Monday, June 06, 2011

X-Men: First Class

The first installment of the modern film incarnation of the X-Men franchise came out in 2000, and is generally held to have been the harbinger of the following decade's deluge of superhero and comic book films.  I remember going to see the film several weeks after its US release had been greeted by effusive reviews, which praised it for taking the comic book adaptation an enormous step forward, and wondering what all the fuss was about.  Even knowing next to nothing about the comics, it was clear to me that here was a complex setting that had been shoehorned into the standard Hollywood template of a single hero backed by a team.  The creakiness of that process's result was only exacerbated by a dull story, thin characterization, and lackluster action sequences.  I liked X-Men 2 a little better, but the third film was terrible, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine was even worse.  The franchise, which never seemed to have much life in it to start with, was clearly on its last legs, so I wasn't particularly looking forward to the fifth installment, and when I heard what form it would take--a prequel (boo!), which would reboot the franchise (hiss!), featuring younger, less expensive actors (shades of the new Star Trek), and cash in on the 60s obsession sparked by Mad Men by centering its story around the Cuban Missile Crisis (and casting January Jones as one of the main characters)--I was sure that X-Men: First Class would be an unmitigated disaster.

Then the intriguing trailers were released, followed by a trickle of very positive reviews, and by the time I sat down to watch the film last night my expectations had been properly raised, and then met.  With First Class, the X-Men franchise finally escapes the gravitational pull of Hugh Jackman's star power (though Jackman shows up in a brief and very funny cameo), and tells a story about an actual ensemble.  There is a huge amount of story in this film--the backgrounds of established characters Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), and Beast (Nicholas Hoult), as well as several unfamiliar ones; the roots of Xavier's foundation and the conflict of ideologies between him and Magneto; and an alternate history in which the Cuban Missile Crisis is precipitated by a former Nazi scientist and mutant (Kevin Bacon) and nuclear war is averted through Xavier's mutants' intervention.  First Class manages to deliver all of this story with a lightness that is almost impossible to believe.  It's fast, but never rushed.  There are choppy moments--the montage in which Charles and Erik recruit young mutants is a lot of fun, but a later training montage is mired in too-familiar tropes--and questionable decisions--bad enough that the only mutant to die other than the villain is also the only black man, but who thought it was a good idea to end the film with all the remaining non-white mutants, and all of the mutant women, on Magneto's team, and the sole human woman mind-wiped by Xavier?  But the finished product is almost effortlessly engaging.  It also manages to balance all that story with several affecting and well-drawn character arcs.  The friendship between Charles and Erik, and their partnership's dissolution, is of course at the film's heart, but First Class also leaves space for several other characters to come to the fore and struggle with their feelings about what they are and how society sees them.

In short, X-Men: First Class is a very impressive film that breathes new and previously unsuspected life into the franchise.  I'd recommend it wholeheartedly--if only it weren't for the Holocaust thing.  The previous X-Men films prioritized the reading of mutation as a parable for homosexuality ("have you tried... not being a mutant?") with a few references to the persecution of Jews and other minorities.  First Class reverses that approach.  Though there are several instances in which mutants are treated as crypto-homosexuals--Mystique's repeated slogan "mutant and proud!"--for the most part the film hammers in the parallels with Jews, and particularly Jews during the Holocaust.  The film opens with an almost shot-by-shot recreation of the first X-Men's opening scene, in which a young Magneto, separated from his parents by Nazi guards in a concentration camp, bends a metal gate with his mind in a futile attempt to reach them.  Instead of jumping forward half a century as X-Men did, First Class carries on from that point, introducing us to the villain, Sebastian Shaw, as a Mengele-like figure who experiments on Erik in an attempt to understand and develop his powers.  It then jumps forward to 1962 and to an Erik who is pursuing Shaw.  Throughout the film, Erik's distrust in humanity is filtered through those vividly-depicted experiences at Shaw's hands, and the fact that Shaw is working with key figures in both the American and Soviet governments (as former Nazi scientists did in reality) only serves to validate that distrust.

The use of mutants as a metaphor for Jews is problematic in several ways.  At the most basic level, it's a problem because, no more than homosexuals, Jews are not a separate species with superpowers.  It's been the core flaw of the X-Men films that even as they deliberately recall various real-world instances of prejudice and persecution, they provide concrete evidence for the danger that the mutants pose--they possess extraordinary powers that, when left untrained or simply placed in the wrong hands, allow them to commit crimes with impunity, destabilize the foundations of society, or become unstoppable killing machines.  That society reacts to mutants with sweeping, indiscriminate persecution may be unjustified, but the fear that drives that reaction is, as the films repeatedly show us, entirely reasonable.  This was hard to swallow when the metaphor was that mutants were homosexuals, but in a film that not only parallels mutants with Jews but whose story exists so completely in the shadow of the Holocaust, it becomes something deeply disturbing (I say that, of course, as someone who has personal associations with the Holocaust and only academic ones with homophobia; someone with different life experience might have found the earlier X-Men films equally hard to watch).  First Class explicitly parallels the Nazi extermination of Jews with the American and Soviet governments joining forces, at the film's end, to take out all the mutants, good and bad alike.  Which is to say that it reduces Nazi antisemitism to fear of the other.  Not revulsion, not tribalism, not scapegoating, but fear--a fear that is entirely justified, even if the actions it precipitates are not.

Much worse than this, however, is the way the film constructs Erik's story and his descent into supervillainhood.  We're introduced to the grown-up Erik as he follows Shaw all over the world, a sequence that is a highlight reel of the post-war complicity of governments and institutions in the escape from justice of former Nazis--first a Swiss banker who has laundered Shaw's Nazi gold, then a trip to Argentina where former true believers are lying low, courtesy of a sympathetic government.  If it weren't for the mutation angle, Erik would be instantly recognizable as a Mossad agent on the trail of a war criminal, and in fact the film's events take place shortly after the kidnapping--from Argentina--of Adolf Eichmann by Mossad agents and his trial and execution in Israel.  In the film's final scene, the moment at which Erik chooses to become Magneto, Charles tries to dissuade him from destroying the ships which, only a few moments ago, had tried to kill all of the mutants, claiming that the people on those ships were "just following orders."  Erik replies that he has been at the mercy of people who were just following orders, and vows, "never again."  So Erik is not simply a Jew and a Holocaust survivor, but a crypto-Israeli.  His attitudes--that those who persecute mutants must be hunted down to the ends of the earth; that mutants must never again leave themselves at the mercy of those who might turn on them--are familiar from post-war Zionism, and continue to form the foundation of the Israeli self-image.  And in First Class, they are the attitudes of a villain.

Up until he decides to destroy the American and Soviet ships and vows enmity against humanity, Erik's goals are largely sympathetic--he wants to kill Shaw, who not only killed Erik's mother in front on him and experimented on Erik, but is a former Nazi scientist, Hollywood's go-to for unambiguously evil boogeymen.  But because we know that Erik is on his way to becoming Magneto, who will himself attempt genocide on more than one occasion, it's inevitable that we view him with distrust.  First Class plays up that distrust through Charles, who repeatedly urges Erik to give up his quest for revenge.  In fairness, First Class doesn't entirely validate Charles's point of view--his classically assimilationist belief that if only mutants can prove that they are model citizens, humanity will embrace them is dealt a hard dose of reality at the film's end when the people he's just helped save from nuclear war band together to kill him--but on the point that killing Shaw is wrong, and that for Erik it represents the moment when he, essentially, transforms from Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, the film never wavers.  It even hammers this in when it reveals that Shaw is a proto-Magneto, bent on destroying humanity so that mutants can thrive.  Even Magneto's famous helmet turns out to have been a legacy from Shaw.

What's wrong with X-Men: First Class isn't that it's anti-Israel, which I don't actually think it is.  Rather, what troubles me about the film is that it feels like yet another expression of an attitude that I've been noticing more and more often in Western, and particularly American, popular culture as it struggles with the topic of genocide and national trauma--a crucial failure of empathy, imagination, and, finally, perspective, that leads to a blanket condemnation of anger.  I saw this in Battlestar Galactica when human characters who refused to make peace with the Cylons--the people who had destroyed their civilization--were made into villains.  I noticed it a few weeks ago when I watched an old Star Trek: Voyager episode, "Jetrel," in which Neelix is urged, and eventually agrees, to forgive the person who designed the weapon that depopulated Neelix's home colony and killed his entire family.   And I see it in the increasing prevalence of vengeful victim characters, who are condemned not for the choices they make in pursuit of revenge, but simply for feeling anger.  There is in stories like this a small-mindedness that prioritizes the almighty psychiatric holy grail of "healing"--letting go of one's anger for the sake of inner peace--over justified, even necessary moral outrage.  First Class condemns Erik not for targeting innocents and embracing the same prejudiced mentality as his Nazi tormentors, but for wanting to kill Shaw.  It places two choices before him: either he takes the life of the person who killed his family and tortured him, in which case he's a villain, or he relinquishes not only his quest for revenge but the anger driving it (the alternative of putting Shaw on trial for crimes against humanity is never suggested).  As if to add insult to injury, the latter option is presented by Charles--a rich, privileged gentile who has not only never experienced a day of hardship in his life but who, as Mystique points out, has no problem passing for human--with a glibness that belies the film's claim that he has seen Erik's memories and fully comprehends his pain.

The key scene of X-Men: First Class has been repeated in all its trailers: Charles tells Erik that killing will not bring him peace; Erik replies that peace was never his goal.  This is the moment that's meant to define them as hero and villain--Charles, the man of peace; Erik, who embraces killing.  To my mind it's actually the moment that sums up the film's moral bankruptcy.  Charles is the hero because he thinks peace of mind is more important than punishing a mass murderer.  Erik is the villain because he can't stop being angry at the person who murdered his mother in front of him.  Scratch just a little bit beneath that surface and you'll find the ugly truth that underpins most of Hollywood's attempts to grapple with the Holocaust and atrocities like it.  Erik is a villain not because of what he does with his anger, but because bad things happened to him.  Charles is the hero because he's lucky enough not to have been victimized.  The fact is, Hollywood--pop culture in general, actually--doesn't like victims.  It's willing to feel sorry for them, but it won't quite accept them as heroes.  We want our heroes to be strong, inviolate.  Victims--those who haven't passed through fire unscathed, or somehow worked their way back to the exact same person they were before their ordeal--are suspect, damaged goods, defiled.  We'd rather believe that there's something wrong with them for how they react to their experiences than to accept that we too might react the same way.  So we consign them to villainy, and embrace as heroes those who are simply fortunate.  There was space in X-Men: First Class to buck against this trend, but instead it reinforces it.  It bills itself as the story of how Charles and Erik became a hero and a villain, but the answer that it ultimately reveals is: because that's how they were written.

91 comments:

Kate Nepveu said...

struggles with the topic of genocide and national trauma--a crucial failure of empathy, imagination, and, finally, perspective, that leads to a blanket condemnation of anger.

It's the tone argument writ large, in other words. Whee.

Tamara said...

Very interesting review, and food for thought, so I suspect i'm still probably not going to go see the movie :-p

To go rather more recent, it puts me in mind of post-Rabin-assasination calls for national unity, weepiness, and above all, no real checking of the roots and of course, no assignment of blame ('עשבים שוטים') and therefore no need for any soul searching or, y'know, a demand for change. Telling someone that when they feel they've been wronged what they need to do is get over it and learn to love themselves...

Jonathan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Raz Greenberg said...

Haven't seen "First Class" yet (though I hope I'll have a chance to see it soon), but I'll take the opportunity to recommend - again - the excellent animated show "Wolverine and the X-Men" from a few years back. This show was one of the best treatments of comics, superheroes, The X-Men (a franchise that I never had a particular liking for) seen on the screen in years - in fact, I consider it to be one of the best science fiction shows seen on American TV in years, animated or otherwise. It remains a rare case in which an American animated show managed to equal the sophistication of Japanese animated science fiction dramas.

Jonathan said...

The kind of reconciliation that will take decades in Northern Ireland or South Africa, or - one day - Israel/Palestine, now must take only a few moments of Hollywood screen time.

But I'm not sure I entirely agree with your conclusion - Erik is shown to be damaged by his life, because such things scar and damage us. Charles has not experienced them, so the choice of reconciliation is logical, not an emotional response. Logically we must escape the endless revenge cycle, and rationally we might, but in this matter Erik is not governed by logic, and so his narrative inexorably leads to the tragic conclusion. But he is the tragic hero, and perhaps it's a cinematic failing that his turn to villainy is so sudden and so complete.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Kate:

I hadn't thought of it that way. There is a similarity, I suppose, in that anger - not righteous rage over injustice or the fact that someone refrigerated your girlfriend, but the anger that stems from injury - is not considered an attractive or heroic quality.

Tamara:

An interesting connection, and particularly interesting because the X-Men films have historically been about social injustice. It's just that they concentrate solely on how individuals respond to injustice, not how society enforces and escapes its unjust impulses. There's some justification for this in that, as I say in the post, the mutants are powerful and potentially dangerous, but the absence of any meaningful attempt at social change in the films is one of their major flaws.

Raz:

You've mentioned that show before. I'll have to keep a lookout for it.

Jonathan:

Logically we must escape the endless revenge cycle, and rationally we might, but in this matter Erik is not governed by logic, and so his narrative inexorably leads to the tragic conclusion.

But isn't that the same as saying that Erik is a villain because of the things that were done to him? That's a thing that happens, of course, but I don't think the film is willing to delve into that darkness.

At any rate, I don't think it's accurate to describe Charles as purely logical. How logical is it, after all, to expect a man who has experienced what Erik has to simply let go of his anger? How logical is it to refuse to kill Shaw, even knowing what he's done, what he was about to do, and the fact that his powers make it impossible for him to be tried or imprisoned? On the contrary, it seems to me that Charles is driven by his own set of emotional and not entirely rational motivations, but without the excuse of Erik's trauma.

I don't actually have a problem with Erik's choice to turn on humanity at the end of the film - it's organic to the character and built up to during the story. My problem is that the film portrays him as a villain even before he makes that choice.

ibmiller said...

I'm not sure that the X-men franchise is quite as anti-Magneto as this reading posits. I certainly felt a lot of sympathy for both Magneto and Mystique, and had a lot of questions about Charle's methods and ethics - and I'm not sure those weren't intentional.

But one the whole, I think you're right about victims and anger. An interesting thought in terms of the "thou shalt not kill" rules in place in most superhero stories, and on a different tangent, the recent de-handicapping of Batgirl by DC comics.

Karen said...

Really interesting stuff, Abigail -- thank you for exploring this so thoughtfully.

Anonymous said...

Another current film that sidesteps the issue of genocide is, of all things, KUNG FU PANDA 2 in which our hero Po discovers that the film's villain Shen attempted to kill all the Pandas in China to forestall a prophecy of his own doom and that the titular character was (supposedly) the only survivor. But while Po becomes driven to discover the truth about his past and what happened to his family, there is no sense in the movie that he is driven by a need to avenge his murdered people or bring Shen to justice. Instead, the story focuses on Po's need for "inner peace" and when he finally confronts Shen at the end of the story Po tells him he has to "let go" of his anger. Fun as the movie is, the message felt hollow to me -- if Po isn't moved to righteous anger by the genocide of all pandas, then what would it take to dig any rage out of him? Is there ANY crime he would react to with honest fury? I mean, it's an American animated film and so you can only expect the characterizations to go so far -- but why bring up the issue of genocide at all if the act doesn't push your hero to their limits? The inner peace Po achieves in the end feels unearned, that if he doesn't *feel* the need for vengence then he overcame nothing and his character has become shallower, not deeper.

Kate Nepveu said...

Abigail, that's not quite what I meant. I think the tone argument and what you're talking about is that anger in reaction to oppression makes the privileged (on the relevant axis) _uncomfortable_, and thus they try to erase it when they can and ignore or minimize it when they can't.

Kit said...

I'm not sure- and this is a very odd thing to find myself saying about one of your reviews about a Hollywood SciFi blockbuster, because normally I think you have them dead to rights- that you're giving the film enough credit. I think it's a more intelligent movie than the one you saw.

Maybe it's just my Jewishness or my relative unfamiliarity with the X-men franchise coming through (I can recognize all the characters, but I wouldn't call myself a fan), but I didn't read Charles as the hero at all. He's a privileged asshat in this movie, and he's consistently wrong about everything.

You call them "Xavier's mutants," but they're not, in this. Charles wasn't going to let them fight. It's Erik who convinces him. It's Erik who gets to be the impulsive cowboy hero character and go on the raid on the Soviet dacha that enables them to interrogate Emma and learn of Shaw's plan. It's Erik who is proven right about the missiles, and it's Erik who gets to save everyone's life by turning them. If they'd been depending on Charles they'd all be dead.

And it's Erik who gets to share our nice accepting Western not-seeing-color values (*pfft*) and love Raven for who she really is, while Charles' 'Everyone should pass, because we're only beautiful as long as we look human!' bullshit actually gets called out in the narrative. Think how easy it would have been for them to not write this part- it's hardly a core part of Charles' personality that fans would miss if it were absent. Usually he's Mr. Accepting Enthusiasm. They included it deliberately to make him unsympathetic.

Plus Hollywood loves revenge narratives. Look at the six trillion "Grizzled Hero's Wife or Child Is Kidnapped/Refrigerated, He Goes On Bloodthirsty Badguy Smiting Quest" movies. Hell, look at Logan, whom the X-Men franchise drools over incessantly. I hate revenge plots, and even I have to concede Erik's coin trick at the end was a bit classy. I honestly doubt the movie had a problem with Erik killing Shaw. (And note Charles holds Shaw still for Erik to kill him. Charles knew all along what Erik was planning to do, and he's willing to collaborate- if they have a difference of principle re. revenge killings, it's a pretty flimsy one.)

And unfortunate as the "They're only following orders!" conversation was, I can't believe the person uttering that line was meant to be sympathetic. Everyone knows that the 'they' in that quote are Nazis, and that 'only following orders' is explicitly not a valid excuse for crimes against humanity. Charles just Godwinned his own argument.

It's Erik who is allowed to be the cool, badass, testosterone-fueled cowboy in this movie, occupying the traditional Hollywood role for the hero. Charles is just his annoying, prejudiced, slightly effeminate, consistently-wrong peacenik friend, which is a character archetype Hollywood hates. As far as I can tell, this movie did everything in its power to establish a moral equivalency between Erik and Charles right up until the end, with each of them equally wrong in his own way. (As Marina points out in her review, there are perfectly good arguments against Erik's "There are victims and victimizers, nothing else, my people are never going to be victims again, and I don't care who I have to hurt to make that happen" worldview, but the movie either can't think of any or refuses to give them to Charles, and it explicitly invalidates his "They'll love us if we're Good Negros!" argument.)

The mutants-as-Jews-gays-PoC metaphor persists deeply problematic for the reasons you state, and the film certainly wasn't smart enough to have a truly intelligent discussion of The Mutant Question, but I don't think it was nearly as one-sided as you feel it was.

Jodie said...

After watching Thor I wondered at how unequivocally villianous Loki was made out to be in the final part of the film when he'd been through quite a bit of personal trauma. Do you think he almost has to become the genocidal maniac because he's unable to let go of that pain easily and Hollywood feels some kind of need to show just how destructive/unheroic it thinks that is? It seemed especially odd because I thought they'd done a good job of keeping Loki's character much more ambiguous and real (which seems like a silly word to put on that film, but still) at the begining.

Lavanya said...

[...]bad enough that the only mutant to die other than the villain is also the only black man, but who thought it was a good idea to end the film with all the remaining non-white mutants, and all of the mutant women, on Magneto's team, and the sole human woman mind-wiped by Xavier?

I was bothered by this too, but I'm wondering if Moira's last conversation with Xavier isn't telling. She talks with him about how he'll form his own G-Men, and that's a neat little summation of his assimilationism. The X-Men become a clean-cut boy's club just like the CIA. Moira's nature as a human women leaves her outside of all three main organizations by the end.

And just as an aside, but the mindwipe didn't even make sense from an in-story perspective. The CIA board knows that Xavier was the one that gave them that lecture and helped out on the first failed attempt to arrest Shaw. Unless Xavier mindwiped everyone involved and had the associated paperwork destroyed, surely it couldn't be *that* hard for them to track down a moneyed WASP. And if he could be that thorough in his telepathic trickery, why'd he gut Moira's career and leave her to take the fall?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Kate:

OK, I see what you mean. And yes, there's definitely a component of discomfort involved - it's OK for a victim to be pitiable, but if they start making a fuss about their victimization they're a lot less sympathetic.

Kit:

You're right that the film doesn't make Erik entirely unsympathetic, and that Charles is quite annoying (though how much of that is deliberate and how much of it is the writers creating an entitled white man and expecting everyone to love him I'm not sure). But I do think that the film ultimately comes down against killing Shaw. It does this in a very hypocritical way, because as you say Hollywood loves revenge narratives, and by the time Erik kills him we're perfectly happy to see Shaw die, but it's still, as I say in the post, the moment where Anakin becomes Darth Vader, and that exchange about peace between Charles and Erik still distinguishes between hero and villain depending on whether they're willing to kill Shaw. For me that's a deal-breaker.

I think the film would have worked for me if Charles had initially been on Erik's side re: Shaw, but then grew increasingly uncomfortable with Erik's us and them, self-sufficiency at all costs mentality (because as you and Marina say, there are serious problems with this mentality that the film doesn't even try to address).

Jodie:

Interesting comparison. Though I enjoyed the actor's performance, I thought Loki the character was such a muddle of conflicted emotions and motivations that it's hard to draw any conclusions from him. He certainly hasn't got as much to complain about as Erik, and in certain parts of the film it felt as if he was becoming a villain more because he needed to than because of anything organic to his character.

Lavanya:

The X-Men become a clean-cut boy's club just like the CIA.

Good point. Though a rather strange choice given that from what I've gathered, the X-Men were a rather diverse team even at the time of the comic's beginning.

My brother and I commented on the pointlessness of wiping Moira's memories when we left the theater. I suppose it's meant to show that Charles is more serious and willing to make personal sacrifices, but as you say it's Moira who suffers from his choice.

Artemis said...

I haven't seen the new film.

But in the past, I've seen Erik's flaw as presented thus: He was wronged by specific humans. He takes his revenge on humanity.

From your description of the film, there's certainly the problem with it: It forgets that nuance. The core concept - that the victim has become the victimizer - in Magneto's story (and I'm not even trying to make the direct connection to Jews that the films do; more the Magneto character as a 40-year concept) isn't wrong, and the filmmakers, as you say typically for Hollywood, didn't think it through (or didn't care) when it comes to a Magneto who wants revenge/justice from the specific people who wronged him.

Anonymous said...

Mega movies, TV, and games will always condemn anger and hold up forgiveness, for they are produced by and owned by the elite. The elite have a vested interest in the masses finding this forgiving enlightenment as the elite use their influence to use our taxes for illegal wars, corporate handouts, more prisons, less education... The moment they lose the ability to keep the masses convinced of this tao, this zen, the revolution will begin.

Chaim Lavon said...

I agree with Kit. I don't think the writers intended us to read Magneto as pure villain to Xavier's good guy. Magneto is more likable than Xavier, who came off as hopelessly naive and a bit skeevy. He also wiser and kinder than Xavier in his relations to other mutants (see his comments to Mystique and Beast).

I also think the X-Men story should be read in context. At least 3 of the movie's 6 writers were Jewish, as were X-Men's two original creators. Even though we (Jews) pass as majority-white, to some extent I think most Jewish people "get" victimhood, either because we've experienced it ourselves as outsiders or because we've experienced it through Jewish cultural osmosis. For many, we have our grandparents' memories of the Holocaust, our parents' memories of growing up as second-class citizens in the US, and a reminder every year at Passover when we recite how "In every generation they will rise up against us and try to destroy us" (not a fan of that last one, but what can ya do, its TRADITION). Jack Kirby and Stan Lee felt so much like outsiders that they changed their names... I think we should give them, and those that have inherited their tradition, a little leeway to play with the lessons of oppression.

Finally, what did Magneto do in the movie that actually made him super-villain ish. He kills three ex-SS officers, and later attempts to return fire at a bunch of WARSHIPS that have just tried to kill him without provocation. There were no white flags waving. If he's a super villain, then Will Smith and that adorable crazy pilot from Independence Day are war criminals. Those space aliens never had a chance.

A couple unrelated notes:
- As a Jewish guy, I'm was happy to see an obviously Jewish character (Magneto) on the silver screen who's not a nebbish nerd.
- Could do without the random misogynistic jokes. Also, what's with all the POC turning evil? The team didn't need to end up so white. For an industry built by immigrant Jews exiled from what the cultural elites considered respectable artistic pursuits, its strange that today's Hollywood can't manage to be more inclusive.

George Pedrosa said...

The movie is fun, but there are so many flaws in the script. That's a deal breaker for me. By God, why couldn't they have polished it a little more?

- Shaw wants to start a nuclear war, saying that the mutants will survive because they are the children of the atom. Trouble is, most of the mutantes that we see in the movie were born BEFORE the atomic age, and it seems absurd to expect mutants to survive the complete obliteration of life on the planet.

- Charles decides to hide from the government in his own house?

- Why didn't Emma Frost escape from prison when she clearly had the chance?

- How the hell does a woman with an indestructible diamond body get cracked into submission by a brass rail?

- Beast turns into a monster, certainly a traumatic event for someone so hung up about his big feet, but in his next scene is already suited up and ready for the mission, having also created all the costumes of the team? What the hell?

- And what about when Xavier mentions that the suits are bullet proof, only to get a deflected bullet through his spine later in the movie...

- Not to mention the many jaw-dropping inconsistencies with the old trilogy. Xavier is still walking in the 80s, as seen in a flashback in X-Men 3, and he and Erik are still friends. The cameos by Cyclops and Storm would make them 50 year old by the time of the original movies. It's a big deal that Xavier mentions having built Cerebro with help from Magneto in the very first movie, and that Magneto built his helmet using that knowledge, but it's Hank who builds Cerebro in First Class. And people complain about the inconsistencies between the Star Wars trilogies...

Kit said...

that exchange about peace between Charles and Erik still distinguishes between hero and villain depending on whether they're willing to kill Shaw

Does it? Charles says that killing Shaw won't bring Erik peace, not that it's a bad idea. Obviously he's not entirely in favor of the plan, but he's not opposed enough to it not to facilitate it, either. He wasn't particularly keen on Erik killing Shaw while he was inside Shaw's head holding him down- that's not a very clean kill; a lot of people would be unhappy to hold an enemy's arms while their BFF drives a coin through his frontal lobe- but Charles was perfectly to train Erik to raise Shaw's sub and to track him down for Erik knowing full well what Erik planned to do with him when he found him.

I think the hero vs. villain reading may be something you're bringing to the scene rather than something that's inherent in the text. The hero vs. villain reading the only possible reading only if Erik's peace of mind is the movie's sole concern- and he's an angsty white man and this is Hollywood, so I certainly wouldn't rule out that possibility, but I'm willing to give the movie a little benefit of the doubt on this one.

Erik says peace was never an option, which is rather a different sentiment to "Peace was never a goal." I took it to mean, "I already know killing Shaw will not fix the Holocaust, you complete dweeb; the Holocaust isn't fixable. That's not why I'm hunting him down." not "I wanna start a war because I have manpain."

Also, this:

As a Jewish guy, I'm was happy to see an obviously Jewish character (Magneto) on the silver screen who's not a nebbish nerd.

This, a lot.

Michael Straight said...

Although complicated by what we know of Magneto's later actions, I think there's a quite justifiable interpretation of First Class that would see Erik as a sort of John Wayne-esque antihero who does the dirty deed that needs to be done, gathers up his disreputable posse, and teleports off into the sunset, leaving behind the ineffectual "civilized" folks to clean up the mess and go back to pretending they don't need any of those moral shades of gray in their lives.

From that perspective, Erik is not joining the evil mutants, but allowing any mutant who wishes to join him, which would put a different spin on all the women and non-white characters joining him.

After all, Mystique is maybe the most wholly sympathetic central character, and she sides with Erik at the end.

Obviously, X:First Class is too much of a mainstream product to go fully in this direction, but I think there's enough there to question whether the movie wholeheartedly condemns Erik and his anger.

ryan said...

I was with you until here: "Erik is a villain not because of what he does with his anger, but because bad things happened to him. Charles is the hero because he's lucky enough not to have been victimized."

I think what's really going on here is not that Hollywood is uncomfortable with victims per se, but that we're seeing a deep ambivalence in our culture about retributive justice in general.

You've already pointed out that in Battlestar Galactica, all the characters who want to see the Cylons destroyed are portrayed negatively. The new incarnations of Doctor Who are reluctant to resort to violence, and when they inevitably do it always involves some kind of "forcing" of the Doctor's hand, and is portrayed as a character flaw. In the first Lord of the Rings movie, Jackson takes Gandalf's line to Frodo about Gollum in Moria and removes Gandalf's assertion that Gollum does, in fact, deserve to die, thus transforming it from a warning about rushing in to mete out judgment without authority into a warning about wanting to pass judgment at all.

I think this reflects, as you put it, "moral bankruptcy," but I also think it makes for worse writing and poorer stories. What such moves wind up saying is that the villain isn't really evil, he's just misunderstood, or was treated badly, or just wants to be loved. Sure, we see the odd villain who "just wants to watch the world burn," but with a few notable exceptions, these are literally inhuman monsters. Literally. E.g. the Daleks, Sauron and his orcs, etc. We're increasingly not allowed to think that anyone is really evil.

I think this is dangerous, because even though authors and filmmakers seem to be increasingly persuaded by the idea that no one really deserves to die, one of the reasons we read fiction is to have our moral intuitions justified, or at the very least invoked. But by showing us a villain that does really bad things and then making us feel bad about wanting them to face any real kind of punishment... what is that doing to our capacity to form moral judgments in the rest of life?

This is particularly problematic in cases like First Class, where the villain is a Nazi. These are, as you say, Hollywood's go-to guys for people it's okay to love to hate. But now we're supposed to feel bad about a victim wanting to kill one of them? That, I think, is the real problem Hollywood has with victims. Not that they're weak, but that their very existence demands justice. But because our culture is increasingly uncomfortable with that, we have to erase the difference between "vengeance," i.e. appropriate consequences being visited upon wrongdoers, with "revenge," i.e. the desire to inflict suffering on one's own without respect for either one's own authority or matching the punishment to the crime. The latter is truly morally problematic, but I would argue that a civilization or society that has no use for the former truly is morally bankrupt.

We don't want to think all that much about the victims in Darfur, or Bosnia, or Rwanda, because we feel guilty about not doing anything about it. But it's more than that. I think we don't want to look at other people's victims too closely because they remind us of our own victims. Because really, if it is possible for anyone to do things that really deserve punishment, might that not mean that we need to look at our own actions more closely?

And thus we lose one of the most important facets of fiction, the ability for art to hold a mirror up to life. This is supposed to be one of the best things about science fiction, i.e. it takes something real and follows it down its logical chain a ways to see what's at the end, making us think about that original something a little harder. But First Class takes those things and uses them to blur what's around us.

And there, I think, is the movie's real failing.

Matt Ruff said...

Charles tells Erik that killing will not bring him peace; Erik replies that peace was never his goal.

What Erik actually says is that peace was never an option. He doesn't see himself as choosing to go down the path towards war with humanity; he believes, not unreasonably, that it's the only path there is. Charles believes, also not unreasonably, that there are other, better paths.

Like others here, I don't think the film ever casts Charles and Erik into stark "hero" and "villain" slots. I saw them both throughout as sympathetic protagonists, with (understandably) very different attitudes. If I incline slightly more to Charles's point of view, it's not because I begrudge Erik his moral outrage, but because I'm partial to a future with me and my human family still in it.

Charles's determination to spare even Shaw's life did bother me at first. Clearly the guy deserved to die, and even leaving that aside, it's hard to imagine a practical alternative to killing him. How do you safely imprison a man who can turn himself into a nuclear bomb?

But maybe that's the real point. If you acknowledge that even one mutant is too dangerous to let live, you set a precedent that can easily be extended to justify preemptive action against other mutants, leading inevitably to the war Charles hopes to avoid. Maybe he wants to stop Shaw without killing him as a proof of concept to the humans that genocide isn't necessary. Erik, of course, would say that this is ridiculously naive. I can see both sides, and I think the filmmakers could, too.

ryan said...

If you acknowledge that even one mutant is too dangerous to let live, you set a precedent that can easily be extended to justify preemptive action against other mutants, leading inevitably to the war Charles hopes to avoid.

Again, I think the introduction of mutants into the equation clouds the moral analysis rather than clarifies it. Substitute "person" for "mutant" in your sentence and you'll see what I mean.

If Xavier was arguing that Lensherr didn't have the authority to execute Shaw, that'd be one thing, but he wasn't arguing that. He was essentially arguing that the desire to see Shaw pay for his actions was inherently problematic. Xavier wasn't on the side of the rule of law, and though whether the rule of law should apply to war criminals at all is an interesting question, it wasn't a question the move was interested in answering. Rather, Xavier was on the side of... pacifism? Moral ambiguity? He certainly seemed to be willing to equate Shaw's murder of Lensherr's mother with Lensherr's desire to kill Shaw, despite the obvious non-equivalence of the two things. Xavier doesn't even really seem to present the idea that even if Shaw needs to die, killing him would be bad for Lensherr, and thus something to be left to others. No, Xavier's position was that Shaw should not be killed, period.

Kit said...

though whether the rule of law should apply to war criminals at all is an interesting question

...no it really isn't. Except in the instance where trying them is going to prevent any kind of peace settlement and you have to do some sort of Truth and Reconciliation Commission instead, the answer to the question is so obviously yes it doesn't need to be asked. That's why you have rule of law, to apply it to people you don't like. You don't need it for the people you like.

I'm still not sure where everyone is getting this 'Charles was adamantly opposed to killing Shaw' argument from. The night before the raid Erik is like, "You realize I am going to nail this guy's head to a wall with COINS OF VENGEANCE tomorrow, right? I'm not actually here to play mammy to the nuclear powers?" and Charles is like "This won't fix your manpain" not "Oh noes, I am enabling a murder!" I strongly suspect what Charles wanted was for Erik to kill Shaw in a nice fair fight so he didn't have to feel responsible, preferably before Charles found him. What he didn't want to do was hold the guy down while Erik carried out an extra-judiciary reprisal on a helpless victim, although it's worth noting that he couldn't hold him forever and he didn't exactly have an alternative plan to detain him, so some of that may have been squeamishness rather than a genuine moral objection.

ryan said...

the answer to the question is so obviously yes it doesn't need to be asked.

No, it isn't, and yes, it does.

For most of history, "war crimes" weren't resolved in courts of law, they were resolved on battlefields, with victor's justice. Roman law afforded warring enemies no rights at all. More recently, in situations where surrender is conditional, treatment of alleged war criminals is one of the terms of a peace treaty, not a dictate of law. But as a matter of fact, just about every single attempt to bring criminals to justice in an international setting has been plagued by allegations of victor's justice, and there's a good argument to be made that this is exactly what's going on. Remember, Nuremburg only tried Axis war crimes, not Allied ones.

Sarpvinash said...

Offtopic, but I thought the script's mention of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey (which sparks off the crisis - the Soviets in 1962 lacked sufficient number of ICBMs that could deter the Americans) was quite a nuanced portrayal. Rather than an aggressive move, the deployment of IRBMs in Cuba was a desperate Soviet effort to close the 'missile gap'.

Kit said...

For most of history, "war crimes" weren't resolved in courts of law

For most of history, it was legal to own people, but that doesn't mean there's a legitimate argument to be had about whether or not slavery is morally acceptable.

That fact that setting up a legal framework to do something is difficult, or that some people may be sufficiently powerful to escape the law, isn't an argument against rule of law. It's an argument for better rule of law. And any concerns about victor's justice that apply to legal trials of war criminals apply a thousand times more to extra-judiciary reprisals. So unless you're arguing that because of the problem of victor's justice all war criminals should be amnestied, full stop- which from your initial post I don't get the impression you are- legal trials are the only reasonable option here.

There's an argument in the other direction- that the standards of proof in the International Criminal Court are so high that the guilty escape prosecution or conviction- but I think even that is an argument for better rule of law, not for vigilantes sneaking around and jamming coins through people's skulls.

(Which is not to say I wasn't totally okay with Erik killing Shaw, but I don't think it's a practice we want codified in international law.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Chaim:

My own experience of Jewishness, growing up in Israel, is very different from the one you describe. For example this

As a Jewish guy, I'm was happy to see an obviously Jewish character (Magneto) on the silver screen who's not a nebbish nerd.

Is not something I can sympathize with. On the contrary, Erik was very familiar to me as a sort of idealized portrait of what post-war Zionism taught Jews to aspire to be - strong, handsome, self-sufficient, and handy with a weapon. Even today, the notion of Jews as nebbish nerds doesn't have much traction in Israel.

Kit:

Charles holds Shaw down while Erik is killing him because otherwise Shaw will kill Erik, and this is a point in their relationship where Charles and Erik are still willing to set their goals aside for each other's well-being. To me that still doesn't say that Charles accepts the necessity of Shaw's death or even accepts its importance for Erik - even as he's holding Shaw down he's trying to convince Erik to stay his hand.

I agree that it's possible to read Erik's "peace was never an option" as you say, but given that Charles specifically mentions Erik's inner peace I assumed that Erik meant the same thing - that inner peace was never an option for him. Which, to my mind, is the same thing as saying that he doesn't intend to seek it, or that it isn't his goal.

Michael:

I think there's a quite justifiable interpretation of First Class that would see Erik as a sort of John Wayne-esque antihero who does the dirty deed that needs to be done, gathers up his disreputable posse, and teleports off into the sunset, leaving behind the ineffectual "civilized" folks to clean up the mess and go back to pretending they don't need any of those moral shades of gray in their lives.

Possibly, but I don't think it's just our knowledge of Magneto that complicates this reading - or rather, I think the film deliberately plays on our knowledge of Magento in order to achieve that complication. Why have Erik inherit Magneto's helmet from Shaw, which from what I've gathered isn't in canon? For that matter, and even more egregiously, why is Erik - who rolled his eyes at the yellow-and-blue X-Men suits - already wearing a Darth Vader cape in his final scene unless we're meant to understand that he's crossed a moral event horizon?

ryan:

The thing is, *I* have trouble with the concept of retributory justice. The ideal solution to Erik's problem isn't to let him kill Shaw but for Shaw to stand trial - and not to get in the middle of your and Kit's discussion on the viability of war crimes courts, but there's no reason to even go that far with Shaw, whose murder of Erik's mother is a crime under the laws of peace as well as war. If only the film had suggested this possibility and made it the crux of the disagreement between Charles and Erik, I would have had very few problems with it.

Matt:

As ryan has said, the reason for killing and/or imprisoning Shaw isn't to prevent him from causing future harm but to punish him for the harm he's already caused - which includes, but is not limited to, trying to start nuclear war. It's the fact that the film treats this desire as illegitimate that is at the core of my problems with it.

Anonymous said...

Not to put too fine a point on it, but think of Shaw as bin Laden. The man needed killin', and I'm fine with that. In terms of Shaw, there really wasn't more thought put into the script than how to make that happen reasonably well enough.

Much like the recent Star Trek reboot, this was about putting together tropes with spit and bailing wire to get where we're going.

George Pedrosa said...

Really, guys? Magneto is NOT a villain by the end of the movie? Didn't he force Xavier, who was just trying to protect him, to feel a coin being driven slowly through his head? Wasn't he responsible for his best friend's paralysis? Didn't he try to murder Moira? And didn't he try to kill hundreds of innocent soldiers? More importantly, if Magneto's goals by the end of the movie weren't villainous, then neither were Shaw's, since they were exactly the same. Or am I supposed to believe that, expect for killing Erik's mother and being a nazi, Shaw was also a hero?

Michael Straight said...

Magneto doesn't kill or try to kill anyone who didn't try to kill him first. As for "innocent" soldiers, if you're a soldier in an army that is shooting at me, that makes you fair game for me to shoot back at you by any laws of war I've ever heard of. I can't see Xavier's slip of referring to the soldiers as "just following orders" as anything but a straight out denial by the film of the idea that the soldiers would have been innocent victims.

Abigail, I agree that this movie and the overarching fiction ultimately come down on the side of Magneto ending up as a villain. I just wanted to say I thought the movie was more complicated and more nuanced than a straight unambiguous condemnation of Erik and his desire to kill Shaw.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Leaving aside the fact that Magneto is not a soldier, the reason that soldiers in war are allowed to shoot and kill soldiers on the other side is the assumption that if you don't, the other side will shoot and kill you (there's also the question of acquiring strategic positions and materiel, but that clearly doesn't apply here). You're not allowed to shoot enemy combatants who are disarmed or helpless. At the end of the film, the ships are helpless and effectively disarmed, since any missile they can lob at Magneto will be sent right back to them. To say that it's OK for him to kill the soldiers on those ships is the same as saying that if someone tries to kill you and you disarm them, you're allowed to kill them in retribution.

The attack on the ships is the application of Magneto's vengeful attitude towards Shaw towards anyone who tries to hurt him. It's the moment where his justified thirst for vengeance becomes an unjustified one, and in which he chooses to apply his anger toward the man who kills his mother towards, effectively, all of humanity. It is absolutely a villainous moment.

Matt Ruff said...

Abigail,

I just don't agree that the film treats the desire for revenge/punishment as illegitimate. Erik's use of the coin to kill Shaw is pure Old Testament, and suggests that punishment for one's sins is not only proper, but inevitable: the Reichsmark we see on the mantelpiece in act one ends up in the war criminal's head in act three, as it should.

I thought the tension between Charles and Erik wasn't about the legitimacy of revenge, but about its cost and its consequences -- and in that debate, I thought the filmmakers were sympathetic to both sides, without coming down firmly on either.

sonicblastoise said...

so...what did you think of Luc Besson's "Taken" (i realize he wasn't the director. but it's very much his film).

at the same time, there is "The Fifth Element"

Now i'm super curious and i'm going to go back and find all my morally unambiguous movies for your consideration

George Pedrosa said...

Michael Straight,

all due respect, your moral principles are flawed and kind of scary. Magneto's actions by the end of the movie clearly mark him as villain, not a John Wayne-esque antihero who does the dirty deed that needs to be done. As Abigail explained, there's really no way you can justify killing disarmed soldiers the way he tried to do. Yes, the character is complex, and his arc is morally ambiguous, but there's no question he becomes a villain by the end of the movie.

JohnnyB4876 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Foxessa said...

Self-described African American nerds have a view on this film as well:

"You Left Out the Part About ..." by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the NY Times:

“First Class” is set in 1962. That was the year South Carolina marked the Civil War centennial by returning the Confederate Flag to the State Capitol; the year the University of Mississippi greeted its first black student, James Meredith, with a lethal race riot; the year George Wallace was elected governor of Alabama.

That was the year a small crowd of Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and commemorated the 100th birthday of the Emancipation Proclamation. Only a single African-American was asked to speak (Thurgood Marshall, added under threat of boycott). In “First Class,” 1962 finds our twin protagonists, Magneto and Professor X, also rallying before the Lincoln Memorial, not for protest or commemoration, but for a game of chess. “First Class” is not blind to societal evils, so much as it works to hold evil at an ocean’s length. The film is rooted in its opposition to the comfortably foreign abomination of Nazism.

This is all about knowing your audience.

I am reminded of the House Republicans, opening the 112th Congress by reciting the Constitution, minus the slavery parts. I am reminded of the English professor last year who, responding to Huckleberry Finn’s widespread banishment from public schools, was compelled to offer the Mark Twain classic, minus the nigger parts. I think of the Pentagon official, who this year justified the war in Afghanistan to soldiers by invoking the words of Dr. King, minus the “ultimate weakness of violence” parts. I am reminded of whole swaths of this country where historical fiction compels Americans to claim the Civil War was about states’ rights, minus the “right to own people” part.

This is all about a convenient suspension of disbelief.

When we left the theater, my son and I knew we had experienced the most thrilling movie of the summer. “First Class” is narratively lean, beautifully acted and, at all the right moments, visually stunning. But I had experienced something else. My son is 10 and a romantic, as all 10-year-olds surely have the right to be. How then do I speak to him of this world’s masterminds who render you a supporting actor in your own story? How do I speak of the Sentinels whose eyes melt history, until the world forgets that in 1962, the quintessential mutants of America were black?

Who do you think has the coolest power, Daddy?

Love, C.

Kit said...

My own experience of Jewishness, growing up in Israel, is very different from the one you describe

Haha, yeah, from an Israeli perspective I imagine Erik is a lot less exciting. He's pretty novel for Hollywood, though.

To say that it's OK for him to kill the soldiers on those ships is the same as saying that if someone tries to kill you and you disarm them, you're allowed to kill them in retribution.

Was it retributive? I read it more as a "There are Us and Them, by firing on Us they have declared themselves as Them, and They are plotting to kill us so They are all legitimate targets ad infinitum because otherwise Holocaust" issue. It's still a moral event horizon, but I thought it was a different one- with Shaw he was a bit, "I actually have no problem with you except for you're a Nazi and you killed my mom" whereas the ships seemed to be getting a more general "Rarrrgh! Kill all humans!" treatment.

(And while I don't think blowing up those ships would have been justified or constructive, he does have a bit of a problem here. He was just attacked with a missile strike for no reason at all. He's not in a formal war- having disarmed the ships he can't take everyone on board as POWs, because a) he has no ability to take care of so many prisoners and b) since there will be no peace treaty he'll never be able to release them. They're representatives of the two major world powers, so it's not like he's going to be able to put them on trial for attempted murder and get them locked away. It's all very well to say he can just keep deflecting missile strikes, but he has to sleep sometime. Is he really morally obligated to just take away the ammunition in their current arsenal and then send them back to their commanders? It's true you're not allowed to kill disarmed soldiers, but you don't take away their clip of bullets and then send them back to the enemy camp gun in hand to rearm, either. I'm not sure the war analogy is really applicable here- he's not an army, he's a single guy with no legal recourse, and two nuclear powers have announced they're planning to murder him for no reason. So I think the definition of 'self defense' may have to be broadened a little under these circumstances.

Although by any definition of self defense, you ought to be allowed to deflect bullets aimed for your own head. WTF, George? Erik didn't paralyze Charles, it was a ricochet from Moira's gun- Moira who was a representative, albeit a sympathetic one, of the government who'd just tried to kill Charles with missiles. It was an accident, but I'd say the person who fires the bullet bears a heavier responsibility than the person who deflects for any subsequent injuries.)

J.M.Roberts said...

Charles is just as flawed as Magneto, because he can't understand the anger and pain Erik feels, and he can't understand how outcast Mystique feels. He can read minds, but he doesn't actually understand people that well, it's a great irony. Erik actually understands Charles and his weaknesses better than Charles, for all of the telepathy, understands him.
Charles needs to be able to learn about hard emotions, to value pain and anger and the lessons Erik learned, rather then trying to squash them completely. Charles needs Erik, Erik is the only reason any of them are alive, being the one who stopped the missile strike on the beach. I bet that Charles' school would not have been so well-hidden if not for Erik working behinds the scenes to keep it that way. Charles in as idealist, but his ideals can't survive without a rutheless person like Erik looking out for him. Yet Charles refuses to see that. He wants to change everyone to his way of thinking, and won't entertain for a second the possibility that he might be wrong, might be a little to arrogant and overbearing. I'm not excusing Magneto, but if you watch closely you'll really see Charles' flaws, too.

George Pedrosa said...

But Kit, Moira was only shooting at him because he was trying to kill the disarmed soldiers. Obviously she felt guilty, and she apologized to Charles, but her actions were a result of trying to defend other people, whereas Erik's responsibility comes from the fact that he was trying to kill those soldiers (and not only the soldiers, I assume, but the workers at the ships too), and Moira had no choice but to shoot him. Xavier himself says it was Erik's fault, and I can definitely see his point.

I don't know, it seems to me that First Class' Magneto was, pardon for the pun, such a magnetic character that people are coming with all sorts of explanations to justify his actions at the end of the movie. Even his going full-on villain by the end and trying to kill helpless people is being explained as some sort of morally ambiguous defensive action...

KadeshFlow said...

Outstanding review. Love the viewpoint.

I don't necessarily agree with the polarized conclusion. Magneto, though a "villain," is far more of an anti-hero than anything else, and the entire point of the film is to show his rather flat journey. Aside from power, Magneto didn't really change. He never actually became a villain. Instead, he remained almost the same character from his first adult scene until the film's end. The only non ability related growth that he encountered involved his decision to view humanity as a threat and place his race (mutants) at odds with it. Pieces of this developing viewpoint come up throughout the movie, though.

This blog is seriously amazing! Can't wait to see more entries!

Stella said...

I don't give two hoots about this kind of movies (I don’t even hold them as Sci-fi, fantasy at best), but cinema is a powerful means of propaganda and the ruling elite love the ideology of “That you resist not evil: but whoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also” because it means the hoi polloi should get over whatever harm the masters do to them, and let go of anger and thirst of revenge for the sake of peace of mind and promised Paradise. No one likes or respects the victims that don’t get back at their oppressors, and nothing contributes more to the victim’s peace of mind than the satisfaction of delivered justice and prevention of future damage to innocent people by hands of the villain. Why are the masters actually so worried about the slaves’ peace of mind? In fact, they aren’t. It’s theirs they’re keen to preserve.
That said, Eric is indeed evil (although for understandable reasons), because his anger drives him to kill innocent people that never did him any harm. That’s why the cycle of revenge never ends, and there’s no justice in this world, since, in the end, most humans prove to be equally evil.

BTW, I wonder why Hollywood (and especially Jewish producers) keeps flogging the same horse of Nazi Holocaust and never turns to Communist Holocaust for a change (1937 purge, Gulag, etc would make a perfect horror movie), or other minorities tortured by Nazis. Because they’re afraid to offend Russia?

Come to think of it, the movies does manage to get across an important message: Beware who you bully, you might create a monster who could refuse to offer the other cheek, but instead, devour you.

One last question, why on earth didn’t the US get over the 11/S attacks, let go of anger and forgive Bin Laden and his band? Is it because, like God, they’re the only ones entitled to relish sweet revenge?

Kit said...

But Kit, Moira was only shooting at him because he was trying to kill the disarmed soldiers.

Sure, but regardless of her justification she's still the one who shot the bullet. If you drop an atom bomb on Hiroshima because you're trying to end WW II, it's still you who made everyone radioactive even if the Japanese are war criminals. Everyone bears responsibility for the collateral damage they cause in their own attacks.

(And Erik's tendency to deflect projectiles fired at his head by the US government just prevented Charles from entering an exciting new existence as a smear of carbon, so bitching about a spinal injury from a ricochet seems a bit ungrateful, IMO. What, was Erik supposed to let himself get shot? What happens if the ships decide to launch another volley? I wasn't taking Charles as a particularly reliable narrator at that point (or indeed, ever, in this movie, any more than Erik is.))

One last question, why on earth didn’t the US get over the 11/S attacks, let go of anger and forgive Bin Laden and his band?

Because, as you point out, the only people interested in a policy of turning the other cheek are the people who'd get punched back under the tit-for-tat system. When the US is the victim instead of the aggressor, they become very enthusiastic about retributive justice. If Bin Laden was sitting on top of a global hegemony he'd be making movies that emphasized forgiveness too...

Anonymous said...

I just saw the movie tonight and I had the same interpretation of Shaw's line "never again" at the end of the final beach scene. I think the makers of X-Men First Class definitely have an anti-Israel, anti-Zionist perspective. At first, Shaw's rage at the Nazis was shown as righteous anger (just as Israel was once viewed with sympathy by the world at large). Over time, Shaw's anger became out-of-control and indiscriminate, and that's the way the Hollywood/Academic cognoscenti now view Israel, unfortunately. I do not think that the use of the loaded expression "never again" was accidental. When I got home I did a google search to see if anyone else interpreted the movie as I did and that's how I came upon this blog.

Anonymous said...

Oops, I meant to say Erik, not Shaw. Sorry for my character name confusion.

George Pedrosa said...

Kit,

Really? Now you're comparing a character shooting a villain who is trying to kill innocent people to the bombing of Hiroshima? A more apt comparison would be between Erik firing rockets at the ships, trying to kill/scare the people who are a threat to him, but also the ones who are completely innocent, and the bombing of the japanese city.

"Erik's tendency to deflect projectiles fired at his head by the US government just prevented Charles from entering an exciting new existence as a smear of carbon, so bitching about a spinal injury from a ricochet seems a bit ungrateful, IMO."

Somehow, I think the scene where he deflects the bullets and the scene where he stops the rockets fired from the ships are similar only in the most superficial way possible, which is that they both show him stopping projectiles fired by government employees. The context is completely different, obviously.

Also, I don't think his stopping the rockets gives him moral ground to try and kill the crews on the ships without anyone calling him out on his lunacy.

"What, was Erik supposed to let himself get shot?"

No, he was only supposed to refrain from killing disarmed and innocent people, so he wouldn't compel law enforcement agents to try and shoot him out of his murderous rampage.

"What happens if the ships decide to launch another volley?"

Magneto would stop them. We both know that. Are his powers limited by a mana meter? I don't think so.

George Pedrosa said...

Also, while I'm sure most american people would like to think, just before they go to sleep, that Bin Laden's death was a clean, righteous kill, the rest of the world doesn't forget so easily the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians who were killed before the country could get its hands on its precious fundamentalist mass murderer. And while I'm typing this, it strikes me that this disregard for collateral damage is interestingly similar to Magneto's attempt to eliminate the people who tried to kill him, with no regard for the lives of the workers on the ships (and it's reasonable to believe those ships also had workers, not just soldiers) who had absolutely nothing to do with the rockets being fired.

And if I sounded rude, I apologize. It's just that, as a citizen of one amongst many third-world countries that tend to get regularly f@#$ed in the ass by the USA's constant disregard for the life of foreign civilians, I'm particularly inclined to feel outraged over this kind of bulshit.

Brian said...

I DEFF THANK YOU...I HAVE TO SEE THIS MOVIE ASAP!!!!!!

George Pedrosa said...

I agree with Anonymous, I think the movie is definitely critical of Israel's military policy, which, to me at least, is perfectly reasonable. It bothers me that many people pretend that there's no distinction between legitimate criticism of the actions of the israeli government and being anti-Israel and anti-zionism. While I'm definitely critical of the foreign policy of the USA, I don't question its right to exist as a nation and I don't consider myself to be anti-american. I also don't think someone who criticizes the actions of my government is being anti-Brazil. Why is criticism of israeli military always treated as being anti-Israel?

Kati said...

I could actually see and understand both sides of the argument, Charles and Erik's. Both were wrong, being extreme and polar opposite, and it was proven by the movie. Basically, they needed each other because they ballanced each other out. Together, they could've hammered out a compromise, found a path somewhere in the middle. Alas, it wasn't meant to be.

I think that Charles was written the way he was - as not understanding enough - on purpose. Don't forget that Charles is not yet Professor X. He needs to mature and learn first.

And yes, Charles did say that it was Erik's fault, him getting shot - but there was no condemnation. He didn't blame Erik - but he stopped Erik from killing Moira that way. As you can see in that scene, he's more heartbroken about the fact that they can't find a common language anymore than about being shot.

Keegan said...

George Pedrosa, I think you make a good point in your first comment. However, I don't think that it just applies to the American people (Of course I am speaking with a bias here, living in America). All major world powers have in the past, and will probably continue to, gone after high value targets who have committed crimes resulting in the deaths of thousands.

The lives of those that are caught in-between the two opposed forces (Anti-government and Government lets call them) are exactly that... caught up in a fight they neither asked for nor wanted. Those waging the fights on either hand have the moral responsibility concerning the lives of those caught up, and thats why there are the laws of war concerning civilians and unarmed combatants, because those on the side of Government in general are much more caring about their targets, regardless of what side of the issue they stand on, positive, negative, or neutral.

I think its much less a disregard for collateral damage, and much more a consequence of fighting against an organization like Al-Qaeda. When dealing with an enemy structure where the non-combatants you thought were harmless or safe pull out guns suddenly and start shooting, things get a lot more hairy. In situations like this, the value of foreign civilian's lives tend to be lessened sadly by the mere fact that ALL civilians can and may become a suddenly armed hostile gunning against you.

So I'm sorry that it may come across as disregard for human life, but its a prioritization of American life against those that wish to harm that way of life, and that sadly results in the scale of those needing protection being American soldiers first, then civilians, and then finally enemy combatants.

And I'm glad that there are those out there who can make the difference between being critical of a government and being anti-government! It's a breath of fresh air. I get worked up quickly by those that live in America and say things about how horrible America is and that it shouldn't be a country and the like... So thank you for being able and willing to make that difference, between being critical of our foreign policy and being anti-American.

In ending, sorry guys if this hasn't had much to do with the movie, I loved the review, I even made a post about it in my blog that links back to this page, but I felt obligated to say Thank you toe George Pedrosa

Keegan said...

That all being said, I think that the fact that there are those unwilling to look at a situation beyond the "They're trying to kill me, I must kill them" is more heartbreaking then villainous. When Erik goes to destroy the subs, its nothing more or less then what has been repeated time after time by armies across the world. Its a matter often avoided, because of the moral problems it raises.

However, I personally feel that this is more of when Erik becomes the villain. This is where he had the chance to disarm them, and then proceed to get himself and his fellows to a safe distance, then to deal with them differently, and decides to not take that path, but to commit an open act of war against humanity as a whole, is when he slips from an act of retribution to revenge, and to further allow that revenge and hate spiral into acts of villainy.

George Pedrosa said...

I realize my comment about Bin Laden may have sounded more than a little hostile toward americans, but that's not what I meant, and I'm glad you understood that. You're absolutely right that a tendency to disregard collateral damage isn't exclusive to the US government. Hell, in my country people are more than willing to look the other way and ignore the civilians who end up being killed when the police invades the slums to hunt down drug dealers. It's just that this "you shot me, therefore I have the right to kill you and whoever is standing by your side" mentality is something that gets me particularly worked up.

Coming back to the original discussion, there's precedence in the X-Men comic books for the comparison between Magneto and the israeli government, since the character was the leader of the mutant nation of Genosha, which was ceded to him by the UN. That said, I think having a lunatic and violent villain become the founder and head of state of a country that functions as an allegory for Israel sounds much more offensive to israelis than anything First Class does.

Keegan said...

I just want to say I love how this blog opens up a much deeper look into what is going on behind the stories, and the possible influences it makes and draws upon.

And I am rather looking forward to seeing this movie (Yes, I admit I haven't seen it yet, even though I'm engaged in discussion on it, shame on me) but I'm worried I'll be looking for all of these political and ethical tones I've read about here and not enjoy the movie as fully as I would have otherwise...

Kit said...

Now you're comparing a character shooting a villain who is trying to kill innocent people to the bombing of Hiroshima?

You can pick any attack against an evil enemy with collateral damage you like- my original choice was actually the US drone attacks in Afghanistan with the Taliban as the target, but then I thought, "You could argue that whole war was unjustified, so I'd better pick an enemy we can all agree needed stopping, like the Japanese in WW II". The point is, when you fire bullets at a guy who has the power to deflect metal projectiles, you risk ricochets, just like when you drop bombs, you risk hitting civilian targets. Even if the guy you are trying to kill needs to be stopped, you still bear the responsibility for the collateral damage you cause pursuant to that goal. As you point out one post down about the US pursuit of bin Laden, so I'm not entirely sure what we're disagreeing about here.

The context is completely different, obviously.

The context from the perspective of those firing the projectiles is different. The context from Erik's perspective is identical- people are trying to kill him for no good reason, and he's stopping them. He doesn't agree the people on the ships don't need to be killed, or he wouldn't be trying to kill them, so from his perspective Moira's attack is more of the same.

Also, I don't think his stopping the rockets gives him moral ground to try and kill the crews on the ships without anyone calling him out on his lunacy.

No. But it does, I think, give him the right not to be unfairly blamed for injuries resulting from other people's attacks, when the alternative to causing the ricochet was to be killed.

Magneto would stop them.

Not if he'd been shot in the head, he wouldn't. (And I assume he does eventually run out of energy. The others generally do.)

it strikes me that this disregard for collateral damage is interestingly similar to Magneto's attempt to eliminate the people who tried to kill him, with no regard for the lives of the workers on the ships

This is an extremely bizarre argument, I have to say. Those are all naval ships or cargo ships being operated by the Soviet navy- everyone on board is either a soldier or someone who has been seconded into the service of the Soviet navy and is transporting nukes. Regardless of their actual job, none of those people are civilians. The rules of war don't require you not to fire on enemy ships because some of the people on board are going to be cooks rather than gunners, that's just... not how wars work. Nuclear weapon transports do not count as a civilian target.

Why is criticism of israeli military always treated as being anti-Israel?

Because a lot of the people who are critical of the Israeli military are also critical of the fact Israel exists, and so the one criticism tends to get conflated with the other. It shouldn't, but it does. Not inside Israel so much, I suspect, but certainly abroad.

And yes, Charles did say that it was Erik's fault, him getting shot - but there was no condemnation.

In what way is saying "This is your fault" not blaming someone? Isn't that sort of... the definition of blame?

Keegan said...

In what way is saying "This is your fault" not blaming someone? Isn't that sort of... the definition of blame?

Well, theres a difference between saying that something is someones fault, and then condemning them for the fact. Like... Hate the sin, love the sinner mentality is the best I can describe it as. Theres a difference between blaming and a statement of a fact, and the fact is that Magneto's actions did play in part into Charles getting hit. However, that doesn't say that Moira isn't to blame. Charles seems to be trying to resolve Moira's guilt, and at the same time not placing any actual condemnation or "Blame" on anyone.

Jakob Schmidt said...

Thanks for the great review ... I pretty much agree with everything, except that I'm also not that sure that killing Shaw is the point when Erik turns into a villain (for me, at least, it is definitely not). As Abigail mentioned, Charles even seems to condone this killing to a certain degree by holding Shaw still.
The things that really casts Erik in a villainous light happen shortly before he kills Shaw - when he agrees to the notion that mutants and humans are basically already in a war of extinction against each other - and shortly after, when he deflects the missiles. The latter, imho, is not so much villainous because of the civilian casulaties he is willing to accept, but because his actions reinforce the notion that he sees himself as engaged in a (in the broadest sense) racially defined war of extinction. Instead of attacking anti-mutant racism and racists as his enemy, he assumes their racist world-view himself. The idea that he is becoming just like his former enemy is reinforced hy him taking Shaw's helmet and Shaw's crew of mutants.

From a political standpoint, this is awefully simplistic. Even worse, it does metaphorically re-iterate a pretty common anti-Israel notion which might very well be called anti-Semitic for it's sheer lack of historical perspective and it's often blatantly anti-Semitic intention: The notion that "the Israelis" are "The new Nazis". At best, this notion is based on the vague idea that there ist some "vicious circle of violence" - an concept that does nothing to help explain racism and anti-Semitism. Historically, neither of them has anything to do with two groups alternately reacting to injuries inflicted upon them by the other. Both have everything to do with the constant harassment of certain groups that are deemed to be "other" by powerful ideologies. With regards to anti-Semitism and racism, there is no such thing as a "vicious circle".

However, I am still surprised how much I liked first class, mostly because I felt that it was true to it's characters, Charles and Erik. I actually found the moment when Charles calls erik out on having caused the injury to his spine very moving and the finest Moment of an otherwise pretty annoying person: The way he says it didn't imply placing of blame to me, only the notion that you have to face the consequences of your actions, even and especially if you hurt someone you love. It is pretty clear how much these two people still mean to each other in this moment, and this is only reinforced by Charles' wirds and Erik's reaction.

Smoochie said...

Just watched the movie today and I really... super really enjoyed it!!!

I never forget what Charles said to Erik, "Focus is a part in between rage and serenity." In other words when either of this two is greater than the other, we will never meet our goal...

the grumbles said...

Interesting perspective. I think you read a lot more into the movie than I was able to. Perhaps that's because I loved Xmen II, liked III, and HATED one and wolverine origins. Film two was undoubtedly the pinnacle but I never had a serious problem with the storylines.

I loved reading your thoughts on it because while I was watching origins it fell a little flat for me. There were charming moments, as you mentioned, but I wasn't drawn into the larger underlying issues like you were. I'd like to see it again with all this in mind, maybe that would change.

George Pedrosa said...

"The context from the perspective of those firing the projectiles is different. The context from Erik's perspective is identical- people are trying to kill him for no good reason, and he's stopping them. He doesn't agree the people on the ships don't need to be killed, or he wouldn't be trying to kill them, so from his perspective Moira's attack is more of the same."

I'm sure most people who commit murderous acts think of themselves as perfectly reasonable, but that doesn't mean I have to agree with them.

By trying to kill those soldiers, Erik wasn't stopping them. He already did stop them by halting the rockets. At that moment, they were disarmed. What happened next was calculated execution, which I think we can both agree is a bad thing, right? I agree that Charles getting shot was an accident, but it was one caused by Erik trying to murder disarmed people, forcing others to stop him by any means necessary, so he does have responsibility. More than Moira, who was trying to save lives, definitely.

"Not if he'd been shot in the head, he wouldn't."

You're mixing everything, the firing of the rockets and Moira's shooting, in a way that makes no sense whatsoever. Moira wouldn't need to shoot him if he had just stopped the rockets. So, he would be able to stop those rockets again and again (that is, assuming those ships still had rockets).

"This is an extremely bizarre argument, I have to say. Those are all naval ships or cargo ships being operated by the Soviet navy- everyone on board is either a soldier or someone who has been seconded into the service of the Soviet navy and is transporting nukes. Regardless of their actual job, none of those people are civilians. The rules of war don't require you not to fire on enemy ships because some of the people on board are going to be cooks rather than gunners, that's just... not how wars work. Nuclear weapon transports do not count as a civilian target."

Except there was no war, and Magneto isn't a soldier, so those rules don't apply. If a soldier tries to kill me and I manage to disarm him, I don't have the right to execute him because he is a soldier. And I'm talking about the morality of the action, not military ethics. Regardless of whether they were american and soviet soldiers, the majority of the people on those ships had nothing to do with the decision or the action of firing the rockets. Therefore, they were innocent. Therefore, killing them to get to the ones who DID fire the rockets was collateral damage. Hell, killing even the disarmed soldiers responsible for the attack on the beach would be wrong. It might be justifiable from a military standpoint if there was a war between both sides of the conflict, but there wasn't. Besides, Erik's action would probably spark more violence and hatred towards mutants around the world, which just makes his decision even more selfish and vengeful.

Sam said...

As you day previous super hero films habe being quite a let down, so really werent expecting much after hearing about this new installment. However I will probably watch this after hearing a lot of good things.

Alejandra M. Fimbres said...

I have read several points of view regarding the film…

I certainly like your post, even tough I don't agree with everything. It so good to read well-written posts about it!

I absolutely agree with you regarding the Mad Men 60's new obsession. But I'm also glad they did it!

----
On the other hand:

I believe it was important to portrait the origins of Magneto not only because of the Holocaust but because that's his genesis. As you said, " that's how they were written".

Of course there are things left out. As it happens in all movies. Because movies are only a portion of fiction (or reality) portrayed in 2 hours.

Regarding diversity… It's the same: Do we have to portrait all minorities in the world in each movie? I reject both prejudice and racism. But I think it's impossible for one movie to show everything that it politically correct. On the other hand, I think all X-men movies (even the bad ones) have clearly made a stand of embracing different expressions of the human being and this is not the exception.

According to the comic, mutants are only human beings with a mutation on their DNA. Which means. They are the natural next step of mankind. But society doesn't seem to understand. As it has happened in many periods of history. And the screenwriters successfully translate this into this movie in many ways (Xavier explains DNA mutations to his female prospects, Mystique questions herself about if it's ok to be different, etc.).

So, overall, I think it shows this eternal fight for integration but also how difficult it is for them, and how It takes some of them to the wrong side.

To me, It's the best of all X-men movies yet!

Thanks for sharing your opinion
Alex

ifitsucksiwilltellyou.bogspot.com

George Pedrosa said...

"I actually found the moment when Charles calls erik out on having caused the injury to his spine very moving and the finest Moment of an otherwise pretty annoying person"

I don't get all this Xavier hate. The guy's a pretty sympathetic and charismatic character with the best of intentions at heart and, except for his failure to understand Raven's need to accept her own appearence and the legitimate desire for punishment that drives Erik (I'm not sure if what he disapproves of is the anger and violence itself, like Abigail says, or the fact that he feels this obsessive mentality will bring only ruin to his friend), very sensitive about what the other characters are going through. The scene where he reads Erik's mind, wipes a tear and THANKS him for the lovely memory is so beautiful and representative of his humane personality.

Only thing that seems to fuel people's hatred towards the character seem to be his privileged upbringing, but that's not really his fault. Besides, he uses his fortune for good causes. I wish we had more pampered aristocratics like Charles.

Jakob Schmidt said...

I wouldn't say that I "hate" the Xavier character, but he's definitely an annoying person of the know-it-all-type. That doesn't mean that ther isn't a lot to love about him and that he is wrong about everything.
Still, the only moment when he truly shines, to me, is that moment on the beach, because he grasps and drives home the fact that the course he and Erik are on means that they're going to hurt each other. I don't know, it's just a powerful moment ...

George Pedrosa said...

Yeah, I can definitely see how this goody two-shoes persona might annoy some people. Still, I'm glad he doesn't get the Mary Sue treatment, and we get to see legitimate flaws of character and judgement from him... really, a young Xavier as a ladies' man? Did anyone see that coming?

Kit said...

I agree that Charles getting shot was an accident, but it was one caused by Erik trying to murder disarmed people, forcing others to stop him by any means necessary, so he does have responsibility.

But this is exactly the same logic by which the US says, "Whoops, sorry our drone attack just killed a houseful of children, but it's bin Laden's fault really because we wouldn't be here if not for him!" If that argument doesn't exculpate the US for the consequences of their actions in Afghanistan, how come it exculpates Moira from the consequences of her actions?

You're mixing everything, the firing of the rockets and Moira's shooting, in a way that makes no sense whatsoever.

It makes total sense. At the moment when Erik has to decide whether or not to deflect the bullet, the two options are a) die, and leave the others undefended in the event of another volley of missiles, or b) deflect the bullet. It's true that the whole bullet-deflecty question would never have arisen if he wasn't trying to murder people, but that's irrelevant to the consequences of his choice to deflect the bullet or not. Charles' argument seems to be he was wrong not to opt for (a), which is understandable in the heat of the moment, but objectively somewhat peculiar.

If a soldier tries to kill me and I manage to disarm him, I don't have the right to execute him because he is a soldier

Right, but your right to kill him or not is not determined by his personal role in the military, so your "Not everyone on the ship pulled a trigger" argument is nonsense. It's irrelevant whether or not an individual soldier made a decision to attack the mutants or not- they're an army or civilians seconded into the service of an army, and they're treated as a monolithic entity according to the rules of war. You're allowed to shoot at cooks and radio operators too, as long as they haven't surrendered yet.

The relevant question is whether or not the ships count as disarmed/surrendered, because this is the question that applies to every single person on board.

And the answer is not totally obvious. They certainly haven't formally surrendered (not that they've had much time) and they either have more ammo on the ships (quite likely- I can't imagine US and Soviet ships sitting next to one another discharging their entire payload, for fear the other side was holding something back and planned to use it on them once the mutants were eliminated) or they've certainly got more back in port. They're not disarmed. At best they're out of ammo.

They're also firing at a target they can't hit, which means that killing them looks really, really bad. But there's no rule of war that says the sides have to be fair. If I have a tank and you have a handgun, I am still allowed to blow you up under the rules of war provided you haven't surrendered. What Erik tried to do was unsporting but not necessarily a war crime.

Now, it's true that he's not technically a soldier, but this is just the bullshit argument that murder is okay when it's sanctioned by whatever big state is calling the shots and not okay when it's the Iraqis trying to get an invading army out of their country, or the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto killing the Nazis, or whoever the big powers of the day want to label terrorists. This is garbage. Warships fired missiles at Erik, two sovereign nations tried to kill him and the people with him without trying and convicting them of a capital offense- he's in a war.

Whether or not blowing the crap out of that fleet is a good long term strategy for mutantkind is a separate question from whether or not it's moral (and one to which I agree the answer is probably no.)

Surliminal said...

I read, and loved (though disagreed with)this review a few days ago when in Germany (ironic, huh) and tried to post reply then, which the vagaries of software destroyed. Don;t have eneegy to recreate here but noting now you're up to 66 comments, it seems to me as pop culture goes (and for me it goes quite far) this film has (a) struck an undeniable nerve and (b) across a reasonable sample of respondents giving very different responses, clearly objectively not unequivocally painted one or other of the characters as, by end of movie, evil/wrong (though clearly one has taken a path whch will now keep him outside the law - but that's true of half the heroes of Hollywood).

I think one of the commenters above has it right that though it's easy, as you essentially do, to see Charles signposted as the viewpoint protagonist, and thus Magneto as "evil" for opposing his assimilationist/appeacement way, he's (C) actually written somewhat more subtly as an unreliable moral narrator, constantly getting ethical stuff wrong: his reaction to Mystique's blueness (imagine her black - would we not think him still loveable but an undeniable racist?), outing Hank thoughtlessly, infantalising women, etc etc. (McAvoy himself in interviews has said his intention was to portray Charles's chat up lines as a "bit sex pesty" not as irresistably charming; And as someone above said, writing in all that new stuff about C's reacton to Mystique had to be there for a reason.).
This moral unreliabiity is occluded a bit on first view (mine anyway) by the fact that the actor's charisma almost carries off his assurance, even when "wrong" - but the coin/murder scene is pivotal about this as surtext I think. There does seem to be no good plot reason why Charles holds Shaw still for Erik to murder him (couldn;t he have held him but cocked his head to the left a bit!!) so it's very easy to read the text as saying that Charles may not like execution, but he is nonetheless knowingly complicit , having no good other alternative for stopping Shaw, which makes him consideably more morally ambivalent in the field of actual action, than he was in theory on the eve-of-conflict debate - an intentional subtlety in the script??

In relation to modern Israel, the film does seem capable of taking the relatively sane if wishy washy possible interpretation that neither entirely turning your back on the past, nor hair-trigger retaliation for fear of its repetition in the future, are choices which will enhance the goal of "peace as an option" or the future happiness of those personally involved. (Note Charles is distinctly *not complicit* in Erik's firing back at the US/RU sailors as he was with stopping Shaw.)It's an angsty movie because by the end this genuinely is a situation where neither side can be right. Cue Israel/palestine. This seems a huge advance to me on the Avatars, Star Wars, etc etc of this world, and even if X2 already set out that stall (X1 didn,t) , I'm happy to see a return to it.

mgeek said...

X men is awesome. Best among the four movies, and one of the best superhero movie. It pictures the pathos and failures as often as the joy and glee. Reaffirming that a superhero is still a human. Reaffirming my preference of dark and brooding Batman over oh-so-easy Superman. It's all about identifying yourself in what you are seeing on screen, and escaping from reality. Sounds paradoxical, but in this life, what else doesn't?

Lorinne said...

As a therapist who loves the X-Men comics, it is hard to watch the movies simplify a very dark opera into a disney-esque fairytale of black and white.
In the comics, Charles eventually becomes a greater danger than Magneto. Because of their powers, both are able to take their world views to extremes that either invite destruction or cause it.
Bringing everything back to the core of Marvel Comics, "With great power comes great responsibility".

dreaminghour said...

Surliminal, I largely agree with all you've said. I also think this movie is being read into too much by people who think all of Hollywood has an agenda. There is not more than just superficial mentions of anti-semintism, anti-homosexuality, sexism, and racism in this movie. Not more than is easily seen. Scratch too much... and I think you'll find a team of script-writers who are surprised what a couple of good actors and actresses turned their plot into. *shrug* But this is what reviewers do, and I wouldn't stop it because it makes for eye-opening discussion.

viv said...

Batman is not a villian ^^

oaktree89 said...

Terrific essay. I'm currently planning a piece of meta on how to write Erik (fanfiction-wise) as a Jew realistically and in an informed manner, and that will necessarily include some of my misgivings about the film's portrayal of Jewishness and victimhood. I'm wondering if you would mind me quoting from and linking to this essay? Credited fully and explicitly, of course.

stu willis said...

cf. Kira Nerys.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

oaktree: by all means, feel free.

Anonymous said...

It makes total sense. At the moment when Erik has to decide whether or not to deflect the bullet, the two options are a) die, and leave the others undefended in the event of another volley of missiles, or b) deflect the bullet. It's true that the whole bullet-deflecty question would never have arisen if he wasn't trying to murder people, but that's irrelevant to the consequences of his choice to deflect the bullet or not. Charles' argument seems to be he was wrong not to opt for (a), which is understandable in the heat of the moment, but objectively somewhat peculiar.

Sorry, I know this comment in way late but this has been bugging me. The choice for Erik isn't to get shot in the head or deflect the bullet as he did. He could have stopped the bullet the same way he stopped the missles, by freezing them in mid-air and dropping it harmlessly to the ground.

Instead he deflects the bullets with a dramatic flourish because he's making the point of how helpless Moira's puny gun is against him. In doing so he shoots bullets in all directions without paying attention to where they go. That's what gets Charles shot. Moira still fires the bullet, but she aims it at Erik, taking some care where the bullet goes. Erik's caught up in the moment of showing off his power, forgets he's got other people to look after, and hits Charles. It's an accident and it's Moira's bullet, but there some symbolic responsibility in Erik's actions.

Ελλάδα said...

If you're looking for an action movie, with little progress in the story line, then just stick to old X-Men films. But if you want a detailed, action packed movie...with SUPERB acting...then watch this one. And you will NOT be dissapointed.

Anonymous said...

"We want our heroes to be strong, inviolate. Victims--those who haven't passed through fire unscathed, or somehow worked their way back to the exact same person they were before their ordeal--are suspect, damaged goods, defiled"

Uh, but Charles is a victim at the end. He is far from inviolate. Both his mind and his body are violated. His paralysis means that he will never be the same person he was before his ordeal. Are you arguing that he ceases to be the hero of the film at this point?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Far from disproving the claim that X-Men: First Class, and Western pop culture in general, vilify emotional trauma, Charles's reaction to his paralysis feels like the ultimate validation of it. Yes, his body is violated, but his mind? His reaction to losing the use of his legs is the most gracious, generous, accepting depiction of such a loss that I have ever encountered. He is neither angry, nor bitter, nor depressed, and seems in no way cowed or moved to reevaluate his choices or worldview in light of what these have cost him. This is not even to mention that within seconds of having been paralyzed he forgives the two people responsible for it - a pointed and, I have to believe, deliberate contrast to Erik's thirst for revenge on both Shaw and Moira. Basically, except for forcing him to use a wheelchair, being paralyzed changes Charles not one bit. Inviolate seems like just the right word.

tabulyogang said...

wow! what a very great long review. What i love most about it is the inner struggle the characters have to face. Its about who they are and what society perceives of them.

The Rush Blog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Rush Blog said...

Your comments about this movie strikes me as . . . you know what? I don't what the hell to make of your article. The way you try to explain characterization and plotting is weird. That's the best thing I can say at the moment.

By the way, I noticed your negative comments about "X-MEN 3" and "X-MEN: WOLVERINE". I guess I can't agree with your opinion. They're not perfect. But I happen to like both movies a lot more than the 2000 movie, "X-MEN", which has always struck me as possessing a rather vague story.

Anonymous said...

Fear comes before scapegoating and "justified" hatred.

And I'd say Magneto makes the mistake of equating the two.

It's different, but all persecution/oppression is linked.

But to lump it all under the same banner and would gloss over what makes each type of oppression its own separate species.

Anonymous said...

Also.
I don't think victims can be heroes, survivors can, though.

Batman is the perfect counter-example.
He was a victim, but he used what happened to him to become better than he was before.

Anonymous said...

"vilify emotional trauma"

As it SHOULD be.
Trauma is bad. And traumatic.
When we let it define us, we're just reactionary automatons of instinct-nature and environment.
Everyone may experience trauma. But we can't be determined to STAY traumatized.

"We are, each of us, largely responsible for what gets put into our brains, for what, as adults, we wind up caring for and knowing about. No longer at the mercy of the reptile brain, we can change ourselves. Think of the possibilities." -Carl Sagan

And so... Magneto isn't as evolved as he thinks he is. Tragic.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Thank you for demonstrating exactly the pernicious, self-righteous, ungenerous attitude I talk about in this essay.

"we can't be determined to STAY traumatized"? So when people can't get over their traumas, it's their own fault for being perversely determined not to, and thus a moral failing? What a horrible - and, I suspect, privileged - way of looking at the world.

DWhizzle said...

So when exactly did Shaw die?

WTH is Xavier taking the pain, staying locked into Shaw's mind for and how is it that he is Shaw's mind during the entire duration of the quarter's course?

I have to believe Shaw dies shortly after the quarter starts ripping his brain apart, so what mind is Xavier reading?

74dbe646-2aff-11e3-ae49-000bcdcb5194 said...

I find it absolutely bizarre and frankly offensive for someone who is a member of the majority group in their home country, a developed country, with clear, legally drawn physical privileges that are documented in their constitution and laws over members of minority groups in that same country, with the time and money to write long, poorly reasoned blog posts without compensation regularly on mindless entertainment, has the gall to suggest that when other people disagree with them, it must be because THEY'RE privileged, has the gall to delineate who IS privileged and who isn't, and seeks to generalize victims of all atrocities in the whole world and how we're all represented and what people should do and morality concerning that, based on a Hollywood blockbuster. I just...I can't even understand that. Do you have any idea the hypocrisy of the language you're using? For you to be outraged on behalf of "disprivileged" people? When you're likely among the most privileged groups of people in the world? It's just absolutely baffling. Particularly when the one doing the fixating is a privileged member of the majority group in their country with enough money to spend on long, drawn out, poorly reasoned blog posts.

What ultimately sets Magneto apart was not stepping back and looking for other solutions than killing people. What set Xavier apart was that he was naive and didn't provide alternate solutions as far as was shown. You kept basing your argument on one of them being the hero and the other being the villain, which is just hilariously simplistic and suggests you've never read an X-Men comic in your life. To predicate your argument on a conclusion that hasn't even been defended to begin with is logically indefensible in the first place. It's assuming a premise that hasn't been established. If anything, the movie denounced such base desires without being pragmatic. Everyone was portrayed sympathetically except Shaw, who was a war monger. If you don't see that fine, but I think it's really fucked up for someone to come from such an obviously, objectively quantifiable, privileged perspective and say that everyone else who sees it differently is privileged, meanwhile I live in a developing country, don't have full rights as a woman and as a minority, and have to watch actually privileged first world idiots argue amongst themselves about who has MORE privilege, and run around claiming how the world is against them, how THEY'RE oppressed, and how their close-minded, angry opinions aren't being sanctioned by the media. Yeah, because killing people without thinking about alternatives is TOTALLY something that the media should sanction. "Why can't movies be the way that I want them to be!!!!!!!" And, ironically, the movie practically DID sanction that by setting up Xavier and Erik as equally foolish and naive, which could be mistaken as them being equally right, and as the protagonists that could mean the movie was saying these are equally plausible solutions.

Getting furious over a conclusion that's based on ten different thinly realized assumptions is incredibly intellectually lazy and just masturbatory outrage. I find it really depressing that so many people praised this review without realizing the inherent intellectual bankruptcy of it.

74dbe646-2aff-11e3-ae49-000bcdcb5194 said...

"(the alternative of putting Shaw on trial for crimes against humanity is never suggested)."

Because the assumption was that the viewer is smart enough to figure this out as an alternative themselves without them wasting 15 minutes talking about the complicated issues of trapping a mutant with kinetic powers and putting them on trial when they might not be considered human. Clearly, based on this review, this was a stupid assumption; viewers are stupid!

Clearly every movie needs to desperately spoonfeed the viewer and over-explain every minute potential source of offense lest anti-expressive "reviewers" make wide generalizations about their movie to feed their ego in a fit of masturbatory outrage.

Do you even follow X-Men? Did you read the comics? Do you honestly believe that someone with telepathy on a wide scale has not experienced crippling emotional pain? Just because this film, set in a clear continuity, didn't focus on that aspect doesn't mean it didn't happen. This is likely why you keep using terms like hero and villain "with a glibness that belies" the complexity of thehistory that you're talking about.

Xavier saw all of Erik's memories and came to the conclusion that he was focusing too much on his pain on not enough on the good in his memories, and likely the movie meant to critique the idea of people focusing on base emotions and not on what they could pragmatically be doing about them.

Mystique is a clearly sympathetic character and goes against Charles and challenges him; he's never portrayed as right.

74dbe646-2aff-11e3-ae49-000bcdcb5194 said...

"Charles is the hero because he thinks peace of mind is more important than punishing a mass murderer. "

Nope, because he's not the hero. You just decided that. And if you think he's the hero then I'm surprised you don't like him more!

To predicate your argument on a conclusion that hasn't even been defended to begin with is logically indefensible in the first place. It's assuming a premise that hasn't been established.

What sets him apart is that, based on his reading Erik's mind and assessing the situation, he thought it was better to not become a murder to kill a mass murderer. Is it really so impossible to imagine that Erik could have knocked out Shaw instead? Could have trapped him in sheets of metal to the degree that he could no longer move or make use of others peoples movement and consequently not make use of his kinetic powers? And then the government might have trapped him in a Juggernaut-esque facility?

Charles isn't speaking from "privilege." That's your black and white taped on interpretation, and wildly hypocritical coming from a quantifiably privileged majority person talking about . He's speaking from going inside Erik's mind, something that was established as giving him a potentially greater insight into someone then that person has into themselves. He felt, based on this, as he clearly articulated, that killing Shaw would give nothing to Erik. He likely knew where it would lead Erik to kill Shaw; it would just lead him to move onto some other extreme goal, as we saw and see in the future that it kind of does.

Getting furious over a conclusion that's based on ten different thinly realized assumptions is incredibly intellectually lazy and masturbatory outrage incarnate. I find it really depressing that so many people praised this review without realizing the inherent intellectual bankruptcy of it.

"It places two choices before him: either he takes the life of the person who killed his family and tortured him, in which case he's a villain, or he relinquishes not only his quest for revenge but the anger driving it (the alternative of putting Shaw on trial for crimes against humanity is never suggested). "

I just can't understand how anyone can view anything this simplistically.

74dbe646-2aff-11e3-ae49-000bcdcb5194 said...

"Erik is the villain because he can't stop being angry at the person who murdered his mother in front of him. :

He's not just the villain! Ahhh! You just keep assuming this. In descriptions for the upcoming movie the producers even clearly say it'll be about him moving from anti-hero TO villain. And of course they don't have a monopoly on interpreting it, but if you believe that then you understand that calling him the villain is because you believe him to be so, which means based on his actions you believe him to be a villain, so it seems the moral bankruptcy you believe stems from your conclusion doesn't come from the movie, it comes from you. Congratulations! You're morally bankrupt!

"Scratch just a little bit beneath that surface and you'll find the ugly truth that underpins most of Hollywood's attempts to grapple with the Holocaust and atrocities like it."

So you're not just a hypocrite, you're a narcissist. Anyone who doesn't agree with you isn't thinking hard enough! They don't have your digging tools!

"Erik is a villain not because of what he does with his anger, but because bad things happened to him.:

Nothing said in this "review" supports this conclusion. As I've said, he's not the villain, in my view and clearly in the view of some other people, and nothing in this review has supported such a conclusion, so this is already half wrong. The movie clearly, clearly painted what Magneto did to Shaw as fair based on clearly having Magneto reference exactly what Shaw did to Erik's mother. By recalling that dark moment in the first scenes of the movie, it clearly asked the viewer to understand where Erik was coming from. If the movie wanted us to disapprove, then it did a pretty fucked up job of making that difficult. If anything, And what sets him apart finally isn't that terrible things happened to him, it's that both he and Xavier's gifts ultimately gave them the power to act without thinking and not be held accountable for it.
-Magenta

74dbe646-2aff-11e3-ae49-000bcdcb5194 said...

Thank you for demonstrating exactly the pernicious, self-righteous, ungenerous attitude I talk about in this essay.

"we can't be determined to STAY traumatized"? So when people can't get over their traumas, it's their own fault for being perversely determined not to, and thus a moral failing? What a horrible - and, I suspect, privileged - way of looking at the world.

...Wha - what, how, did you possibly take the idea that people shouldn't be determined to stay traumatized, and assume it means that everyone who is traumatized is only traumatized b/c they want to be? That...makes absolutely no sense. It's a leap in logic that's so absurd that it's impossible to take your "essay" seriously now. Are you honestly suggesting shouldn't not be determined to remain traumatized? What are you even prescribing? You just seem to be repeatedly incensed at the idea of anyone bringing up the possibility that moving on from trauma is possible or healthy or worth it. I would love to see what studies and what psychiatric work you've done that has proven such an extreme and potentially harmful concept.

The last thing that anon said, suggesting that being defined by trauma is a matter of being evolved, THAT was the insensitive aspect, but everything else, the idea that trauma is bad and we should work to not let it define us negatively, THAT'S what you take offense with? THAT is privilege. Do you have any idea, you yourself, no anecdotes from people you've known, what it's like to be violently and sexually abused all throughout your childhood? I would rather forget all about it and wish it never happened. I would pay money to be over it. Recognizing that, to a degree, I actually am forcing myself to live through it again and again in my head has helped me so much in moving on and having a healthy life. It has given me a semblance of control social justice warriors like you stigmatize, because it's easier for you to perpetuate the idea that we're powerless to whatever forces you take issue with. And yet you stigmatize that? It doesn't add up in your social justice ideology? What you're actually doing is stigmatizing the psychological tool box that people like me need. The only privileged person here is you.
-Magenta

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