Films exist that depict the reality of life on the autistic spectrum to one degree or another. None of them were made as such on purpose. When a film designed by accountants or individuals who likely have never met a psychologist or an autistic adult tries to depict being autistic, the result is always such a slap in the face that it makes the result impossible for me to watch.
When a film depicts what it is like to be autistic and not born after 1995, and does it well, it is entirely by accident. The best ones of this group would be Starman and Blade Runner, two films that were passed over for notice when first released and are only now being given a smidge of the recognition they deserve for their unbending brilliance. But I am not here to talk about those two films. I am here to discuss the most recently-made film I have seen that has gained my nomination for admission to those august ranks. That film is X-Men: First Class.
The real X-Men films all bear that august distinction, as far as I am concerned. In this context, real X-Men film means X-Men, X2, and X-Men: First Class. X-Men was a small glimpse into that world. X2 was a demonstration of one of the worst realities of being born different to those in power, that those in power may come to your door looking for trouble. X-Men: First Class takes an entirely different tack to the other real X-Men films.
In order to understand that, we must discuss a basic tenet of storytelling. Whilst not all stories follow this structure, you can boil down the vast majority to setting up a character or group of characters, giving them a goal to attain at the end, and setting something up to make the attainment of said goal a little bit harder. All three of the real X-Men films follow that structure, although it is far less obnoxious about it than is the case with other films I could mention. Although many characters are in them, each is given a well-detailed goal or problem, a series of obstacles in the way of the solution, and a way of overcoming them. Whether it is Wolverine‘s need to be left alone and watch the world go by, or Rogue‘s difficulty with being unable to touch a person without killing them, or the manner in which they cross paths and thus get in the way of each other’s goals, the goals of the characters are well-detailed and developed just like the characters themselves.
X-Men: First Class is, as the title suggests, an attempt to explain who Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr were before they became Professor X and Magneto, respectively. James McAvoy does an awesome job of portraying Xavier as a young man who balances his time between studying genetics and chasing anything that looks good in a dress. He is cocky, headstrong, and carefree. But then a CIA agent comes to him, asking him if the mutations he spoke of in his thesis may have already occurred.
There are two other important mutants in the story. Obviously, the first is Erik Lensherr, the directly opposed side of the coin. A coin, by the way, becomes a very important symbolic device in the film. Much of the story in X-Men: First Class is how Erik went from Erik Lensherr, Holocaust survivor (the film goes with X-Men‘s position that he was Jewish, as opposed to the comic book canon that he is a Gypsy) to Magneto, the greatest threat to the stock-standard in existence. This is a kind of transition that is not easy to play well, and requires an actor of Sir Ian McKellen‘s calibre to play well. Michael Fassbender proves here that he is an actor of that calibre.
As I have explained, the essential part of any story is a conflict to drive characters from one position at the start to another at the end. The X-Men canon offers many choices for such characters, but the one they went with this time is Sebastian Shaw. As portrayed by Kevin Bacon, Shaw is depicted as an ally of the Nazis who tortures Magneto for the sake of learning about and manipulating Magneto’s powers. But it his goal to reduce Homo Sapiens to ash and build Homo Superior’s society on top of that drives the story. Kevin Bacon is just as great as his main castmates in this film. People undervalue him as an actor because he has been known to appear in any and all kinds of trash, but as an out-and-out villain with no discernible goal other than the extinction of Homo Sapiens, you forget about Bacon and see Shaw. Not to the same degree as say, Ledger and The Joker, but not too far away, either.
Oh yeah, Hugh Jackman sticks his head in as Wolverine for about a minute. I will not say what the scene consists of, but after it is over, you may well wonder if his line resembles what he told the casting agent when said casting agent asked him to play a larger role in this film.
There are a number of other characters who work under either Shaw or Xavier and Lensherr. I will not list all of them. Mystique, as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence, is to a great degree the character around which the real conflict revolves. In the first third of the film, she is listening to Xavier emphasise the need to remain hidden, to keep from attracting the attention of people with evil intent. In the second two thirds, she is either listening to Lensherr tell her that her efforts to “fit in” detract from her efforts to survive, or making the choice of whom she listens to in a manner that is satisfying beyond belief to behold.
I am going to be honest here. When X-Men: First Class was being advertised in theatres, I was skeptical to the point of simply not bothering to go and see it. This is a dramatic contrast to X2, where I expended effort to see it the first evening it was available. Simply put, this was because of the previous two films purporting to be X-Men films. I deride them both as X-Men In Name Only. Anyone who has had the misfortune to watch them expecting the same real-world resonance that the real X-Men films have knows why. The only reason I saw X-Men: First Class late last year is because I saw it sitting on the shelf of the local Video Ezy and, in the absence of other credible options, decided to take a punt. I figured that if it was as bad as I was expecting, I could at least entertain myself after the fact by hanging shit on it.
I cannot remember exactly whom I said it to (actually, I do remember, but I like to be guarded with other peoples’ identities), but I do remember saying that if I had discovered that I could move metallic objects by will alone when I was an adolescent, the world would be a very different place now. And that is the problem that basically forms the heart of the story. I do not know whether the creators of the X-Men knew that this would continue to be the case nearly fifty years later, but the conflict between the factions led by Professor X and Magneto has sad mirrors in the real world. Whether it is the racial civil rights movements around the world, the autistic civil rights movement, or civil rights movements on behalf of any minority group, there are often two parts to the movement. One side that wants to integrate on peaceful terms with the majority group they want recognition of their rights from. And another that looks at the sins of that majority group, all the time wondering why the other half is trying to play nice.
I think I have to give up the fantasy of ever being able to do the kinds of things that Magneto or Sebastian Shaw can do. The days when any major structural changes might occur within my physical form are long over. But that does not mean there who not be more who feel the same way about curebies as I do. And if nature decides that mere variations in the physical structure of the brain are not enough, that something more physical and direct is required, then normies are in big trouble.
Like all films where there are multiple conflicts between different sets of characters, X-Men: First Class has multiple endings of same. The end of Magneto’s conflict with Shaw is one of the most awe-inspiring sequences I have seen on film. I will not give away all the details, but the manner in which Magneto continues with his coin trick whilst Professor X screams for him to stop all the way through is a powerful statement. The end of Professor X’s conflict between his illusions of what Erik is and the Magneto that really exists in front of him is the most satisfying end of the film. “I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders,” Magneto tells us. Turning to look at Xavier, and metaphorically spit in the face of Xavier’s passivism, he tells the camera, “Never again.”. But when Professor X sees the end of the conflict between his idea of what Mystique is and what she really is to herself, seeing that it coincides far more with Magneto’s idea than his, is what brings tears to my eyes every time. Someone remind me to make my mother show this film to my male parental unit and tell him to watch Mystique very carefully.
Another interesting character in the film is Angel Salvadore. Zoë Kravitz plays Angel Salvadore in a subtle, restrained manner for the most part. When we first meet her, Angel Salvadore is a stripper in a club that is not far different from the one in which Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) first catches sight of Shaw and his mutants. The manner in which her butterfly-like wings are demonstrated to work is very interesting. When she is not in flight, this Angel Salvadore is shown wrapping them over her back. The interesting part is that when they are folded like this, it is very easy to mistake them for a tattoo. Whether this is something from the comic book canon, I do not know, but it does make an interesting demonstration of the lengths mutants will go to in order to hide their non-standard form from the rest of the world. (Again, this is a “choice” that has more or less been pushed upon them, and is a central factor in the film’s plotting.) Clearly, seeing this effort to hide also angers Erik a bit. But the moments when Angel Salvadore is given the choice of joining factions other than Xavier’s X-Men communicate well the sort of character that she was intended to be in First Class.
The first moment comes during an attack upon the CIA’s little mutant training facility by Sebastian Shaw. I do not believe it is giving anything away to tell you that when Shaw becomes aware that Xavier and Lensherr are recruiting, he makes the decision to break up their little organisation before it can really get started. Whilst he is not successful, his appeal to the younger mutants, basically stating that they are the future and those who fight on the behalf of Homo Inferior (he does not use those words, regrettably) are idiots, resonates with Angel Salvadore in particular. Although the actual changing of sides is played out fairly subtly in physical terms, she practically hops, skips, and jumps to his side from a psychological standpoint. When Magneto points at the warships gathered near the island that both factions have found themselves on towards the end of the film, and tells everyone that the real enemy is out there, her response is pretty much identical.
On several recent occasions, I have written about the nature of identity and how it rocks our world when people have a different identity of us than the one we have, and wish to force it upon us. Every disenfrachised group from slaves and their descendants to voluntary migrants knows to a certain degree about this. How people see themselves and how others see them will always be different to some degree, but there is no more effective way to enslave a person than to change the identity a person has for themselves to include the word “slave” somewhere near its core. Or words like “diseased”, “inferior”, “broken”, and so forth. It has been previously mentioned that it would have been nice to see more direct reference to the beginnings of the black Americans’ civil rights movement in X-Men: First Class. There are reasons for that, such as the film being mostly set in the time that began, and the comic book being directly inspired by it. But I disagree somewhat. For one thing, there is already one major historical event being used as a direct plot point, and it is a biggie. The Cuban missile crisis might not have had the same lasting effect around the world, but inserting people and doings into it and making it look “authentic” is not an easy thing to do.
In fact, to a certain extent, this kind of restraint is what has made the real X-Men films work. Like RoboCop, the real world is referenced, but only as much as it serves the plot and the plot’s content proper. But anyway, as we see in Angel Salvadore, Mystique, Magneto, and to a lesser extent Darwin, the story is a conflict between identities. Every character in the film (with the possible exceptions of Sebastian Shaw’s cohorts) has a very complex identity divided into parts. There is the part they let the people in the outside world see, the part they see when they look in the mirror, and the part they are not completely comfortable with.
Kevin Bacon has been quoted as saying that he tried to play Sebastian Shaw in a manner that reflects Shaw seeing himself as the good guy. Unfortunately, he and the rest of the Hellfire Club mutants are scripted in such a manner that it is impossible to believe that they believe this. Such is one of the few serious flaws in the film, in fact. Shaw, Azazel, and Riptide come across as out and out evil without any apologies or basis. In the cases of Azazel and Riptide, that is not such a problem. But Shaw is one of the key pieces that drives the plot. Whilst there are major characters with whom it is acceptable or even good to offer no explanation whatsoever of their motives, The Joker being a classic example, Shaw does not fit this category. Without being given a clear reason why he wants to irradiate the world and make it a mutants-only dictatorship, the default explanation of “he’s an asshole” becomes the one viewers go with.
Leaving out that problem, however, the characters in X-Men: First Class all get a moment when the viewer, to their surprise, ends up totally on-board with every word they say. Even the character of Emma Frost, who usually appears to be sleepwalking through her role, gets an awesome moment when, after a pair of CIA agents who think she cannot hear them angrily debate whether they are already at war with mutants, she cuts a circle slightly bigger than her head in the one-way glass, taps out the section, and points out that she would not call it a war because that would suggest that both sides have an equal chance of winning.
I have already talked about Magneto’s signature line. Like the Magneto line delivered by Sir Ian McKellen in X2, it gets the intelligent viewer completely on his side, if only for a moment. James McAvoy, in the role of Professor X, gets several much more difficult to carry moments in the sun. He is given the very difficult task of trying to educate and lecture his fellow mutants as they confront the darker sides of their natures and learn to get on in the brave new world that he wants to help create for them. In one of many sequences that is basically James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender bouncing dialogue off another, McAvoy‘s character tells Fassbender‘s that Kevin Bacon‘s has friends, and that “you could do with some”.
The film also makes an important point about friendship that people professing to be advocates for the autistic could learn from. I will begin by citing an example from my real life. About six months after my arrival in Brisbane, I grew desperate because of all of the societal-related problems I was having. Calling people for help, I eventually came into the purview of a service, the name of one high-ranking member I have mentioned in not-so-nice ways already. But the point here is that rather than talk to me and figure out the best solution to meet what I needed (moving either to a less forgotten-about area or to Sydney, for one), this person continued to tell me what I wanted, and then insulted me for non-compliance. It never occurred to her that employment in an area so remote and cut-off in terms of transport might pose a real danger to my health. It never occurred to her that one-size-fits-all groups do not suit me. I could go on with such points for hours, but the thing is that once it became clear to me that friendship with her was not going to serve me, but rather limit me and keep me isolated, stagnant, I decided that the old statement by a character from the real Transformers applied. Friend is another word for fool.
That is why I related so well to how Magneto finds himself increasingly torn away from Professor X and the X-Men. At one point, during a training exercise, Professor X delves into Magneto’s memories (with his permission) in order to find something to balance the incredible rage that drives Magneto’s powers but also makes them somewhat erratic. In footage that was deleted from the final cut of the film, we see superimposed images of the young Erik Lensherr with his mother. The angle of the superimposed footage does not make it very clear, but a person who has some familiarity with Judaism and its peculiarities can guess that they are putting lit candles into a Menorah. Exactly what led to the decision to cut this from the final film, I do not know, but it gives a good reinforcement of the fact that Magneto is an actual and whole person.
(Oh yeah, and get this through your head, norms: Without the cooperation and tolerance of a Human regime, Sebastian Shaw would not have been able to kill anyone Magneto knew. Shaw may have pulled the trigger, but German Humans gave him the gun, the bullets, and the target. What is so hard for you norms to get about that?)
Whilst doing some research for this article, I came across a review on the IMDB that has it that since X-Men: First Class is a “prequel”, we already know the broad strokes of what will become of the important characters at the end. Thus, this review has it, everything is destined to be an anti-climax. I will not dig out the video, but to quote one of my favourite Hale & Pace routines: bollocks.
In fact, X-Men: First Class exemplifies the first law of making a good prequel. Sure, your audience knows that by the end, Magneto will be looking to rid the world of the norms, Professor X will be paralysed, and Mystique will be sick of staying in disguise. The trick that George Lucas failed at is making the audience interested in how these things happen. The makers of X-Men: First Class, by contrast, ace this trick. The secret is to make the how more important than the what. Instead of focusing entirely on the outcome, X-Men: First Class focuses on rendering the steps between start and finish as dramatic as possible. We know full well at the start that Mystique and Magneto will adopt supremacy as a goal, rather than Professor X’s goal of integration and understanding. So the film focuses on making us understand why they do this. When Magneto comes out of the submarine in his signature helmet and challenges Professor X to tell him he is wrong about the fact that the Humans are preparing to rain fire upon them, it has far more impact because all throughout the film, we have been watching Professor X try to maintain his view of the world, only to see it crash down around him in several dramatic steps at the end. Hence, the reason this prequel works, unlike so many others, is because the destination is secondary to the journey. (This is a trait shared by many good films, prequel or no.)
So whilst I have danced around this subject a bit, it is worth returning to the character of Emma Frost in order to talk about the few things that do not work in the film. One of the greatest challenges of an ensemble story is balancing the amount of development given to each and every character. Riptide (Álex González) and Azazel (Jason Flemyng) get next to no development as characters, but the film does not suffer so much for that because they are expected to be pawns for one bigger villain or the other. Emma Frost (January Jones), on the other hand, is very much a central character. She regularly participates in Sebastian Shaw’s schemes, even to the point of flying to the Soviet Union and engaging with one of its diplomats on his orders. She also has a substantial portion of the dialogue in the film. So it is a dramatic slip-up on the part of the writers, the director, or Jones (possibly even all of the above) that the character just comes across so flat and lifeless in the finished film.
Michael Ironside, the actor whose mannerisms, speech, and general conveyed attitude in front of the camera come the closest to matching those I effect every day in real life, also turns in a cameo. He is only credited as M. Ironside, with the character name Captain, but his unmistakable presence lends a certain gravitas to the actions of the American Navy personnel that the scene could have very easily lacked otherwise. When he tells his personnel that it has been an honour serving with them, it resonates to a significant degree because of his delivery. In just five seconds, Ironside succeeds in doing something for Humans what the rest of the cast get in excess of two hours to do for Mutants: make them seem, well… Human.
In one featurette concerning the making of the 1978 production of Superman, Richard Donner stated that he had a one-word motto that he plastered everywhere for the benefit of those working on the production: verisimilitude. I respect Donner and much of his work, so I hope he can see I mean no offense when I say that I prefer the word that can be associated with X2 and to a degree the more recent Batman films: gravitas. In this context, gravitas means taking the ugliness of the reality that the characters live in and ramping it up to its logical extreme. Although X-Men: First Class does not quite reach the dizzying heights of this that X2 does, it only misses by a small margin. The hate and fear from the Humans, the hate and contempt from the Mutants, they both come across as so very real. A large part of this has to do with the quality of the talent on both sides of the camera. It is no coincidence that franchises that have been written off as trash such as the more recent Fantastic Four films feature the like of Jessica Alba whereas the real X-Men franchise features a cast that has multiple Oscars and even a Knighthood. One franchise has gravitas at its heart, running through its veins, and in its mind. The other does not. If you can guess which is which, then you are learning something.
The question to be asked now is, essentially, which direction does the X-Men franchise move in from this point. It has become clear that X-Men works best when it has a cast and crew that take it very seriously. Again, to use a negative comparison, one of my favourite quotes from Roger Ebert‘s review of the first Fantastic Four film asks the question of how superheroes can seem so indifferent to their superpowers. X-Men: First Class never even lets us entertain the thought of Professor X, Magneto, or even Wolverine being so indifferent to their powers. Children look at superheroes and think “wow, cool”. Grown-ups think about all of the baggage that would come with these superpowers.
I think I have made it very clear in other writings that I have a deep, serious problem with people who believe that childhood should be perpetual, and damn what anyone else thinks. Cinema, unfortunately, has become a medium dominated by this type of clown. But every once in a while, in spite of this push towards mandated perpetual babyhood, a work of art comes out that reaffirms how bad things happen when people try to push a way or view of life upon others, and how good things result when those others push back.
I thought the X-Men franchise had died when X-Men In Name Only part one’s credits rolled. X-Men: First Class is like a phoenix arisen. It makes the X-Men in film relevant to the people who live its real-life equivalent again.