X-Men: First Class (2011) – Better Without The Class

Living in the second decade of the 21st Century, it is difficult for us to cast our minds back and to recall the shocking novelty of Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000). Up until that point, super hero films tended not to take place in the real world. Tim Burton’s Gotham City was a gothic masterpiece unlike anything on Earth while Richard Donner’s Metropolis seemed resistant to any changes in political culture that might stem from having a super-powered alien enforcing city by-laws. Prior to the release of X-Men, the politics of super hero cinema tended to follow the politics of super hero comics in so far as they existed solely at the level of sub-text. Sure, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original X-Men was about racism and prejudice but those themes only emerged over time and Lee never took the risk of embarking on the sort of direct social commentary that might come from confronting his mutants with real-world events.  This was, after all, the 60s…

By opening X-Men with a sequence involving a young mutant who uses his magnetic powers to bend the gates of a Nazi death camp, Singer elevated comic book politics from subtext to foreground. When American politicians planned to register all mutants, Singer was absolutely clear that this was a form of xenophobic fascism.  When the parents of a mutant asked if their son had tried not being a mutant, Singer was absolutely clear that anti-mutant prejudice was akin to homophobia, racism and anti-Semitism. Bryan Singer’s X-Men films were not mere fantasies… they were stories about our broken and distorted world.

By the time Brett Ratner directed X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), much of the politics of the original film had drained away leaving only hot babes in tight outfits and dull whirlwinds of CGI presented with the same blend of hollow psychobabble and Christian imagery that pervades most super hero films. Five years later, the franchise is resurrected under the creative control of Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, the pairing who brought us the somewhat uneven Kick Ass (2010).  Moving from script to cinema in less than a year and with a creative partnership not known for either its creativity or its political engagement, X-Men: First Class had a steep slope to climb and while the finished product is far from flawless, the film does boast a level of intelligence and political thoughtfulness that is vanishingly rare in a genre whose recent successes include the dunderheaded Thor (2011) and the hyperactive Iron Man 2 (2010).

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