Monday, June 27, 2011

An Uncanny Attempt At Importance

I've now seen the three comic book movies that have so far been released this summer and, of the three, X-Men: First Class is the most entertaining (I rank Green Lantern second and Thor third). There is a lot to look to for X-Men's quality: the lead performances by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are very good; the movie doesn't bog down in exposition like so many others; some of the special effects, particularly the power of the evil mutant Azazel, are not as fake-looking as everything in Thor. It's a fun movie and that should be enough for a lot of movies, especially anything that comes out between Memorial Day and Labor Day. X-Men: First Class strives to be a bit more than just fun and its failure to do so makes it effectually worse than even Thor (can you tell I didn't like it?) when looked at on any level above pure escapism.

In his essay collection, Eating the Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman discusses advertising strategy in a Mad Men world. He argues that we as viewers grasp the perfection of Don Draper's Kodak speech in the first season because we understand that advertising is not selling us a product, but rather our feelings about a product. That may not be something that people understood fifty years ago, but we buy something because we understand what intangibles a brand is selling and we want to be associated with that brand (his actual example in the book is Obama and Pepsi). I argue that we don't look for not-so-hidden themes in advertising, but in everything we watch. Maybe it's the advertising that conditioned us to do this, maybe it's the other way around, but it's why people immediately jumped at Avatar and its anti-imperialism message. Yes, that notion could not have been any more clear in that movie, but neither could the Lost Cause mythology have been any more clear in Gone With The Wind and it's only recently that I hear people discussing that.

We look for the hidden meaning in things that we watch and those who make what we watch know it. Again, this is most clear in advertising because it is usually something we are watching for free and they try to provide impetus for us to act, but it is of course true in movies or television. Cameron wanted us to think about the War in Iraq when he made Avatar, just like Lucas did in the Star Wars prequels. Similarly, a movie can be made devoid of hidden meaning so that viewers are encouraged to enjoy it only at face value (prime example: Gladiator). Movie makers have been doing this for a long time, to be sure, but the major discourse of these themes had been the purview of critics until blogs democratized that flow of thought. People like to deconstruct what they watch and so it is no coincidence when a movie tries to reveal a theme to make itself more interesting than it may be at face value. Enter: X-Men: First Class.

A mild spoiler warning for what comes after the jump.

The themes within the X-Men franchise have been apparent since it began as a comic book. There are people who are different than us. We, as "normal" society, persecute those who are different. In the case of the X-Men, the differences happen to be pretty awesome and are used to save us from a variety of catastrophes, but we still are scared of the differences and react negatively because of that. That's just inherent in any X-Men story. X-Men: First Class tries to up the ante a bit by working in some more overt references to this inherent civil rights struggle. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an op-ed about the film in the paper of record and I agree with his thoughts on a problem with the movie, but I'm pointing out something different. It's not just that they were tone-deaf on the racial aspects of the movie (they were), but that they tried not to be and tried in a half-assed, wink-wink way.

The movie takes place in 1962, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This time setting allows the movie to use fun costumes and be hip in a British Invasion counterculture sort of way. In fact, a decent amount of the visual qualities made me think of Austin Powers. It allows McAvoy to be flippantly cool as a Brit even though he's playing a decidedly un-flippant, un-cool character in Charles Xavier, and it allows Fassbender as Erik Lensherr (Magneto) to be earnestly anti-Nazi as a Holocaust survivor at a time when real Nazis could be hunted down in Argentina. Setting something fifty years ago is not good enough when you want to be clever in a wink-wink way (it was enough for Hornby in An Education when he was clever in a legitimate way), so they work in a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" joke regarding a mutant hiding in order to speak to modern audiences. They also tried to hit on timeless themes of oppression by having a black character mention slavery and by working in a menorah lighting in one of Lensherr's memories to remind us that he and his mother were pleasantly Jewish until the Nazis snatched them up. No bother that they got the actual mechanics of menorah lighting wrong.

It's these sorts of references that so greatly annoy me. The "we are different and everyone hates us" theme is vocalized later in the film and set up as the overarching theme for the X-Men story. If the writers had left it with just that discussion at the end and the Holocaust at the beginning, we could have drawn a line. Instead, they had to insert these little pieces to, I presume, take our attention away from the fact that it is a rather formulaic movie. It's okay to be a good formulaic comic book movie (see: Iron Man, Spider-Man, Superman II) and it's okay to have a greater message, even in a comic book movie (see: The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2), but it's only okay to have it both ways if you commit all the way to one or the other. The smartest recent movies and TV shows are those that go all the way: Mad Men and Black Swan take some time to unravel; Louie and The Social Network hide nothing in how frank they are.

X-Men is an entertaining movie, but it wants to be greater than it is. Not everything has to be more than just entertaining on the most basic level. A lot of times -- like yesterday, when I went to see Green Lantern -- that's all I want and I don't suggest that anyone should take any movie at more than face value. The problem is that X-Men wants badly to be taken at more than face value and it attempts to do so, badly.

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