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Mutant Pride: Racial Metaphors in X-Men: First Class

An addendum to Episode 343.

There has been a quiet grumbling over the new comic book film X-Men: First Class by some commentators and critics. Specifically, the film has been criticized for taking place in 1962, in the midst of the civil rights movement, and yet there is no overt acknowledgement in the film of the racial issues of the period. According to this argument, First Class white-washes history and distorts our understanding of the past. I take issue with this criticism. Although First Class does have its flaws, these critics are largely missing the point.

Primary to the argument against First Class is that the film ignores the political realities of the early 1960s by error of omission and as a result whatever the film has to say about race cannot be taken seriously. In an op-ed in The New York Times, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that  First Class “appeals to an insidious suspension of disbelief; the heroic mutants of America, bravely opposing bigotry and fear, are revealed as not so much a spectrum of humankind, but as Eagle Scouts from Mayfield. Thus, ‘First Class’ proves itself not merely an incredible film, but an incredible work of American historical fiction.” From a storytelling point of view, this argument presumes that First Class is historical fiction, and that the story is meant to take place in a literal historical context. This presumption is short sighted. Stories create their own world in which people talk and interact in ways that adhere to the style employed by the storyteller and the internal logic of the story world. Fantastical stories generally get more leeway and can create hypothetical situations to act out the ramifications of what-if scenarios; Watchmen presented an alternate 1985 in which America had won the Vietnam War and Nixon was still president and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds reimagined the ending of World War II. It is true that prejudice and tension between ethnic groups are largely absent from First Class but that is because the human-mutant tension is a metaphor for that conflict as well as a conflation of other issues of the time period.

In this criticism about First Class, I’m reminded of the original Planet of the Apes. This film remains one of the most insightful and intelligent science fiction films ever made and much has been written about the film’s dealings with issues like race, class, and gender. Although it is a product of its time (the film was released in 1968 with a steady stream of sequels produced between 1970 and 1973) it remains a relevant film in part because The Planet of the Apes’ statements on those issues were broad enough to transcend the circumstances of the period in which it was created. Science fiction and fantasy engages with the topics of the day through metaphors and this process allows viewers the option of accepting and engaging with those issues or ignoring them and simply taking the story at face value.  To argue that First Class does not deal with racial issues or similar themes just because they filmmakers do not hit that nail on the head ignores the modus operandi of fantasy. Racial themes are all over First Class but they are presented indirectly through the mutant metaphor.

Other discontent over First Class‘ dealings with race is based upon the notion that it is supposed to be about racism in the context of American history, and that the characters Professor X and Magneto are stand-ins for Martin Luther King and Malcom X, respectively. Mikhail Lyubansky observes that in the original X-Men film, Magneto proclaims that a mutant versus human war is coming and "I intend to fight it by any means necessary."  Elaborating on the parallel, Lyubansky writes, “Despite what I assume are noble intentions on the part of the creative teams, for this generation of film-goers it likely means a distorted view of Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Movement, an unrealistic understanding of contemporary race relations, and an unintended promotion of the racial status quo.” This argument is predicated upon the belief that Magneto is indeed intended to be a literal metaphor for a specific historical figure. If that were the case, this concern might be more germane. However, while the quote from the first film is a fairly obvious allusion to Malcom X, that does not mean that Magneto is a stand in for the actual historical figure. The Malcom X – Magneto argument is not sustained by multiple examples throughout the films. Instead the metaphor is taken in other directions, leading to X-Men’s actual target, which is much broader than a specific historical figure and is ultimately more subversive.

Both the original X-Men film and First Class begin with Magneto’s backstory as a Holocaust survivor. Reference to this backstory is made throughout X2 and The Last Stand. This backstory is the key to the thematic agenda of the X-Men films. Magneto suffered at the hands of the Nazis, who justified genocide under the auspices of a racial supremacy. Throughout the first half of First Class, Magneto tracks down his persecutors and kills them (shades of Munich, perhaps?). By the end of this film, Magneto has become the very thing he was fighting against by declaring himself and his fellow mutants as superior beings not by acts of virtue but inherently superior based upon their identity. This evolution from victim to persecutor is brought out very poignantly in the climax as Magneto turns missiles back on his attackers with the proclamation, “Never again.” Adopting and adapting Holocaust imagery and slogans and using it to suggest that our grasp upon moral virtue is slippery flies in the face of the kind of dogmatic moral certitude that often characterizes Hollywood action cinema. It also suggests a broader and more complicated message about heroism and villainy that is bigger than any particular historical figure or period.

Another film I’m reminded of is Paul Haggis’ 2005 picture Crash. Although the film won the Oscar for Best Picture, it was also highly criticized for an oversimplified take on race. I don’t want to re-litigate the defense of Crash, but I will restate this: Crash was not about race, at least not centrally. Rather, the film was about the alienation and isolation of contemporary life, with race playing an important part in that. As Don Cheadle’s character states in the opening scene, “It's the sense of touch  . . . We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” The criticism of Crash as an inadequate dramatization of race relations reveals less about the film and more about those who viewed it. Amid a culture that is drowning in bubblegum music, killer robot movies, emo-vampire books , and tabloid news coverage, there is a yearning by the audience for art that actually deals with the substance of life and among those issues are race relations. The disappointment with Crash wasn’t with what it was, but with what it wasn’t.

First Class needs to be evaluated based on what it is and what it does. The film does deal with race but that is a plank from X-Men’s primary themes of fear, prejudice, and intolerance. The reason that X-Men has remained such a viable series is that these themes can be reinterpreted and applied to gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion and any other matter of difference. The most recent incarnation of this story shows the roots of those themes and kicks off a cyclical relationship of fear and violence that plays out in the three X-Men films that proceed from it. This is the message of the X-Men series and First Class provides a metaphor for understanding the anxieties of oppressed populations and individuals and how the internal divisions within those groups are sown. It is an important theme, and while it is debatable how well or how accurately First Class depicts that theme, it is mistake to say that the film ignores it altogether.

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