Saturday, June 4, 2011

Ideologies on Parade - "X-men: First Class" Review

"Peace was never an option."

When Matthew Vaugn was announced as the director for Marvel's "X-men: First Class" prequel/reboot, my eyebrows were more than raised. This is, after all, the guy who directed "Kick-Ass," one of the most subversive and off-the-wall violent (not to mention one of the absolute best) superhero movies to come out of the post-9/11 surge. How could this guy, whose last film questioned the whole sanitization of the Hollywood superhero, turn around and become absorbed into the very franchise mindset he was supposedly critiquing just last year?

It seems that no matter what *kind* of superhero film he's doing, Matthew Vaugn simply *gets* something about "the superhero genre" that I daresay only Sam Raimi and Christopher Nolan have gotten (except for maybe James Gunn, whose radical "Super" smartly tries to blow the whole genre to pieces). "X-men: First Class" is a shining example of what the genre should be doing, where its next step could be, and how great filmmakers are capably interrogating our continuing desire to integrate superheroes deeper and deeper into the fabric of American history.

Bryan Singer's first two "X-men" films, as witty and fun as they are, are great because of the political discourse so deeply embedded in each. They are about ideological warfare, its discourses, and diplomacy's limits as much as they are about grandiose set pieces and creature effects. Magneto is an ideological terrorist, bent on turning humankind to his point of view. Professor X is the diplomat who prefers political solutions and education to violence. Caught between them are a series of senators, presidents, and corporate figureheads who themselves become talking points for different ideas about political action and means of combating terrorism and hubris. That's, in part, what made "The Last Stand" so disappointing: it flattened out all this rhetoric and metaphorical warfare into a literal war with a climactic battle devoted wholly to spectacle and nowhere to the ideas behind that battle.

That's, in part, why "First Class" lives up to its title. Not only is it spectacular fun, not only does it showcase some tremendously smart casting, not only is it often very beautiful to look it -- it's almost, dare I say, brainy. If the first two "X-men" films were about critically approaching the ideological discourses and battlegrounds of their contemporary moments, "First Class" actually lays out an argument that these same ideologies have been in place since World War II. They've just been, forgive me, mutating.

In a pretty spectacular bit of revisionist history, a Nazi scientist obsessed with harnassing the power of mutants to help launch a global nuclear war is the one responsible not only for unleashing Erik's (Magneto's) hatred, he's responsible for the Cuban Missile Crisis (he also wants to turn himself into a nuclear bomb -- the ultimate superhero/villain-as-weapon). The remaining strands of Nazism feed into the hysterical rhetoric of the Cold War, a war that first unites and then divides the mutants and sets Erik and Charles on separate ideological paths. The smartest thing the film does is set itself not just in the past, but in 1962 -- with the world on the brink of global apocalypse, different mutants both almost cause and help avert catastrophe.

Michael Fassbender as Erik is truly the film's secret weapon. "First Class" reopens with the first scene from Singer's "X-men" - Erik in a concentration camp bending metal gates. In the 1960s, he becomes a Nazi hunter scouring Switzerland and Argentina for the man who killed his mother and unlocked his superpower (Sebastian Shaw, played with true scene-stealing ham by Kevin Bacon). The vendetta Magneto harbors against the human race comes from the vendetta he holds against the Nazis. Humanity is depraved in his view, and it's again this historical approach to the character that lets us think about, given the events from "X-men" and "X2," why Magneto has the point of view he does (and how he ultimately co-opts Holocaust memorializing as a means to embrace extremist terrorism). Fassbender is nothing but charismatic in every scene, and he turns Erik into a devastatingly tragic man.

He's matched not only by James McAvoy, whose Xavier gradually discovers the need to preach education and understanding, but by a whole cast of terrific young actors: Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, and Nicholas Hoult chief among them. They bring energy to every scene, but they also deal with the film's political, philosophical, and ideological grandstanding with the right tone. "First Class" takes itself very seriously even while it's having fun.

But where the film really shines and stands out is in how interested it is in thinking about these different rhetorics: Nazism, American fervor, Communism, Cold War, Holocaust memorializing, diplomacy, revenge, nuclear energy. At times, they fall like a waterfall. They intermingle and shift with such rapidity it's occasionally hard to keep up (yet I found it absolutely thrilling to think about how they got repurposed for the genre). And yet, the four screenwriters responsible for the film make it so abundantly clear that these characters are all victims of the forces around them, and that the ultimate paths they choose to take are less their own choice as manufactured by circumstance. Mutants and superheroes are victims as much as they are saviors.

When I say "X-men: First Class" is where the genre could be headed, I mean that it moves it out of a contemporary setting and place to look instead at how historical issues get complicated by the addition of superheroes. Some of the best moments in the film are seeing actual newspaper headlines and the insertion of Kennedy's speeches during the build-up to the missile crisis. It gives the genre the kind of immediacy it sometimes lacks. It opens up a space for us as spectators to think about where the superhero fits into our own historical/cultural perspectives, and what we might make of their historical presence.

Are we, like they, victims of ideological rhetorics on parade? Are we now absorbed in THEIR culturally pervasive ideologies? Maybe these aren't the questions the film wants to provide, but they most certainly linger for me. Matthew Vaugn's work here is visually cohesive, constantly surprising, and gives me hope that the superhero genre still has many tricks up its sleeve.

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