Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Politics of Identity in ‘X-Men: First Class’

By  · Published on June 7th, 2011

Themes of identity, difference, stigma, and othering are explicitly or implicitly present in much of the X-Men mythology, whether expressed through comics, television shows, or films. While I was never a devotee to the comics, as a fan of the 90s animated television series and (some of) the recent slate of Hollywood films (that have, as of this past weekend, effectively framed the continually dominant superhero blockbuster genre), I’ve always been fascinated by the series’ ability to take part in the language of social identity issues.

Fantastic genres like horror and sci-fi have often provided an allegorical means of addressing social crises (vampire films as AIDS metaphor, zombie movie as conformist critique, or Dystopian sci-fi as technocratic critique, for example). The superhero genre has possessed a similar history in this capacity, even though it has thus far been mostly unrealized in the medium of film. As big entertainment, superhero films ranging from the first Spider-Man to the Iron Man films have bestowed narratives of exceptionalism and wish-fulfillment rather than shown any aspiration towards critique or insight. Perhaps The Dark Knight is most involved example of social critique thus far – a film that explores themes surrounding the personal toll on fighting terror and the overreaches of power that can result in the name of pursuing safety.

What X-Men: First Class (almost) accomplishes is mining fully the allegorical territory made available by its fantastic premise in a way that few previous comic book films have.

The Stigma of Mutanthood

X-Men was first published in September 1963, and the fact that First Class takes the film series back to a time period contemporaneous to the comic’s inception permits a reassessment of the series based on the politics that explicitly or implicitly inspired it. Sure, even in Bryan Singer’s X-Men (which as far as I know takes place at the time it was made) the anti-mutant/racism allegory was clear, but with a 1962–63-set X-Men film the socio-temporal connection is made even more direct as it takes place right in the middle of the nation’s heated Civil Rights struggle. The prejudiced mongering of a political fear of mutants as well as the anxiety, insecurity, and anger experienced by various mutants bears a greater allegorical weight in First Class’s past-set framework than the previous X-Men films not because issues of identity and equality are any less relevant in the 21st century, but because of the iconic and organized historical political movement that the portrayal of this prejudice echoes.

This is saying nothing new, as the allegorical potential at the mythical center of X-Men has, in cases both deliberate and unintentional, been an inextricable component of the series’ value. However, the way that the issue of “difference” is approached in First Class bears an interesting contrast to the previous films, even if it’s often ham-fisted (I’ll leave my frustration with the fate of the Darwin character out of this to 1) keep it spoiler free, and 2) that deserves an article on its own). First Class opens the same way as Singer’s film: with a young Erik Lehnsherr bending the gate of a German concentration camp after being separated from his mother. But where the first film stopped and jumped nearly 60 years, First Class continues immediately, refusing to “dilute” the relationship between mutant life and the agonizing oppression of difference. Thus, Eric’s motive is no longer situated as a standalone historic moment, but part of a life-long narrative of combating social hatred for the “other.”

Once again, these points are obvious, as they are hammered home throughout First Class’s narrative to motivate clearly the actions of Eric and his emergence into who we all know he will become. But in Singer’s X-Men film, the historical ellipsis relegated the allegory to exclusively, unidirectionally, and simply that – it resonated, but was never explored. Sure, parallels of combating prejudice arguably existed in the casting of openly gay actor Ian McKellen as Magneto, not to mention that Singer himself is openly gay as well, and the 2000 X-Men carried a vague allegorical aura in the subplot involving Senator Kelly that stated “don’t be racist/sexist/homophobic,” etc., but the direct portrayal of marginality in X-Men existed – pardon the turn of phrase – only in the margins of the narrative.

Yet in simply shortening the film’s temporal ellipsis between the German concentration camp and the early 60s formation of mutant alliance(s), the politics of identity, difference, othering, and stigma are much more directly engaged in First Class. Eric’s Jewishness, for instance, is more apparent via the prolonged episode of his childhood and his hunting of Nazi expatriates. But the film explores further. The moment where Oliver Platt’s character finally realizes Hank McCoy (later Beast, played by Nicholas Hoult) is a mutant is memorably met by the line, “You didn’t ask, I didn’t tell,” a moment which obviously alludes to the famed and failed military policy regarding homosexuals in arms, and more importantly draws a connection between mutant identity and closeting/queering. That Nicholas Hoult memorably played an openly (?) gay student in Tom Ford’s A Single Man adds to the allegory present in this moment.

The fact that some mutants look “normal” and others clearly appear to be “abnormal” suggests that mutant life can effectively stand in for all kinds of identity-based stigma with varied visibility (as homosexuality is ostensibly “invisible,” and race arguably “visible”), and thus the film interrogates social standards of normalcy. It is in this way that First Class opens up to allegorically address civil rights struggles not historically associated with the early 1960s. Significant advances for women and the LGBTQ community wouldn’t begin until the following decade, and the film addresses this through a hierarchy of stigma. With many of the characters’ preoccupation with mutant equality, the film introduces a long road toward gender equality, Mad Men-style, as various men of power – a CIA director, Kevin Bacon’s villainous Sebastian Shaw – rhetorically subordinate their female counterparts. Even though Shaw is in the “othered” category of mutant, his sexism evidences a hierarchy of difference and the presence of prejudice even amongst those who are prejudiced.

Competing Philosophies

As I viewed the ad campaign for First Class, it struck me that Charles and Eric’s toe-to-toe competing philosophies in the 1960s setting resembled the conflicting perspectives in the struggle for Civil Rights between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively, and I found in research for this post that such a comparison is not unfounded. Not that their philosophies of mutant stigma have any direct correlation to the respective philosophies of the real-life Civil Rights icons (nor that MLK and Malcolm X should be juxtaposed in a simplistic protagonist/antagonist relationship), but the comparison is apt and, arguably, intentional, especially in Eric’s case where “radicalism” becomes a philosophy exercised with well-justified purpose. Eric demonstrates that radical oppression demands radical action, and he thus – like Malcolm X – gives a cogent philosophical rationale to an otherwise dismissed category of revolutionary action.

It is in this respect that I identify far more with Eric’s character than Xavier’s. When Eric tells Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) that she’s beautiful as she is with her blue scaly skin and shouldn’t be ashamed of herself, Xavier’s philosophy by contrast appears to be one of assimilation rather than integration. As illustrated most evidently by Xavier’s friendship with McCoy, the acceptance of mutants into society requires that mutants lose what makes them unique.

Eric, by contrast, has no patience with an intolerant society, and sees the goal of normalcy as oppositional to equality (I’m not quite sure how this translates into his inheritance of Shaw’s philosophy of destroying humanity in later lore, and if any X-Men fans would like to explain this I’d appreciate it). But in this lies the conundrum of the oppressed, as manifested by the conflict between First Class’s two central characters: the struggle for acceptance and equality means compromise, but on the other hand reactionary action only further emboldens in the oppressors the desire to oppress.

The casting of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender in this case is well justified. Star of historical European dramas like Becoming Jane and Atonement as well as historical transnational dramas like The Conspirator and The Last Station, McAvoy has become the handsome face of conventional wisdom, and in the case of The Last King of Scotland, imperialism. Fassbender, by contrast, is an indie darling whose most celebrated lead role thus far has been Hunger, another case where he combats oppression through militant action.

However, in concert with the problems of so many prequels, Xavier and Eric emerge into their respective destinies with a bit too much comfort, ease, and expediency. Besides the film’s hefty helping of cheese and January Jones’s superhuman ability to be exceptionally bland, the major problem with First Class is its relegation to this dense and intriguing philosophical conflict to a few chess games. Xavier emerges far too prematurely into exceptional wisdom, and Eric into righteous indignation. If Matthew Vaughn and company intended First Class to be the launch of a new trilogy, there were at least two more movies worth of material in which to explore the fascinating topics of identity, stigma, difference, and otherness in a way that few comic book movies dare to.

We have no idea what it feels like to be normal, but you should read more Culture Warrior

Related Topics: