X-Men: Born This Way
X-Men: First Class is about one obnoxious subplot away from being the movie Watchmen always wanted to be, the huge-budget, over-the-top superhero epic that has as much insight into the human condition as it does spandex and… grunting. Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn manages to turn a Muppet Babies concept with a disastrous marketing campaign (HURRR, DIAGONAL ORIGIN STORY!) into something a lot more ambitious than your basic retread of the superhero story. And that’s good, because X has as its source material a layered allegory for the Civil Rights movement, whereas, say, Thor was mostly an excuse to watch a buff guy hit sh*t with the hammer (though Brett Ratner still can’t tell the difference). Look, I was as surprised as you are. DON’T FIGHT IT! YOU’VE BEEN ASSBENT!
X opens in flashback, telling two parallel backstories. One starring over-enunciating James McAvoy as smarmypants overichiever Charles Xavier; the other, ass-bending Michael F. Assbender (Michael Fassbender, to other people) as hard-knocks Polish concentration camp orphan Erik Lehnsherr. One part of this supposed origin story that’s never explained is Xavier’s British accent, which he already has at the age of 10 when we catch up with him at his palatial estate in, uh… Westchester, New York. Did rich kids speak in British accents in the 40s? Because JFK was a rich kid in the 40s and I’m pretty sure I heard him call a country “Cuber.” In any case, rich Xavier is already a powerful psychic, while penniless Lehnsherr possesses mutant genes that make him far less Jewy than his parents. Later he learns he can control metal when Kevin Bacon shoots his mother. (That’s Kevin Bacon, Nazi Scientist, by the way, before he morphs into Kevin Bacon, international playboy — but I’m getting ahead of myself). As Erik discovers during a mother-murdered-in-front-of-him induced rage, his ability to attract metal is directly related to the intensity of his emotions. Why, if only he had one person on whom to pin all his most intense hatreds! And another who could literally enter his mind and help him sort out his feelings! Why, all that’d be left is some giant metal sh*t to control.
One of the biggest surprises is that the film doesn’t become a “Jon Voight’s nutsack” origin story, in Patton Oswalt-bit parlance (a piece of useless backstory for something we already enjoy, like Voight’s daughter, Angelina Jolie). We already know Magneto has some emotional issues that make him the more militant, Malcolm X mutant leader. But rather than some boring pop-psychology, we get gleeful, Inglourious Basterds-esque Nazi murder. And there’s no better way to excuse an audience’s vicarious thrill-guilt than to make the victims Nazis. But beyond the simple majesty of dead Germans, we see Magneto develop his understanding of the way humans respond when they fear a group of outsiders (from our darkest example of it, The Holocaust). Meanwhile, we see how Xavier developed his worldview through a privileged upbringing that can lead him to occasionally underestimate man’s capacity for hatefulness. It’s nice to see that Xavier’s MLK worldview isn’t always right, and on a personal level, he can be kind of a smarmy prick. Aside from solid acting and clear direction, First Class’s main strength is that it doesn’t gloss over the central X-Men metaphor. Vaughn extends the Malcolm X-MLK parallel even further, showing Xavier as kind of a womanizer — even though it makes zero sense that he’d reject his smitten, platonic childhood friend, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Right, because men always value friendship over voluptuous blonde hotties who can morph into any woman you desire at the snap of a finger. HA, NAILED US! (*snaps fingers over head*)
Elsewhere, after he stops being a Nazi, Kevin Bacon turns his attention to goading the US and USSR into provoking World War III for some reason, a plot that presupposes that the Cuban Missile Crisis was actually something both the US and Soviet leadership were far too smart for, and only happened because of a mischievous, misanthropic mutant. I know Watchmen already sort of did it with the Kennedy assassination, but it’s still a funny idea. I’d love to seem them re-tell some of history’s other retarded episodes through use of the fantastic. Salem Witch Trials? Mutants. Spanish Inquisition? Mutants. Violating the Ribbentrop-Molotov act? Totally mutants, and the Library at Alexandria only burned down because of a drunken satyr. Of course, Bacon’s character’s actual motivation for starting WWIII is a little fuzzy. He says he wants the nuclear war to kill off all the humans, leaving only the mutants. But that only makes sense if you don’t think about it at all. What’s the end game there, anyway? Ruling a sh*tty, burned out planet with no food? Cool plan, bro. Hey, wasn’t this guy supposed to be a scientist?
Oh right, that obnoxious subplot. It doesn’t kill an otherwise 85% genius balls-to-the-wall action movie, but it felt like someone spilled “Born This Way” into my Cold War/Civil Rights allegory about fear. There’s a fairly heavy-handed subplot dealing with Mystique and Beast’s (the blue characters) struggle over how much they should hide their mutantness in order to fit in, and when Beast reveals himself to his boss, saying “He didn’t ask, I didn’t tell,” it’s pretty obvious what they’re really talking about. It’s not only an unnecessary metaphor, it’s a really sloppy one (and didn’t they already do that in X3?). For one, the thing we’re told Beast is so sensitive about is basically that he has big feet. Seriously? Golly, what a crippling social handicap. How does Shaq do it? Look, I know it’s all the rage to tell kids to be who they are and to love themselves, but let’s be honest, 90% of it is feel-good pandering (and I won’t even get into the irony of a chick singing “Born This Way” while she’s wearing a goddamn side of beef on her head). The root of this “conflict” is basically conformity vs. non-conformity, and well… that’s pretty boring. You can either be yourself and have people stare at you, or conform and feel like a fraud (the best option can only be determined on a case-by-case basis). We get it. It’s an inner struggle as old as time, the only thing that changes is our standard of “normal.”
Also, if you’re trying to be PC, you probably shouldn’t kill off the only black guy first, five minutes after you introduce him. Just saying.
GRADE: 5 out of 6 blue alien tits.