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.