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She wears it well: January Jones as Emma Frost.

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By Jason Apuzzo. I tend to approach comic book movies like someone working on a bomb-disposal squad: I dutifully suit up, say a fond farewell to my wife, head to the theater and pray nothing explodes in my face.

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So for several months I’ve been eyeing X-Men: First Class, the latest entry in a franchise I’ve not generally liked, in hopes that this stylish-looking film – which mixes 60s spy chic, Cold War nostalgia and January Jones in a gravity-defying bustier – in hopes that the film would revive or at least agitate my interest in comic book fare.

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Alas, it didn’t.

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That’s not to say that X-Men: First Class doesn’t have its moments, or that the film isn’t entertaining.  A film that riffs so freely and enthusiastically off James Bond films (of the Connery vintage), 60s go-go/mod culture, The Avengers, Cold War military thrillers like Ice Station Zebra, and even Dean Martin’s cheeky Matt Helm movies can’t be all bad, right? No, it certainly can’t – and X-Men: First Class is a diverting, two-hour plus voyage back into the Kennedy era, a period in which the West seemed a bit more self-confident, stylish and cohesive than it does today.

But First Class is a voyage that carries so much baggage with it – so much 2-cent teen psychology, so many embarrassingly campy characters (Beast, Banshee, and some chick who flies around like Tinkerbell with exploding saliva), and so much equivocating about the relative moral weight of America and the Soviet Union, that I’m unable to say I really enjoyed it.

And that’s a shame. You really have to work to make me not like a film of this kind. You have to do things like: suggest that America’s military establishment (along with the Soviets’) during the Kennedy era was being manipulated by a sadistic ex-Nazi … who likes to quote lines (of the “for us or against us” variety) from George W. Bush. You have to depict the CIA and America’s military high command as bumbling and incompetent at best, corrupt and ruthlessly exploitative of innocent peoples’ lives at worst.

You also have to give Kevin Bacon a major starring role. Do we still need that in 2011? I thought the 1980s had taught us better.

Everybody wears great jackets ... but what's Jennifer Lawrence staring at?

X-Men: First Class is the fifth film to mine the seemingly inexhaustible lore of the original X-Men comic book series, and it’s a film that has taken the unusual step of going all the way back to the series’ origins in the early 1960s – bravely eschewing Hollywood’s fear of losing teen audiences in period detail. It’s so easy to imagine the Fox executives to whom this film was pitched nervously asking, “Will teenagers know who the hell Kennedy was? Will we have to explain to them who the Soviets were, and why they were the bad guys? Does anybody still remember that Nazis fled to Argentina?” We tend to forget that the younger generation nowadays isn’t taught any of this stuff, and so can’t be counted on to have the same emotional response to the sight of, say, a May Day military parade in Moscow. For this reason, I applaud the makers of this film – and Brit director Matthew Vaughn, in particular – for having the ‘courage,’ if that’s the right term, to ignore conventional wisdom and trust that the glamour and romance of early 60s Cold War culture would shine through. It did.

Indeed, if you want to know what First Class is really ‘about,’ I could tell you that it’s about the tangled origins of the rivalry – begun as all good rivalries do, in bonds of friendship – between Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and their respective groups, the ‘X-Men’ and the ‘Brotherhood of Mutants’. It is a rivalry the film clearly implies has echoes in the Cold War rivalry between America and the Soviet Union, a rivalry of equals in terms of power – if not necessarily in moral authority. More on that below.

Michael Fassbender: a genuine star in the making.

But you would be misled to think that First Class has anything really serious or noteworthy to say about the Cold War, which is reduced here to little more than a glamorous backdrop. If First Class is really ‘about’ anything, it’s really about the narcissism of its central characters – a narcissism entwined in the basic DNA of the comic book genre (“Look at me in my cool outfit, with my special powers!”), and which this particular era of the early 1960s enables magnificently. The ‘purpose’ of First Class, to the extent the film has any, is really to put fabulous looking (and even sounding) people like Michael Fassbender and January Jones in fabulous outfits – and let them strut through fabulous sets that blend influences as diverse as Ken Adam and Shag.

Of course, I have no doubt the filmmakers intended, with stout earnestness, to imbue this film with something more than that: specifically, motifs of the Civil Rights era – and even of The Holocaust – whereby the rights of individuals deemed ‘different’ by society are respected. You see, the genetic ‘mutants’ of the X-Men series, as we’re told over and over in every X-Men film, really just want to be left in peace – but those dastardly Nazis, Communists and the CIA just won’t let them alone! In the universe of the X-Men films, humanity has just two basic reactions to the mutants’ presence in the world: either to exploit the hell out of them, or to kill them. Apparently no other options are ever on the table – which is actually tough to believe, when you consider how good looking these mutants always are. I mean, is your first reaction on seeing someone like Jennifer Lawrence or Zoë Kravitz to persecute her? Not to mention Rebecca Romijn (who makes a brief cameo in this film)? That really seems like quite a stretch. There must be a Vogue cover one of these ladies could appear on.

The fetishism of Cold War technology.

X-Men: First Class isn’t having any of it, though – remaining grimly unwavering, five films in, to its hoary narrative of victimization. The film charts the parallel development of two major X-Men characters – Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr – both of whom, ultimately, are to learn hard lessons about humanity’s intolerance toward their genetically mutated kind. Xavier, played by the ingratiating young actor James McAvoy, has as his mission the integration of the mutants into productive society – and, specifically, assisting the CIA in tracking down genuinely dangerous mutants, such as the murderous Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).  Erik Lehnsherr’s (Michael Fassbender) personal mission is oriented toward revenge, however.  Lehnsherr is out to kill Sebastian Shaw, due to a horrible crime committed while Lehnsherr was a young prisoner in a German concentration camp. The first act of First Class follows these two characters as Xavier establishes a nattly little life for himself as an Oxford academic, while Lehnsherr jets around the world – very much James Bond style – exacting sweet revenge on fleeing Nazis.

McAvoy and Fassbender are easily First Class’ top assets. McAvoy’s warmth and intelligence, his basic humanity, form the moral center of the film. His urge to integrate the mutants into mainstream society feels noble and right; it’s the harder, slower road he advises to his friend (and eventual nemesis) Erik, and McAvoy sells it with humor and dignity.

Michael Fassbender, on the other hand, has the more glamorous role as the angry, rebellious Erik – and First Class will clearly be Fassbender’s breakout moment as an actor. He reminds me a great deal of a young Timothy Dalton – handsome, dignified, intelligent … and vaguely menacing. A brooder. As I watched him carry out his spy routine throughout the film, I couldn’t help but think that Daniel Craig had better not make a single false step over the next several years … because Fassbender could easily step into the role of Bond, right now, without any difficulty. He already seems more dashing and urbane than Craig, more classically handsome, and unlike Craig he appears to have a sense of humor.

Jennifer Lawrence: not quite up to it.

As far as the women in First Class, I must confess to being disappointed by Jennifer Lawrence. She actually looks a little too young, too green to be starring in a movie like this. Even cast as a vapid teenager – presumably not too much of a stretch – she looked nervous and unprepared, and slightly on the zaftig side. As for January Jones, she actually looked like she was in pain in her costumes; it was noticeable how her acting picked up whenever she was seated, or didn’t need to move. I have the impression she left a more interesting performance as Emma Frost somewhere back at the gym; even still, she’s a major glamor ornament to the film. My recommendation would be to allow her to eat next time, and let her wear a mu-mu.

As far as the rest of the cast, nobody else really made an impression … except for Kevin Bacon. Kevin Bacon always makes an ‘impression’; the question is what kind. My opinion is that he’s miscast here. Kevin Bacon plays Sebastian Shaw in full ham mode; what should’ve been an Ernst Blofeld-style villain instead comes across too much like Bobby Darin. It didn’t work.

Otherwise, it’s really enjoyable to watch Fassbender float in and out of scenes in snappy turtlenecks and leather jackets, and girls running around in short skirts and go-go boots. Sebastian Shaw’s mod submarine – filched, I suspect, from Our Man Flint – was cool, as was the SR-71 Blackbird, a stylish piece of Cold War hardware last glamorized in Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The sexy, 007-style fetishism of weapons and Cold War lifestyle objects really works.

The pick-up artist and the ice queen.

But this film has big problems associated with the moral equivalency it implies between America and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and the film’s somewhat creepy exploitation of the Holocaust as a plot device.  How shall I put this?  I dislike it when Jews are brought on-screen as 2-dimensional props simply to be slaughtered for ‘dramatic effect‘ in some studio’s summer tentpole movie.  First Class features an early moment of violence against a Jew in a Polish camp that feels far too cheap and manipulative for its own good; and I had the uncomfortable feeling that in some parts of the world this moment might actually be cheered. I’d rather that the moment simply not appear in the film in the first place. It’s too ugly and out of place for a movie that also features a stripper who sprouts pixie wings.

And not that they’ll care, but as someone who actually visited the Soviet Union as a teenager, and whose father served in our Cold War nuclear submarine service, and who is personally close to someone who worked in the Kremlin at the height of the Cold War (and who even operated on Brezhnev), I’d like to politely inform Matthew Vaughn and Bryan Singer and the other people behind X-Men: First Class that America and the Soviet Union were very definitely not ‘the same’ in their respective attitudes toward individual freedom or dignity, or toward the toleration of racial or ideological ‘difference.’ Indeed, it’s actually rather perverse – not to mention intellectually laughable – to even imply that. You can’t possibly be that cynical – or poorly educated – correct?

X-Men: First Class is uncomfortably casual in its moral equivalency, basically lumping both Cold War superpowers together as equally unfriendly to hot-looking, narcissistic teenagers. That seems to be the film’s big, thematic takeaway. I’m a teenager, I’m blue – or red, or I’m part shellfish – and I just can’t catch a break from all these stuffy old white guys on either side of the Berlin Wall. This is the indescribably puerile view of history presented by X-Men: First Class. It’s all a little troubling, frankly, because it makes me wonder if this is what the filmmakers actually think the Cold War was – just another episode in teen victimization.

A Soviet warship approaches Cuba in "X-Men: First Class."

I wouldn’t really care, except that X-Men: First Class takes enough cheap political jabs and swipes – the Sebastian Shaw “for us or against us” quip really stands out – that it’s obvious the filmmakers are itching to have their ideas taken seriously. Unfortunately they haven’t earned that. Their film is too frivolous, too consumed with Jennifer Lawrence’s hormonal fluctuations – or The Beast’s furry sideburns, or Banshee’s supersonic shrieking – to really convince me to take the film’s view of history seriously. This is another way of saying that the filmmakers seem embarrassingly oblivious to the difference between camp and serious cinema, treating the Cuban Missile crisis as a mere backdrop for teen soap opera.

So my advice is to feel free to see X-Men: First Class, but treat it as what is – a flashy, retro-style statement, kind of like visiting a Richard Neutra house – but not as an actual depiction of what the Cold War era was like.

Or you can just skit it altogether and rent Goldfinger.

Posted on June 3rd, 2011 at 10:39pm.

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16 Responses to “The Cold War as Fashion Statement: LFM Reviews X-Men: First Class

  1. Vince says:

    There was a point in the film, before the Missile Crisis, where the moral equivalence ripped me from the illusion. I can’t remember the exact point, but I literally threw up my hands — I couldn’t help it.

    By not giving the Cold War any sort of intellectual honesty, the film almost played like an episode of “Smallville.” Just a little honesty could’ve went a long way, like in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” — not a perfect film by any means, but one securely anchored in the fact the Soviets were Godless thugs bent on squashing the individual.

    I agree with you on James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender — absolutely perfect. Jennifer Lawrence was uncomfortable? Really? I couldn’t tell — because she mesmerizes me. She’s got this strange exotic quality, but she also could be the girl next door — a real natural beauty.

    A lot of thought and care went into your review, Jason — that’s appreciated.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Thanks Vince, as always.

      You know, this Cold War stuff really shouldn’t be so hard to get – should it? Why do we have to pretend that we weren’t on the right side – that of human freedom – during that conflict? It amazes me sometimes what these guys will stoop to saying in order to seem ‘dispassionate’ or objective, when actually they just come across like ex post facto dupes of Soviet propaganda.

      As far as Jennifer Lawrence, she looks to me like she’s still 15, and not really a woman yet. I didn’t believe for a second that Fassbender’s character would have the slightest interest in her. January Jones, however, is a different matter …

  2. Andrew Winkless says:

    I actually think you’re a little hard on this film. I hate communists as much or more than the next man, but ultimately the movie just isn’t really about communism or the Cold War, it’s just the backdrop. I didn’t really get a moral equivalence vibe because they just weren’t dealing with the commies enough, and I attribute the reactions to the mutants’ frightening displays of power as more a reflection of a negative view of human nature than moral equivalence between the cold war adversaries.

    You are dead on suggesting Fassbender as a potential Bond – he’d be a lot better than Daniel Craig (to be fair, my hatred of Craig as Bond may be related to the terrible scripts he’s had to work with).

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Andrew, thanks for your comments. In fairness, I think my review makes it clear that these Cold War issues are mostly just in the background in the film. As I said in the review, “you would be misled to think that First Class has anything really serious or noteworthy to say about the Cold War, which is reduced here to little more than a glamorous backdrop.” What bothers me more is what is said, when the filmmakers bother to say something. Ultimately they feature the U.S. and the Soviet Union jointly firing missiles at the mutants … the very same people who just rescued them. The message here seems to be: both nations treat ‘individuality’ and ‘difference’ the same way. Also: it’s noteworthy that Sebastian Shaw is manipulating both nations, and in essentially the same way.

      I honestly don’t think I’m injecting something into the film that isn’t there, right on the surface. I would also add that I’m not thrilled by the film’s negative reflections on human nature, either. The point here is that the X-Men series is basically a big narrative of victimization, based on the notion that humanity can’t handle genuine individuality. That’s why the series, in my opinion, always feels pessimistic in tone.

      … and on further reflection, I think you may be right. I’m already wishing Fassbender was Bond.

  3. Billy Couvillion says:

    The worst bit of moral equivalence to me was the image that led into the opening credits: The German coin emblazoned with National Socialist eagle and swastika fills the screen, flips, and we see the X-Men emblem, implying that Charles Xavier’s ideas and the Nazis ideology are two sides of the same coin. I don’t know if this was deliberate by the filmmakers, but if it we probably haven’t seen the last or worst of moral equivalence in the rebooted X-Men films.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Billy, I noticed that, too. It was one of many telling details I didn’t have time to mention in the body of the review.

      Personally I’m not so invested in this series, but it amazes me that this stuff just gets dropped in without more people – particularly fans – commenting on it.

  4. Jacob says:

    It really bugs me that fifty years later, this is still the moral equivalency we’re getting out of Hollywood. Millions of teenagers are going to see this and will think this is a real view of history. If they really think that America is no better than the old Soviet Union, why don’t these people move to Cuba or North Korea and see how they like it living under that kind of system? Have they ever talked to anyone who used to live in the Soviet Union? I have Russian friends who lived through that hell, and believe me, they’re not nostalgic to go back.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Thanks for your remarks, Jacob. You’ve just captured why I went into all these issues in the review – because nobody else will, frankly, including so-called ‘conservative’ media outlets who likely aren’t even aware that this film is in theaters, or of what the film is about.

  5. johngaltjkt says:

    Excellent Review…dead on

    Clearly the best of the five movies but that’s like picking your favorite episode of the Tyra Banks show. (you still want to shoot yourself in the end) And of course the sloganeering: Mutant and Proud and If you’re not for us, you’re against us is soooooooooooooooo 2004. Please GOD stop!
    Some observations:
    January Jones – I’ve watched her in the first two seasons of Mad Men, small role in Pirate Radio and this movie. She’s physically beautiful but has about as much warmth/passion (her personality on screen and yes I acknowledge it’s probably the roles she’s played in these projects) as a plate of left out three day old pasta. She physically exudes sexuality but her affect is sleepy and boring. She’s no Liz Taylor or Angelina Jolie. Both of whom were/are physically beautiful and exuded/exude sexuality/passion.
    Kevin Bacon – besides the sloganeering, he for me was the biggest distraction in this movie. Anytime he was on screen I thought it was a SNL skit. What a joke and terrible casting!
    Michael Fassbender – He clearly has IT. He stole this movie and I believe the producers of the James Bond movies should fire Daniel Craig and hire him as his replacement, immediately. He’s handsome, masculine and can act.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      JohnGalt, you are on the money, my friend. I’m sorry I forget to mention all that “mutant and proud” crap – it was so silly, I think I blocked it out of my mind. Was that part of the original comic book series? Even if it was, they should’ve dropped it. It was actually embarrassing.

      You couldn’t be more correct about January Jones. I cut her some slack because she looked constrained by having to look like a Playboy cover model in every scene, but the reality is there wasn’t much personality there. At the same time, she did persuasively come across as a ‘frosty blonde,’ as it were, so on balance I thought casting her worked.

      Fassbender rocked, I’m already a fan now, and Kevin Bacon should confine himself to Fruit Of The Loom ads at this point.

      • johngaltjkt says:

        Don’t get me wrong…January Jones can bore me anytime she wants. However in her next few roles she needs to go against type or she’s going become the next Katherine Heigl, Jennifer Aniston, Anne Hathaway, Rachel Weisz…well you get the picture.

        • Jason Apuzzo says:

          True, but I might put the matter a little differently. The problem with her in this film is that she didn’t look like she was having any fun, or cutting loose. Her character should have been much more playfully sadistic, like a wicked queen in a sword-and-sandal movie or something.

          I don’t have the impression she’s really striving to play ‘girl-next-door’ roles like those actresses you mention. She seems to be shooting for adult, leading lady status. An analogy might be Michelle Pfeiffer, from back in the day; I thought Michelle was great as Cat-Woman in that Batman movie she did with Tim Burton, and that role really helped her career.

          • johngaltjkt says:

            I never was a fan of Michelle Pfeiffer movies with the exception of The Fabulous Baker Boys and her Cat-Woman role. She really cut loose in both movies.
            I understand what you’re saying about the actresses that I mentioned and what I meant is they all started out in promising movies that made them the flavor of the month. Then they all fell trap to bad role choices or just as likely a lack of decent scripts or the ability to recognize a decent script and got typecast. That can be debated with validity on all sides.
            If January is going for the adult roles, aka Elizabeth Taylor, she needs to start exuding some personal passion/sexuality. Something in my opinion she’s failed to do so far in the movies that I’ve seen her in.

            • Jason Apuzzo says:

              I hear you. The challenge there is obviously going to the fact that Hollywood doesn’t seem interested in doing anything other than romantic comedies these days, fueled by vulgar humor. In most of these films, the women seemed destined to playing permanent 18 year-olds – at least in terms of their emotional maturity – regardless of their actual age. This is part of what’s limiting the options for today’s actresses. I have no idea how an Elizabeth Taylor would even make it these days. Only A. Jolie has managed to avoid this trap, but she’s had to pay for it by doing an endless stream of action movies – some good, some bad.

  6. Pensans says:

    I was perplexed by the movie’s failure to offer any answer to Magneto’s argument concerning evolution. He and Xavier apparently agree initially that in past iterations of hominoid evolution, the new breed has destroyed the old. Magento simply holds to the line that the evolutionary replacement of mankind with a more powerful (mutant) species is a kind of progress or at least, practically inevitable and unlamentable. Xavier, for reasons unexpressed, believes that this time, mutual coexistence of species is possible and preferable.

    When one character, otherwise sympathetically portrayed, is working for the extinction of the human race shouldn’t something serious be said against his views? What kind of movie develops empathy with one plotting the destruction of humankind?

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Pensans, that’s a very astute observation. It’s true that the film is weirdly complicit in everything it purports to criticize.

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