The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
X-Men: First Class

Written by Jim Holden.

Photo from the article Matthew Vaughn, the director of X-Men: First Class, has a history with the X-Men franchise, having very nearly directed the third instalment, X-Men the Last Stand, back in 2006. He bailed on that film during pre-production, citing both ‘creative differences’ and, mainly, the rush of the production. So it is interesting that now, five years later, he has returned to the X-Men universe, especially given the rushed production that X-Men: First Class itself reportedly had.

Much has changed for Vaughn since 2006 and, off the back of the fantasy and comic book films Stardust (2007) and Kick-Ass (2010), the director must have felt he was finally ready to commit to the studio superhero franchise. Despite its apparent production difficulties X-Men: First Class does seem to have remained under Vaughn’s control in a way that his previous attempt clearly did not. And, although Vaughn had to work very quickly, along with the screenwriter Jane Goldman, this project from the get-go had far more going for it than Last Stand. While the finished product may indeed demonstrate that, as this blog post puts it, “you can’t rush a movie to greatness”, it would seem that you can at least rush a movie to perfectly passable. Moreover, as well as being the most entertaining entry in its franchise for a good while, this film also raises some interesting questions about the extent to which superhero movies can engage successfully with real historical events - an issue which has become perhaps more pressing in recent years (see: this site’s writings on Watchmen [2009], Iron Man, [2008], Superman Returns [2006], and so on).

As I said when I reviewed X-Men The Last Stand, Ratner’s instalment was a wasted opportunity in many ways, not least because it patently failed to live up to Singer’s initial two films. Since then we have also of course had another X-Men film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). Ultimately a rather pointless film (given that the Wolverine origin story was also featured heavily in Singer’s X2), some flashes of intrigue did nevertheless come in the form of the opening credit sequence, which shows Wolverine and his brother Sabretooth fighting for the pre- and post-United States in several of its wars. This commitment to integrating the comic’s characters into historical moments was a new feature for this film franchise.

Singer opened the first X-Men film with the subtitle ‘The not too distant future...’, and this is pretty well all we get for context or setting. Indeed, in general his films focus little on specific dates and events - they simply exist in their own world, which is related to but clearly not the same as our own - the main distinguishing feature being the mutants themselves, its relationship to historical reality being nonspecific, irrelevant. Ratner’s third film follows this path too; it is only with Wolverine and First Class that the films start to play with history.

Wolverine has as its big finale the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, showing the core meltdown being caused by mutants fighting in the complex. There is a contradictory impulse at play here: both mischievous in its brash hijacking of history by pop culture, and also appealing to the kind of ‘weight’ or seriousness that comes with historical recreation. Its presence makes the X-Men world appear both more and less real, incorporating our reality into its mythology while at the same time unavoidably highlighting the incongruity between the two.

X-Men: First Class begins with concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland and progresses towards the Cuban Missile Crisis, but this film’s relationship to history is somewhat different than its predecessor’s. Whereas Wolverine used the Three Mile Island incident as a provocative backdrop, Vaughn’s film attempts to integrate its historical events into the narrative to a much greater extent. Here they are used for character motivation rather than mere window dressing. The holocaust is what fuels Magneto’s belief that mankind is capable of using its fear and intolerance of mutants to construct a ‘final solution’ that seeks to eradicate them entirely. This places the fact of the concentration camps at the very centre of the X Men universe, providing very credible motivation for the film’s antagonist being as he is and acting as he does. Later, the escalating struggle for worldwide ideological dominance which lay at the heart of the Cold War becomes intertwined with the battle of human vs. mutant, again providing a material, real-world equivalent and explanation for the themes of the series. Much more than simple name-checking, these contexts genuinely strive to ground the film in reality, and can’t help but alter our perception of what is at stake in the movie.

While more refined than many such exploitations of history, however, this is still of course potentially highly morally dubious. Can we accept the rewriting of history to conform with comic book lore? Clearly this isn’t something new to comic books themselves, and popular fiction will in general always to some extent act to exorcise or explore cultural demons. However we feel about it, it is an undeniably fascinating phenomenon, and the trend seems here to stay. It is something I look forward to continue discussing when I review the next Marvel superhero movie Captain America (set in WWII) in a weeks’ time.

This Alternate Take was published on July 22, 2011.

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