Wow, Ben: just like the old X-Men Saturday morning cartoon, the latest prequel in this hit-or-miss franchise uses "mutation" for allegories as broad as competing strands of American ideologies, and as narrow as puberty and sexual preference. You know me: I'm gonna start with the broad. X-Men: First Class is about Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) as young men—before the school, before the wheelchair, before the bald head. I read their coming-of-age as the birth of the political struggle in this country between hawks and doves: Magneto born of Nazi savagery (in a flashback to a 1944 Polish ghetto) like many a conservative American, Xavier born of Westchester affluence like many a munificent liberal. Ethnic minority and privilege—two "mutations," two forms of freakishness that are potential sources of embarrassment or defiant pride for the thoughtful young man. What metaphors did you suss out of that screening, Ben?
Well, Henry, it's not exactly a metaphor, but this movie is mad racist! There are two black characters in X-Men: First Class: Darwin (Edi Gathegi) and Angel (Zoë Kravitz, daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonnet). As the characters' names suggest, there's plenty of science-versus-religion subtext to discuss, which we surely will in due time. Angel is a stripper and sex worker (oh the irony!) with dragonfly wings and some sort of weird fiery spitball power that doesn't really make sense, as much as mutant superpower logic can be said to make sense in the first place. She jumps ship to join up with Nazi collaborator Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his crew the first chance she gets. Darwin is a cab driver who can adapt quickly to whatever conditions he's experiencing—his back becomes a shell when he's hit, he dunks his head in an aquarium and instantly grows gills. Shortly before killing Darwin, Shaw urges the young mutants to fight the humans, "or be enslaved"—cutaway to the black guy! Oh, right, Africans were enslaved because they didn't fight back! Wouldn't want that to happen again with this new race! It's the type of thing I'd expect from Todd Phillips—or The Blind Side—but that I assumed would be way below this difference-themed franchise. The film is set, after its expository flashbacks, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, but is so obsessed with a-bomb paranoia that racial equality doesn't even register, and its black characters are either dead or gone bad by the halfway point. Do any of the other mutant-coded-minorities fare better, Henry?
They're not exactly mutant-coded, but how about the movie's women? That January Jones, as Shaw's "right-hand woman," appears throughout the movie in not much more than her underwear? And is repeatedly stripped and tied up? That Angel, as you mentioned, is a stripper? That CIA agent MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is conveniently wearing lacy lingerie underneath her clothes while on a Vegas stakeout? The only female character not demeaned as such is Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who instead is repeatedly made to feel embarrassed of her naked blueness by the ostensible "good guys". I think that's what most surprised me about First Class, Ben: its sympathy for future villains like Magneto, who encourages Mystique to accept her body, while Xavier shames her. But that's not actually as transgressive as it seems—it's actually pretty conservative! After all, what's not to like about that one-man Munich squad? His use of violence is if not necessary then at least perfectly understandable: he kills Nazis, Ben, tittilating our desire for justice like a Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone hero. Meanwhile, Xavier makes astonishingly weak excuses for Nazis and their ilk—"they're just following orders!"—and urges Magneto to find that sweet spot between "rage and serenity". Sounds to me like a pretty clear reference to our cool-headed, Osama-killing POTUS; with such a conservative sensibility, it's no wonder that the movie rewards Xavier's wishy-washy liberalism with paralysis, both literal and not—sort of like Ron Kovic, standing in for post-Vietnam America, in Born on the Fourth of July.
You know, Henry, for all its lopsidedness I think the dynamic between Erik/Magneto and Xavier was one of the best things about First Class, especially in that scene where they finally have mind sex and all the tension between them diffuses (for a little while at least). The mutant-as-gay allegory seemed the most deliberate of Matthew Vaughn's many metaphorical winks and nudges. When CIA suit Oliver Platt first learns that Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult, who also played the boy-toy in A Single Man!) is a mutant the young man explains: "You didn't ask, so I didn't tell." Of course both he and Xavier show fleeting interest in female characters so as to minimize the likelihood of literal queerness. The film, like the whole franchise really, confounds any clear reading along lines of sexual orientation: Magneto's crew is more comfortably "out" as proud mutants, but they also have the most blatantly sexualized female members and, of course, are hellbent on eradicating humans; whereas Xavier's pupils are closeted—the professor's last line, after all, is something like "anonymity is our first line of defense"—but have a more nuanced understanding of their otherness. I guess you could chalk that up to Xavier and Erik's vastly disparate class backgrounds.
Hey Ben, did you notice how Shaw/Magneto's crew literally included the Devil? Which explains why it fought alongside the Nazis and then the Soviets, I guess—America's enemies, despite opposing ideologies, all have Satan on their side. I'm glad that we can go on here about history, international politics, gender, sexuality and class, because we couldn't really with the last X-Men prequel. Not only is the storytelling here much richer and more solemn, but so is, as you said, the dynamic between the lead actors; McAvoy and Fassbender bring far more dignity to their roles than the campy Hugh and Liev did to theirs. That said, there were a few weird parallels between the two movies: one is their fetishes for Lost. Wolverine had many actors from the show, and this movie practically recreated the series' pilot in its climax, with a plane crash on a tropical beach. But they also both revolve around recent nuclear history: Wolverine, with Three Mile Island, and this one with an alternate-history Cuban Missile Crisis. I suppose mutants are tied up with the atomic in this series; as Shaw keeps saying, "the atomic age made us!" (Though didn't Magneto's placement in a concentration camp predate the discovery of atomic power? Was Shaw misinformed but no one corrected him?) What'll be next: Chernobyl? Fukushima? Though that might be too soon for such an important foreign market.
My money's on Chernobyl for the next X-Men prequel, Henry, because it'll maintain the Cold War theme while allowing for all kinds of amazing 80s period details to match First Class's hilariously funky 60s design, from the CIA's sexy black sedans and Kevin Bacon's Disco Stu-ish suits to January Jones's first-generation Bond girl get-ups. It's funny that you liked its lack of Wolverine-caliber camp, though, because I felt this film was far too self-serious—especially given how many spoken lines January Jones had. There were flashes of a much funner film in there, something like a mutant version of Clone High ("Mutant High"), especially in those moments when the young recruits are getting to know each other, brainstorming mutant names and goofing around. Then later on, at what will become Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, we get a splitscreen group training montage right out of D2: The Mighty Ducks. That playful group dynamic quickly fades, though, and First Class finally boils down to a duel between its would-be class presidents locked in a Spock-versus-Kirk conflict of serenity and rage that's second-class at best.