X-Men: First Class

I thought X-Men: First Class was loads of fun, largely because of Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy. Here’s Jonathan Last with a pretty interesting post on mutant assimilation. On a more serious note, I was a little uncomfortable with the film’s repeated invocations of the Holocaust (an exchange between Magneto and Professor Xavier towards the end of the film manages to include the lines “They’re only following orders” and “Never again” in quick succession), but I’m not sure what to make of John Podhoretz’s accusations of Holocaust trivialization. What do you folks think?

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29 thoughts on “X-Men: First Class

  1. I don’t think the film trivialized the Holocaust. The scenes set in the concentration camp are brutal, and [spoiler] the blithe manner in which young Erik’s mother is casually murdered is both emotionally, narratively compelling and true to the way Jews were treated. It is a necessary part of understanding Erik’s eventual transformation into Magneto.

    The objection stems, no doubt, from believing a comic book movie to be insufficiently serious to justify narrative use of such a traumatic event in human history. If a Jewish character in a different genre of movie were to have a similar backstory, using similar dialogue, but in a more “worthy” dramatic context, I doubt anyone would object. If one believes that a movie about superheroes can still be worthy of respect qua movie, then there’s nothing particularly objectionable about including the Holocaust as part of a character’s history.

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  2. The actual problem with the film is that it so transparently takes Magneto’s side. There should at least be some ambiguity about whether Magneto has drawn the correct lessons from the Holocaust, but Xavier offering up the Nuremberg defense is the part that’s pretty hideous.

    Otherwise, what Russell Saunders said. The problem here isn’t that X-Men refuses to take the Holocaust seriously; it’s that J-Pod refuses to take the X-Men seriously.

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    • I’m not sure that it takes Magneto’s side so much as portrays his development in a sympathetic way.

      The message that I got from the writer/director wasn’t “All humans should die!,” so much as “See? Fish around with genocide and treating people like waste and you get fished up people like this.”

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      • You don’t have to do anything, but as a courtesy for getting fans of the X-Men to take you seriously, it makes some sense. Contra J-Pod, harrumphing at people doesn’t make you a “humorless fogey”; it makes you an asshole.

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    • I don’t know if the movie intentionally took Magneto’s side, but he certainly came across as the more sympathetic character. In all of his debates with Charles, he warned that humans would react to the knowledge of mutants’ existence by trying to kill them, and the end of the film showed him to be correct.

      But I think the way it was done was accurate. Xavier, in the film, is the product of a highly privileged existence, and at no point in the film (aside from the final scene on the beach) is he in physical danger. He doesn’t understand what it’s like to face constant threats to your life, nor does he understand the experience of being rejected by society (which is why he fails to understand Mystique). When he’s dealing with people whose experiences are similar to his – whose only problems involve learning to use and control their powers – he’s a very effective teacher. But he hasn’t had the life experience to comprehend the worldviews of people who have suffered in ways that he hasn’t.

      At the end of the movie, intentionally or not, it’s clear that Magento’s perspective is the more reality-based one, with Xavier insisting that he is “still on the side of” a government that has just tried to kill him and his friends.

      No, Xavier didn’t make a good case for not destroying the ships. But there wasn’t one that could be made succinctly. Outside of a position of absolute pacifism, which nobody in the movie holds, there’s nothing unjustifiable about returning fire (literally!) against a military that has just attacked you.

      The problem with Magneto’s view is, in my opinion, indicated more subtly by the context of the movie – the Cuban Missile Crisis. The message of the crisis is that escalation between two groups who mutually fear each other – even if each group has reason to feel that it is justified and acting in self-defense – will lead to disaster.

      And on that note – I was impressed by the moviemakers’ accurate treatment of the Cuban Missile Crisis (aside from the obvious point that the real one didn’t involve mutants), showing that it wasn’t just initiated by the Russians, and in fact that it was the Americans who were quickest to take the first step in scaling things up (Americans put missiles in Turkey, where Russian early-warning system will not be of any use; Russians take equivalent action by placing missiles in Cuba; Americans threaten nuclear war if Russians bring any more missiles anywhere near Cuba).

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      • “The message of the crisis is that escalation between two groups who mutually fear each other – even if each group has reason to feel that it is justified and acting in self-defense – will lead to disaster.”

        A pretty awesome point that I missed until this comment.

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        • Shorter Xavier: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Hence, he stops the annihilation of the attacking fleets, who are merely acting on orders.

          Or if that be too sectarian, perhaps the young Malcolm X vs. the mature one.

          Magneto is the “natural man,” his anger completely understandable and justified. When Xavier goes into Magneto’s head at the radar dish, he shows him that Magneto’s power is unleashed when he touches his love for his mother instead of his anger at her death. [Xavier notes that Magneto has the potential to be the most powerful mutant of them all once he takes a chill pill.]

          We’ll see if the franchise picks up the theme. Magneto sees it as humans vs. mutants, but it’s precisely Magneto’s humanity that Xavier appeals to, and where Magneto’s greatest excellence lies.

          Magneto: “I have been at the mercy of men just following orders. Never again.”

          Who can argue with that?

          Magneto:Professor Charles Xavier: We have it in us to be the better men.
          Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto: We already are.

          Aha. Really?

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      • > Xavier, in the film, is the product of a highly
        > privileged existence, and at no point in the film
        > (aside from the final scene on the beach) is
        > he in physical danger. He doesn’t understand
        > what it’s like to face constant threats to your
        > life, nor does he understand the experience
        > of being rejected by society (which is why he
        > fails to understand Mystique).

        &

        > But he hasn’t had the life experience to
        > comprehend the worldviews of people who
        > have suffered in ways that he hasn’t.

        This has been my complaint about roughly 3/4 of the writers for X-men. Byrne did a great job of working around this narrative problem, but most of the other writers for X-men made exactly this mistake.

        The previews I saw for the movie showed that they likely made this mistake. Xavier has dipped into Magneto’s head, and yet it appears he doesn’t really understand the guy.

        Xavier is a goddamn telepath. If there ever would be anyone who would be able to overcome the lack of experience problem when it came to empathizing with anyone else, it would be a fishing telepath.

        Many a boneheaded writer has failed to recognize this.

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        • I actually read an interesting theory on that – that Xavier in the movie is used to depending on his telepathy to interact with people based on his knowledge of what they’re thinking, and fails at interpersonal relationships when he can’t get inside someone’s head (as with Raven, due to his promise not to read her mind, and with Magneto when he’s wearing the helmet).

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          • Well, when he meets Magneto, dude isn’t wearing his helmet, right? (I recall there’s a specific scene in the trailer where Xavier pretty much admits that he’s read his mind, but that’s a trailer scene and it is limited in context).

            But discounting that detail… on a meta-level, that explanation doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s a repeating storyline that it’s difficult to come to grips with telepathy, for all telepaths, as they go through a period where they can’t screen out what other people are thinking. Telepaths go crazy over this, that’s another common storyline. There’s scenes in the Byrne run where Xavier is talking to Marvel Girl about her problems keeping people *out*.

            Now, this guy has been a telepath for a while. Presumably he’s gone though a period where his filter was set to “off”, and had to deal with a huge wash of incoming humanity.

            Even should you figure out how to erect barriers to prevent this sort of thing from occurring, you’re going to get a lot of incoming data about humanity that’s going to inform how you think about how people think.

            It doesn’t jibe (to me) that you would be someone who had a hard time grokking *anybody* after going through such an experience, unless you’re some sort of idiot. And Xavier has random chats with Reed Richards, for cryin’ out loud, he’s one of the biggest noggin’s on planet Terra.

            The guy shouldn’t be the sort of cat who gets surprised by people and their motivations. Any more than Doctor Strange would be freaked out by the sight of a demon. It ought to be passe’. Having telepaths get stumped by human behavior makes as much sense as having Tony Stark have trouble with an engineering problem; the entire storyline of the character suggests ubercompetence, and there’s this inexplicable weakness?

            But maybe that’s just me.

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            • Eh. I’m not an expert on the X-Men comics, but to my view there’s a distinction between knowing what someone is thinking and understanding them. Xavier might know what Erik’s past is, but that doesn’t necessarily give him the ability to understand him.

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              • I’m pretty sure that the knowing of a telepath is significantly different from the knowing that you might get from hanging out with a guy and having heart-to-hearts for several decades.

                At least, that’s the way the ability is typically sold (and has been, off and on, in the case of the X-men’s version of telepathy).

                I don’t see how that level of knowing can’t come with some sort of understanding or screaming insanity or both. Certainly if you avoid the screaming insanity you’ve got to have a cognitive capability that would also lead to that understanding.

                Again, maybe just me.

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          • I haven’t seen the movie, but, from the previews, I think there’s a lot to support this theory. Xavier, because he has access to everyone’s information (generally speaking) assumes (and therefore acts) like everyone else *also* sees all the cards on the table.

            Hence, for example, his outing of “Beast’s” mutant skills. Xavier just assumes he’s stating the obvious, rather than actually being empathetic. One could argue that is what the character develops over time.

            Ditto when the ships launch the missiles — he know’s they are *just* scared, because he’s in their heads. But to some degree that’s still an “abstract” knowing.

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    • The real problem is that J-Pod is the classic affirmative action case. He has the intellectual capacity you’d expect of someone who’s never had any demands placed on him beyond being named “Podhorertz”. Compare Bill Kristol, who wasn’t even up to being the New York Time’s token conservative.

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  3. I understand Podhoretz’s initial emotional response to First Class, but I have a hard time agreeing or even sympathizing.

    First off, I’m not sure that I understand how the X-Men movie “trivializes” the holocaust, unless Podhoretz himself trivializes some part of the medium. Is it the comic book origins that make it vulgar? Doubtful, as I would be willing to bet he finds Maus at least passable. He himself mentions other movies, so I don’t think it’s a Hollywood issue. Perhaps it’s that it is a superhero movie? Might it be that it is a movie that uses the Holocaust as a prime motivator for a central character, but doesn’t make either the Holocaust or Jews a central issue in the story? I honestly don’t know. Whatever the reason is, however, I think that Podhoretz’s instincts are wrong; moreover, though he in no way calls for it, they are the first steps down a path that lead to censorship.

    A piece of art, whether it it be high-or lowbrow, affects us all differently. Podhoretz might well feel that his view of Auschwitz is the correct one, and that the various ways he might portray the horror there the only ones worthy of public display. But the truth is others might not feel the same way. The opening scene (a young Magneto is torn away from his parents and he reacts with furious sorrow and anger) might well be trivial for the Highbrow, but I can tell you that it speaks to my 12 year old son in a far more concrete way then Sophie’s Choice would.

    Secondly, Podhoretz compares First Class to “other Holocasut movies;” but I’m not sure that it is a Holocaust movie. Rather, the Holocaust is used as a plot device to show that characters we might otherwise have thought of as Black Hat Evil Villains had reasons for making the choices they did, and why they even saw themselves as White Hats. As a plot device it might have not been subtle, but it worked well enough for a 2-hour blockbuster format. (As an aside, I would be interested to know if in earlier X-Men movies, when the closer allegory seemed to be race relations, Podhoretz was outraged at the slight to the civil rights movement. Or if he writes HBO asking them to cancel True Blood out of deference the gays and lesbians.)

    Lastly, on a larger scale, I am never comfortable with people becoming self-apointed sheriffs, standing up and declaring How Dare They when people make art that champions what the sheriffs themselves hold dear… but not in the way the sheriffs would necessarily choose. Is there any difference between Podhoretz’s post, and the rantings I’ve heard over the years regarding Last Temptation of Christ? (Except, of course, that Podhoretz actually seems to have *seen* First Class, which is more than I can say for many I have talked to that condemn Last Temptation.)

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  4. I haven’t seen the movie, but reading JPod’s review, the most interesting — and probably worthwhile — thing he says is his comment about the problems of depicting the Holocaust because of the craft table on set. It’s an angle that points out that there are different, possibly more difficult problems, in making a film about the Holocaust, than even, say in writing a comic book about it. At the very least, one presents situations that might provoke a more intense cognitive dissonance. … It’s the kind of thought I’m going to have to ruminate on some more — and the kind that, if JPod had used it as the center of his critique, rather than emotional reaction and frustration, might have been a better use of his time and ours.

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  5. Podhoretz in hysterical tribalism with veiled (or not so) accusations of anti-Semitism shocker!

    About the movie: the two leads were pretty fantastic, especially when you consider the material they were working with. Loved how the film takes Magneto’s side — love Magneto, in general. And we don’t have to take X-Men seriously but, like the recent Batman movies, we can’t stop it from doing so. (And I just rewatched the 2 Bryan Singer movies recently and would have to disagree that they weren’t rather self-serious, at times morose affairs.)

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  6. I would be curious to see Podhoretz’s (paywalled) take on Inglourious Basterds. That certainly felt much more like a Holocaust exploitation movie even if it featured Jews in dominant roles.

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