1.7 Gigawatts And It’s Back to …1973!
The X-men franchise is getting on a bit. It’s always been pretty good,what with the original crew headed up by Hugh Jackman bearing the standard. Some of the entries across the 7 or so films have been less interesting than the others, but overall, the X-men movies are the movies that keep delivering for Fox.
Spoiler alert. Don’t proceed if spoilers would ruin it for you.
What’s Good About It
1973. Come on, you thought I wouldn’t say so? It’s a little bit like ‘X-men does American Hustle’. It even features Jennifer Lawrence who was quite convincing as a denizen of the 1970s in ‘American Hustle’. The scenes of a very hairy Wolverine and Charles Xavier driving around in a Cadillac and wearing brown leather jackets, sporting sideburns was quite fitting. The mimesis of the film is Part ‘French Connection’, part ‘Twelve Monkeys’, part ‘Dick’, but also part ret-conning the ‘X-men First Class’ movie on to the older X-men movies, this one has some interesting moments of character interplay. And really, it helps a comic book movie greatly if the characters give you something more than just smashing through stuff.
What’s Bad About It
I’m not sure the movie makes sense by its own logic. There’s something of the story that leaves you a bit miffed when at the climax the bad future fades and disappears. Only Wolverine and Charles Xavier know what happened but there’s no real objective evidence for it having happened. In that sense it shares the problems of “it was all a bad dream” ending.
What’s Interesting About It
I undersold this movie in the introduction above. It’s actually a great sentimental movie, pulsing with the love for these characters. It’s downright melodrama, but there’s enough of an edge to it to let you forget how melodramatic the story is. The best bits of the film are things like the scene where Wolverine makes the young Charles promise he will put together the X-men and find Jane Gray, Scott and Storm. If we didn’t know how important that was – having seen the earlier films – then how could we ever weigh up the importance of Wolverine’s plea?
Some people won’t like the sentimentalism of this nature, but after 6 other X-men movies it seems acceptable to have one rendition where everybody is being brought together for great stakes, and for once we get to see past the comic book superhero facade. It’s interesting that after 5 films and 1 cameo, Hugh Jackman is exerting such moral authority with his Wolverine character. It’s interesting when the young and old Charles Xavier talk. It’s interesting when Magneto takes matters into his own hands twice, once as an old man and once as a young man and each time he fails.
The Suffering Of Magneto
Magneto is actually the emblematic character in the X-men movies. The whole cycle of movies started way back when with a beginning rooted in Auschwitz, where we first saw the mutant powers of a Jewish boy who could magnetically manipulate metals, remotely. Having survived the Holocaust, Magneto is hyper-motivated not to suffer the same fate of being on the end of an extermination campaign just because he is a mutant.
Effectively he is facing a pogrom for the second time in his life when the film starts, so in some ways his determination to fight for his cause is far more understandable. As villains go, Magneto’s motivation is possibly the most sympathetic. The irony is that he himself is some kind of Nietstzchean superman, so when he decides to take matters into his own hands, he has essentially given in to the inner fascist implanted into him in his childhood. It’s totally tragic, because it’s almost the moral mirror image of ‘Schindler’s List’ – to survive, he thinks he has to put together a list of people who have to die.
As with all the installments, it is Charles Xavier who has to appeal to his compassion and sense of justness to rein in the runaway fury, but no matter how many times I go back to these X-men movies I can’t but help think that may be Charles is fundamentally wrong about the universe he inhabits. If there were mutants with such powers, there may well be a struggle for survival and Magneto would be entirely justified in being as radical as he is. It’s a scary thought that puts me in the shoes of Peter Dinklage’s character Bolivar Trask. It’s actually quite uncomfortable to watch at times.
Tolerance And Takei
On a tangential note, the film has had mixed press about its racial politics. The film kicks off with a multi-cultural, multi-racial bunch of mutants in the future, but they give way to the same old heroic white people in the middle where it counts. I get the criticism for this sort of critique but on another level, it’s not like it’s the only film that’s guilty of populating the important story arc with heroic white people. It’s probably some progress Hollywood wants to do things this way than not at all.
Importantly, the film references the original series of Star Trek, which must have been the grand-daddy of all tolerance texts in the history of American screen culture. We see Captain Kirk babbling on about a time travel scenario, and it cuts to George Takei as Mr. Sulu. Mr. Sulu and Lt. Uhura broke huge ground for non-white actors, and consequently the position on tolerance in American society itself. Not only has George Takei stood up for the Asian community, he’s been a vocal activist for the LGBT cause, so it’s very evocative to see the ‘Star Trek’ cuts in this film, and reflect on the distance traveled since 1973.
“Dickie’s Such An Asshole”
Inevitably, the film features a fictional Richard Nixon. This portrayal of Nixon doesn’t have the punch of other portrayals; he’s barely there. The gag of the tape recorder in the drawer getting turned off was funny, but otherwise it was a very odd portrait of Nixon, largely untainted by Watergate. I guess we need to be tolerant of a President in history full of interesting foibles too.
The more interesting aspect of going back to 1973 probably is the fact that the last years of the Nixon administration were the years in which faith in the American government was destroyed. not only did America lose the Vietnam war – which is of course touched upon in the story of this film, Nixon ending the gold standard essentially cut the world’s currencies adrift, and with it unleashed a multitude of valuation and therefore moral relativism. Part of the reason why the 70s hangs so heavy over this film as well as ‘Captain America: Winter Soldier’ has its roots in the disintegrating trust in the public institutions that ensued.
The end of the monolithic government started with Richard Nixon and Watergate and really has culminated with Wikileaks and Snowden-in-exile. Is this all Nixon’s fault? Most definitely not, but it is an interesting thing to see both Captain America and X-men round in on the Nixon administration as a cornerstone of its re-tellings of history. In that sense, it has a great deal in common with ‘The Watchmen’ where the reign of Nixon’s Presidency does not end and goes into the 1980s. On one level, it arguably did.