I was a little miffed on Sunday evening as the credits rolled after “X-Men First Class.” The thing about the series is that for people like me—the kind who take things too seriously—it’s an escapist adventure that also offers up some social theory at its core. The parts of X-Men that I love, in addition to the flying mutants, are the deeply developed allegories of grand dilemmas about difference and resistance. But this last installment is lacking in that sort of deep thinking.
And as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writes in the first of his guest New York Times columns, it also whitewashes history. Coates writes: “Here is a period piece for our post-racial times—in the era of Ella Baker and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the most powerful adversaries of spectacular apartheid are a team of enlightened white dudes.”
The first in the X-Men film series was a poignant allegory of otherness and survival. It revolved around a battle between the followers of the villain Magneto and those of Xavier, who call themselves the X-Men. The story follows a relevant struggle over an integrationist versus separatist politics of difference. Later, in the third film, an evil senator pushes through the insidious Mutant Registration Act, a daring plot twist in the post-9/11 period of real-world special registration policies. Both films interrupted the post-racial landscape by thrusting persistent questions about inclusion and exclusion into the popular scene, and did so using blue people and mind-reading super heroes.
So when “X-Men First Class” ended, I searched my mind for a glimmer of the political allegory I loved about earlier films. This film tells the story of the meeting of Magneto and Xavier and their quest to stop Kevin Bacon, a former Nazi who allies with evil Cold War powers to bring about World War III. But Magneto, a Holocaust survivor, hates Bacon’s character because 20 years earlier as a Nazi he shot and killed Magneto’s mother. This drives Magneto to a life motivated by vengeance and violence and sows the seeds of the irreconcilable divide between the integrationist Xavier and the separatist Magneto.
Yet despite the premise, the new movie makes disappointingly little effort to actually probe the big cultural and political questions that several of the earlier films take on. Instead, it goes to great lengths, as Coates writes, to “hold evil at an ocean’s length.” I left disappointed that “First Class” was merely an action flick with some exquisite mid-century styling.
The shallow treatment of questions of difference in the latest X-Men flick, though, is not only an intellectual slight that made what could have been a heady film into a pure and simple blockbuster. It is also an historical absurdity. Coates argues:
“First Class” is set in 1962. That was the year South Carolina marked the Civil War centennial by returning the Confederate Flag to the State Capitol; the year the University of Mississippi greeted its first black student, James Meredith, with a lethal race riot; the year George Wallace was elected governor of Alabama….
“[I]n 1962,” writes Coates, “the quintessential mutants of America were black.” But in this film that’s of no consequence:
As “First Class” roars to its final climactic scene, it appeals to an insidious suspension of disbelief; the heroic mutants of America, bravely opposing bigotry and fear, are revealed as not so much a spectrum of humankind, but as Eagle Scouts from Mayfield.
It seems the racial justice allegory was thrown out with the bathwater of history. It is a testament to the ubiquity and power of the colorblind myth that a film about social exclusion and unrest, set squarely in the era of the American civil rights movement, did not include a single developed character of color and shoved its racial justice themes under the rug.
I disagree with Coates that that the film’s eschewing of race “is all about knowing your audience.” I think, rather, it doesn’t understand its audience. As Dominique Apollon writes in his recent report, young Americans don’t imagine that they live in a post-racial world.
Among the eighty racially and ethnically diverse young people who participated in our 16 focus group sessions between October 2010 and February 2011, a large majority believes that race still matters in society, regardless of the narrative that President Obama’s 2008 election was the start of a “post-racial” era. … essentially all focus group participants expressed a belief that race continues to play a role in the United States.
Unfortunately, the makers of X-Men didn’t seem to think it worth their time care about that audience. The movie, write Coates, “appeals to an insidious suspension of disbelief.” It’s a suspended disbelief that most of the young audience it targets just doesn’t buy.