X-Men: First Class – When “What If?” Fails to Impress

I’m sorry, this is full of spoilers. Can’t be helped.

X-Men: First Class felt like a big “what If”? What if, instead of the way they told it in the comics, the X-Men had been formed like this?

What if Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Raven (Mystique) had grown up together? What if Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) was hunting Nazis on a personal quest for vengeance? What if they had begun recruiting young mutants in cooperation with the CIA just as the Cuban missile crisis was about to erupt, fueled by evil mutant Sebastian Shaw?

What if Moira MacTaggert was an American CIA field agent instead of a Scottish Nobel prize winning geneticist? What if she had to seek out Xavier’s expertise in genetics?

What if it were crucial to the plot that she take off her dress and walk around in lingerie within five minutes of her first appearance on screen?

What if, out of the first group of recruits, the only woman is a thin, conventionally pretty woman of color… who is working as a stripper? What if she’s based on comic writer Grant Morrison’s Angel, who was not thin, and certainly not of a disposition to flatter men for money? What if film Angel was the first one to defect to the forces of evil? What if she wore leather hot pants after she defected, and never got another line of dialogue (as best I can recall)?

What if the other recruit who was a person of color was a black man, and he died first? What if the only purpose his death seemed to serve was to motivate his teammates?

What if Havok practiced his aim on headless female mannequins, and Henry McCoy groped one of them for an audience laugh?

What if Emma Frost wore tacky underwear and had no personality? (Paging Greg Land…) What if Sebastian Shaw’s other lackeys were a red Russian demon (with terrible clothes and terrible hair) and a guy who makes tornadoes, played by a Spanish actor who I’m pretty sure is supposed to look “exotic” and who never speaks?

What if Charles and Erik were basically in love, but Hollywood couldn’t possibly allow them to kiss when they realize they’re breaking up and will only meet as enemies hereafter?

What if the filmmakers made sure that by the end of the movie, the First Class of X-Men was a group of white American men (one who had turned blue and furry) and Magneto’s “brotherhood” was composed of everyone foreign and female?

There were good things about this film. The aerial battle between Angel and Banshee, the arrogance of Charles, the evolution of Erik’s goals. It was a solid film in terms of plot and pacing, much better than that third X-Men film or that horrible Wolverine Origins nonsense.

But at the end, I was just tired. Tired of race fail, tired of gender fail. I couldn’t enjoy the movie as much as I wanted to because they kept poking me in the eye with a stick. If you’re going to ask the question “what if?”, it would be nice if your answer wasn’t even less diverse and more objectifying than your source material.

One star.

(If you’re going to comment and try to school me on “but in the comics,” please know that the X-Men/Wolverine comics I have read in the past year must be measured in LINEAR FEET. I’m not joking. I will send you a photograph of my shelves. You may have read more than I have, but I’m a fairly well-read fangirl with a huge love for the X-Peeps.)

Also see: X-Men First Class Leaves No Breast Un-Ogled by Sarah Arboleda at Zelda Lily

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.

9 thoughts on “X-Men: First Class – When “What If?” Fails to Impress

  1. Elizabeth

    I’ve been very conflicted about this movie for basically all the reasons you mention and yet the McAvoy/Fassbender dynamic just completely elevates the film for me in a way that it has no right to be elevated. They made it enjoyable for me in ways I didn’t predict, and (what if!) I can only imagine how genuinely good the film could have been if the rest of it had been up to par with what McBender were able to bring to the table.

  2. Skye

    Elizabeth, thanks. McAvoy and Fassbender were lovely, I agree. Even if you don’t see it as a romantic relationship, they did amazing things with their parts and I really enjoyed watching them. Their scenes would draw me in… and then we’d get a scene of January Jones and it would un-do everything.

  3. Patrick


    I just wrote much the same text on my blog. It’s exhausting and tiring. I love Michael Fassbender, but I won’t go see the film.

    Keep also in mind: Raven is X’s adopted sister. He grows up to be a scientist. She is a waitress. McCoy is a scientist. Magneto is a traveling adventurer. Havok is in the Army. Darwin is a cab driver.

    Mystique changes sides because a man finally told her she was beautiful.

    And so on…

    I don’t think I would have even given one point, really. As Outlaw Vern said: this film is set in the sixties, it wasn’t *filmed* in the sixties.

  4. Ron

    I saw this movie last weekend. While I agree that the movie was far better than the last two installments in terms of acting, pacing, and even the story (for what it was), I was also struck by things that the movie left out.

    For starters, the film is set during the Cuban Missle Crisis of 1962. That was the same year that some seminal events of the Civil Rights movement took place. I would have loved for even one character (in particular, the sole black character Darwin, who was killed before he could really to anything) to mention the irony of millions of Americans fighting for equal rights for African-Americans while mutants were still hiding, afraid of the consequences of exposure. What better metaphor could there have been for the struggle for mutant rights than to show these young mutants contrasting their efforts with those of Dr. King or Malcolm X, instead of just alluding to it? They even had a scene set in front of the Lincoln Memorial, but instead of there being a civil rights rally, Charles and Eric (the whitest of white guys in the movie) sit down and play chess! Instead of exploring what could have been a really compelling storyline, they go with the good old Hollywood standby of making the bad guy a Nazi collaborator turned Soviet collaborator.

    What a freakin’ copout!

  5. John

    Odd then, that I saw so many people of color (including myself), so many women in the theater enjoying the film. Odd then, to see women and minority reviewers giving it great reviews. Guess you can fool some of the feminists and minorities some of the time, eh?

  6. Skye

    @John, I doubt there’s a single film in existence that all feminists or all people of color agree on. I’m glad you had a good time watching it.

  7. -J-

    OK, to start, I loved this movie, and that certainly colours my interpretation. So does the fact that Jennifer Lawrence acted the hell out of her character and gave Mystique so much depth that was lacking in the original trilogy. Honestly, I came away feeling the film treated its female characters pretty well, even though January Jones couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag. Your analysis, especially of the way Angel’s story arc played out, really does put a different spin on things, and if/when I see this again I’ll certainly come in with a different mindset, but for the moment I’m feeling more charitable than you are. Now killing Darwin first, that was so cliche and unnecessary that its a completely different issue. Points are most definitely lost there.

    @Ron: The whole fight against discrimination theme is pretty much inherent in the X-men storyline. I read this one as more of a statement for gay rights than against racism, which I’d wager was a conscious decision by the director to bring more contemporary issues to a story set in the 60’s? (not that racism is something that doesn’t happen today, but that LGBQT rights are more of a hot-button topic at the moment)

  8. draconismoi

    Strangely enough, the whole bit where are all the minorities and women join up with Magneto really worked for me.

    Not that I’m attributing any kind of deep societal commentary to filmmakers that wouldn’t even let such an epic love story play out on screen (ahem). But it makes sense.

    Of course all the White American Men want to exist inside the system. While in the closet, they have access to all the privilege of White American Men, and upon feeling the first sting of discrimination, start whining about how it’s JUSTNOTFAIR and want their old status back.

    Hence they want to coexist and change society from within. Just enough so that they are still members of the ruling class.

    While the women and racial minorities, well-used to the lash of discrimination, are all ‘fuck this noise’ and decide to remove themselves from traditional societal constraints.

    Like I said, it worked for me. Considering how they were all treated – even by Charles – defecting with Eric is more logical than hanging around to be dismissed and marginalized by their own so-called friends and colleagues.

    Note: All my X-Men exposure comes from TV. The cartoon I watched religiously in the early 90s and the movies. Not a big comic reader.

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