X-Men First Class gets B- (but kind of hates women and minorities)


The re-boot: what an intriguing concept. A production company just Etch A Sketches the previous narrative to start a new one.  One motive is the hope of re-invigorating a franchise that’s hobbling along; both Spider-Man and X-Men got their re-boots (Spider-Man hits next year) after weak third installments. Or maybe you just don’t want to spend the money to maintain your now-expensive lead actors and directors.  For the audience it’s almost like losing the lottery: you spend three films (over the course of a decade) investing in the characters and their narrative, only to be told you’ll have to re-invest (maybe that’s more like the stock market).  Fortunately X-Men First Class offers some legitimate incentives to do so, but it’s not without its flaws.

“Before he was Professor X he was Charles,” says the promotional posters for the prequel/re-boot for the X-Men franchise, struggling valiantly to connect the old brand with the new one.  It’s the early 1960′s and as the Cold War simmers, the first sparks of “the Mutant issue” reveal themselves.  Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is asked to help the U.S. thwart the evil deeds of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).  Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender as the future Magneto) meets Xavier on his hunt Shaw for crimes committed against himself and his family.

The greatest villain for the X-Men isn’t actually in the film, but behind it, as the writers lay a minefield of explosively terrible dialogue waiting for victims.  Mind you, there are stunning, jaw-dropping moments where you’re getting your money’s worth, but through wizardry or sheer incompetence, others crumble into disarray due to poor guidance.  Director Matthew Vaughn’s last work Kick-Ass had the same tonal issues, wherein the delicate suspension of disbelief is snapped and you’ve lost the audience to their own incredulous laughter.  It represents an unfortunate pattern of lacking control over the film’s path to proper catharsis.

And if there’s a lady in the audience prepare to be turned off (or turned on, depending on your preference), as there’s a strict “Skirts short, necklines plunging” policy on set, with literally not one female character allowed to keep their clothes on.  Look, I’m a guy, and I get it, I’m supposed to enjoy this, but when the manipulation is so blatant and the disrespect for women so obvious, it’s just gross.  It would almost be better if this were an R picture so they could show the nudity and jettison the idea that they’re being subtle about it.

MINOR SPOILER, SKIP PARAGRAPH

Oh, and if you happen to be a minority, prepare for disappointment.  The only black character (and the only mutant, save for a bad one) gets killed half-way through the picture just so we know what’s at stake.  “Quick Professor X, they killed our token black guy, now we’re really pissed!”  At least he wasn’t the only other minority in the film – he could have been the mixed race girl who strips for a living and sides with the bad guys.*

MINOR SPOILERS OVER

There are obviously a lot of problems with the film, but one item makes it worth seeing: Michael Fassbender.  The hate that drives Erik’s quest is delivered by Fassbender with a quiet menace that will have you holding your breath.  Expectedly, Fassbender leaves his mark on every scene, making this more Magneto’s film than an X-Men picture.  Considering there was talk of doing a Magneto origins movie to follow X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I wouldn’t be surprised if that script made it to First Class, since Magneto’s story is easily the best developed – the rest of the story and characters are merely his fortunate groupies.

Given what they have to work with, the rest of the cast keep the film grounded and with a realistic tenor (when not getting maimed by aforementioned script issues).  With little screen time to do so, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique manages to make her relationship with Xavier feel well established and Kevin Bacon totally rocks the house – a great match for Fassbender’s intensity.

I have some major reservations about the film, but it’s quite a unique picture.  When the film isn’t tripping over itself tonally, it dives headlong into darkness no one has touched since The Dark Knight.  Erik is a Holocaust survivor (and more, as we learn in the film), taught that pain and rage were the fuels both for his existence and his powers.  His time with Xavier forces him to confront his demons and the choices he makes are simultaneously horrifying and yet completely understandable – he’s human.  Erik is no longer some comic-book villain, but a living breathing entity.  Regardless of the film’s failings, that’s a success it can claim.

[Fan poster via]

-Remington Smith

*Even if we don’t want to call it outright racist, you can’t deny that it looks pretty bad – especially for a film franchise that’s all about triumphing people who are different.  It even makes a nod to the enslavement of blacks in the U.S. After you’ve done that wouldn’t you say to yourself, “Hey, we killed the only black character.  Maybe that doesn’t send the right message”? 

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9 responses to “X-Men First Class gets B- (but kind of hates women and minorities)

  1. I don’t see the point about women (especially not, given Magneto’s ultimate appeal to Mystique to embrace her given form, which plays upon the way she is portrayed in the future trilogy), however your point about races in the film could not have resonated more with me during the film. (SPOILER) The two minority roles in the movie are so atrociously squandered and pointless that they should have just been cut out entirely. And the little nod to U.S. slavery that you mentioned; yeah, they weren’t exactly subtle about it, right before they killed the one black guy. That whole sequence almost single-handedly ruined the movie for me.

  2. I have to disagree with some of your points. In the original comics and even the cartoon of the 90′s there are no minority characters, Women usually are usually clad in tight clothes or little at all. I understand were your head was on this, but I don’t think it’s as big of an issue as you’re making it. The dialogue wasn’t a distraction to me, I thought it was fine and every serious movie needs a few moments of light humor. I enjoyed X Men first class, I’d probably move it up to an A- compared to your B-.

  3. I really could not disagree more about all your points about how this movie kind of hates women and minorities. Anything you’ve mentioned is completely coincidental and not at all the point of view of the filmmakers.

    If you have a problem with the movie business in general and how it (sometimes) objectifies women, that’s your right, but to point out this movie in particular as if it somehow has a special disdain for women and minorities is borderline irresponsible as a reviewer. There’s nothing about this movie in particular that stands out among other movies of its type that earns that type of criticism. I just think you’re confusing causation with correlation, and if your argument is that you point this out because it is a trend in Hollywood, then please do not heap all of that judgment down on one film.

    Yes, there’s one main black character, and incidentally he does get killed, but I sincerely doubt that his race had anything to do with that, in fact the character was probably written to die before any actor was cast in the role. And there are plenty of white people and plenty of men and women who are bad guys in this movie, so what does it matter when one character that isn’t white becomes bad? It seems as if you’re arguing that in order for a movie to not be racist, all of its minorities and female characters have to be the heroes and win at the end. I personally would prefer that a person’s race or gender has nothing to do with their eventual role in the film, which is how I feel this movie handles it.

    • The Filmsmith

      You can’t deny that the cliche of the black guy dying is a part of film culture, so I’m not pointing out anything new (the imdb message boards about Darwin dying offer a lot of reinforcement for this point). It’s just disappointing to see that trope still being played. And as we’ve discussed before, casting decisions can be very specific, due to studio, writer, producer, or director influences, so I highly doubt his race wasn’t purposefully selected for the film, but that’s something neither of us can officially confirm without talking to the casting director.

      “There’s nothing about this movie in particular that stands out among other movies of its type that earns that type of criticism.”

      My issue is that representation of race and female sexuality is regularly problematic in massive Hollywood blockbusters and when apparent I try to call them all out on their Eurocentric, leering gazes, so I’m not just picking on this film. In your above statement I feel like I’m being told that since this is a regular problem, there’s no point in calling it out anymore, which, if so, I obviously disagree with.

      “If you have a problem with the movie business in general and how it (sometimes) objectifies women, that’s your right, but to point out this movie in particular as if it somehow has a special disdain for women and minorities is borderline irresponsible as a reviewer.”

      As stated above, I’m calling it out as I see it. I don’t know how that’s irresponsible unless you wanted it to be compared to other problematic films to offer the depressing context of the studio system this film grew out of..

      “And there are plenty of white people and plenty of men and women who are bad guys in this movie, so what does it matter when one character that isn’t white becomes bad? It seems as if you’re arguing that in order for a movie to not be racist, all of its minorities and female characters have to be the heroes and win at the end.”

      It’s not that I have a problem with certain demographics being bad guys, only when there are already very few non-white characters and they are used as sacrificial lambs, etc. If there was more racial diversity (ironic given the themes of the franchise), the film wouldn’t appear so problematic (one black guy dies, but another gets to live; or at least develop them better so they don’t blatantly appear as sacrificial lambs)

      The overall problem I’m speaking to is that if you look at the representations of different religions, races, sexualities, and ethnicity in the U.S. (in the news, television, film, overall culture), it’s hard to find democracy. Not everyone gets an equal share of positive representations, so I point out the particular issues to X-Men: First Class to illustrate either the film’s absolute ignorance to such media politics or its passive allegiance to continue showcasing women as sex objects first (characters second) and minorities as bit players who can be sacrificed without meaning (in death or to the Dark Side). After citing specific examples, I don’t think there are any grounds to completely refute this reading, only that one doesn’t agree with it (which is totally fine).

      Also, statistically speaking there should be a lot more non-white mutants; we white folks are the minority mutants (though I guess they do limit the geographic reach of the film to the U.S. and the U.K.). Not a particular point I’m battling, just a thought I had.

      This may become an agree to disagree situation, but nonetheless I appreciate your comments and hope my response has been nothing but respectful.

  4. I have to agree that the race card really does not to be played here. If all the villains were black? What then? Hollywood has no directive to include minorities in any capacity in its films (although more would be better- on that I agree). The sexed-up nature of the women in the movie is undeniable, though. I wrote it off as 60′s James Bond stuff, but you’ve got a point.

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  8. I liked the movie but you made some good points about its flaws. I find it ironic and almost hypocritical how the film has an obvious civil rights and oppressed minority subtext but treats its female and minority characters in a cliched way and leaves us with only white male mutant good guys at the end of the movie.

    “and even the cartoon of the 90′s there are no minority characters, Women usually are usually clad in tight clothes or little at all. ”

    There was Jubilee and Storm. And the other X-Men movies did not show undressed females as much as this one.

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