So over the July 4 weekend I finally got around to seeing X-Men: First Class, and…ugh. I know that movie’s a critical hit and all, but it just left me…angry, I guess, that I’d wasted my time. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I hated the movie for the same reason I don’t really like the X-Men in the first place.
I’ve never been able to get into the X-Men. I can dig just about all the other classic Marvel guys–The Fantastic Four, Captain America, Spider-Man, you name it–but by and large my impression of the X-Men is a lot like my impression of First Class–too many characters running around in an overwrought, self-important morality play. (I liked the original 2000 movie, and I remember thinking this was because it avoided the usual X-Men bullshit.) The theme that mutant/human relations serves as a metaphor for real-world civil rights issues is a good one, but it’s trotted out all too often to justify stories where mutants just worry about their personal problems, or sit around being douchebags.
X-Men: First Class suffers from an abundance of douchebags. The movie presents three choices for the mutants–they can follow Professor X and seek peaceful coexistence with humans, they can follow Sebastian Shaw and use their abilities to live like kings, or they can follow Magneto and attack the humans before the humans hit them first. This is a great start for a story, but the movie fell apart for me when I realized I don’t really want any of these three guys to win because they’re all racists. I mean, setting aside the various obnoxious things they do to their fellow mutants, each of them clearly sees normal humans as an inferior race–Shaw treats them like lackeys and beasts of burden; Magneto treats them like irrational savages hellbent on a race war; and Xavier treats them like children who won’t understand tolerance until he talks down to them about it. This is especially problematic when the movie hinges upon Xavier and Magneto as the heroes. The end result is a three-way conflict of equally unappealing ideologies, the likes of which have not been seen since the WCW vs. NWO-Hollywood vs. NWO-Wolfpac feud of 1998.
There are advantages to making Xavier more irritating and Magneto more sympathetic. It certainly makes both of them deeper, more realistic characters. But there’s a reason fiction tends to prefer stark Manichaeism over shades of gray–people don’t want to hold their nose and back the lesser evil, they want to find a clear favorite to root for. Admittedly, in the real world, we’re always supporting one dickhead to better oppose some bigger dickhead, but in the real world we have to. If I don’t like the state of immigration politics in the US, my only choices are to live with it or try to do something about it. If I don’t like the state of mutant civil rights in the Marvel Universe, I have a third option–I can stop buying X-Men crap and it all goes away. So you can see where I think Marvel has a clear incentive to give me a mutant activist I can truly get behind.
What would help such a character win people over is if he would actually accomplish a goal. Pop quiz, when was the last time the X-Men unequivocally won anything? My first thought was the time they beat Norman Osborn in that Dark Avengers crossover, but when I say “beat” I actually mean they fled American soil rather than fight a lost cause. That’s usually how it goes–they blunder into a storyline and consider it a success if they escape with their lives. Restoring the status quo is a typical and acceptable goal for most superheroes, but that’s because most superheroes prefer the status quo. The X-Men are opposed to the status quo (“world that hates and fears them,” remember?) so every story where they don’t make the world better is sort of a failure for them. What are the X-Men comics doing these days? I guess Wolverine and Cyclops are fighting over who gets to lead the X-Men. What difference does it make? I’m sure it’ll be appealing if you’re into the personal relationship between Scott and Logan, but that’s the selling point of a soap opera, not a superhero story. A superhero story is about getting stuff done; the X-Men tend to just mope about how stuff is hard.