapted for the first trilogy of movies, which I also liked a lot. It’s pretty obvious why: they deal with themes that speak closely to me and are absolutely relevant to LGBT folks.

How should society deal with those who are “different” from the majority? How should those who are different deal with society? Should they “blend in,” becoming part of the majority — or should they set themselves apart, even celebrating a notion that they’re somehow “better” than other, more ordinary folk? Does “blending in” mean giving up that which makes you special?

And what of human nature? Are human beings fundamentally “good,” capable of changing in the face of new information — or are they stupid and small-minded, doomed to give into to irrational fears and suspicions, ultimately destroying that which they can’t (or won’t) understand?

These classic themes are in full display in X-Men: First Class, which, like the recent Star Trek franchise reboot, goes back in time to tell its story, to the birth of the X-Men (although there’s no alternative timeline here).

How exactly did Charles Xavier, a charismatic telepath, come to be the leader of the X-Men, a band of mutants with super-powers? How did  Xavier’s nemesis Magneto come to be a bad guy — and how did Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto’s namesake) come to develop what is probably one of the most interesting relationships in the entire superhero canon?

Charles and Magneto have diametrically opposed world-views, but they understand and respect each other, even consider each other “friends.” Indeed, with his psychic abilities, Charles knows exactly what trauma led Erik to become who he is — but that doesn’t mean he’s willing to forgive the fact that Erik has basically become the same eugenic-loving Nazi that killed his family.

All is explained here, and the story, set amid the real-life Cuban Missile Crisis, is definitely brisk and engaging. Charles and Erik come from far opposite sides of the track: Charles a pampered, if ignored rich kid, and Erik, the son of an oppressed but loving mother who is viciously murdered by the Nazis. James McAvoy (as Charles) and Michael Fassbender (as Erik) are terrific.

There’s less time to spend on the origins of the various other mutants, but Jennifer Lawrence is a stand-out as the ultimate of all misfits, Mystique: one who can mimic the identity of all others, even as she struggles to figure out her own.

Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique

There are also plenty of parallels to being gay. When Charles accidentally “outs” a mutant (played by Skins Nicholas Hoult) to his boss, the mutant explains to that boss, “You didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell.” This got a big laugh at the preview screening I attended.

There’s also an interesting divide in the mutant community itself, one that obviously closely relates to the LGBT community, between those who can more easily blend in with the majority, and those who have to change or hide their fundamental nature to do so. The anthem for those who don’t want to have to hide what makes them special? “Mutant pride.”

The movie also includes two cameos — one by Hugh Jackman (as Wolverine) and one by Rebecca Romijn as the older version of Mystique  — that are both laugh-out-loud hilarious.

In terms of technology and design, the larger-than-life “alternative” 1960s presented here verges on brilliant: like Jules Verne presented the 19th century that should’ve existed, this presents the 1960s that should’ve been as well. (But ironically, they unintentionally also get the 1960s sexism down pat: while the movie has virtually all the female characters either naked or
in their underwear at some point, frequently to be leered at by men, all of the male characters always stay fully clothed.)

The movie explains plenty of other X-Men mysteries as well — how Charles ended up in his wheelchair, how Magneto got his helmet, how the Beast ended up as the Beast, and more.

The problem? I thought they played it very safe in terms of theme.

Basically, everything this movie says has all been said before (and well) in previous X-Men movies. Even the allusions to gayness have been done before, as when Iceman so cleverly “comes out” (as a mutant) to his unaccepting parents (who ask, “Have you tried not being a mutant?”), in 2003′s X2.

These gay parallels were edgy and interesting in 2003 (and in 2000, when the first X-Men movie came out). But in 2011? It hasn’t just been done — it’s about as far from edgy as you can get. Why not an actual gay mutant, not just mutants as metaphors for gays? Even the “assimilation or separatist” debate has long since been settled by most LGBT folks.

Meanwhile, we currently live in an era of full-tilt right-wing demonization of gays (and Muslims and immigrants), a raging debate about the changing definition of the “family,” and an endless “war on terror.” These themes were also in full display in the actual 1960s — but X-Men: First Class chooses to either ignore them or touch on them in only the lightest way possible.

I know, I know: this is a popcorn movie. But that disappoints me, because it pretends to be about something much more substantial than that (and the previous movies and comic books were more substantial than that, and more timely too).

For all its great CGI special effects, X-Men: First Class felt like a period piece to me, in more ways than one.

I also thought Kevin Bacon (!) was a dud as this movie’s central villain, Sebastian Shaw, who Charles and Erik initially team up to defeat.

Still, it’s impossible deny the quality of this movie, one that will certainly be a massive hit with audiences (and probably with other critics as well), and will absolutely do what the producers intended: restart the lucrative X-Men franchise.

In that sense, the X-Men have accomplished their latest mission.


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