Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Best X-Men Movie

I wrote before about how good the class revolutionary themes in X-Men: Apocalypse were, but it's still only second to the first X-Men prequel "First Class." (Sadly "Days of Future Past" is both terrible and forgettable, which is a dismal combination, with the exception of its Quicksilver scene.)

Fine, fine, we can watch the DoFP scene again. And turn the sound back on.

On a pure "convince your buddies to watch this" level, this is arguably the best Marvel movie to date. Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and James McAvoy are some of the best actors and actresses in any Marvel movie, and they're used well in places where they can showcase their emotional talents, rather than a) spout sarcastic dialogue or b) deliver lots of weighted exposition.

The Xavier/Magneto split is one of the better origin stories for major comic book characters. It's got the pathos of grown men making decisions that are both terrible, and understandable from both sides. Okay, it goes all in for that liberal ideology of "everyone's trying for good in their own way" and Xavier's "peaceful gradual change will win the day," but this is still a lot more interesting than the fascism inherent in "street scum killed my parents so now I will haunt them."

Apply the best actors, to the best origin story, and you unsurprisingly have a pretty good movie, just so long as you don't mess anything else up. But the purpose of this blog is not to convince your buddies to watch the movies you like. The purpose of this blog is to figure out what is seriously going on in these works of art. And while First Class could have rested on its laurels with the cast and story it made the much better decision to do something interesting.



The promise inherent in this prequel trilogy, which FC pulls off best, is to set each of these movies a decade apart, and make them into period pieces and pastiches of the genre we associate with that decade. Since the sixties movie is somewhat about the "discovery" of mutants, it's easier to make this into an espionage filled Bond movie, complete with Cold War tension cliches. At the same time it deals with X-men's most fundamental metaphor, which is that these mutants are akin to "discovering" sexual minorities live all around us.

Combine that, and you get a Bond movie about sexual liberation. And yes that is as fantastic as it sounds. You've got the surreal scene starting in Shaw's decadent office with him asking (the powerful telekinetic and telepath) Emma Frost to get him some ice, pulling out to the war-station computer banks of his military craft, pulling out to the submarine touching the surface to let Emma out, where she can carve some ice off a glacier. It's just a great throwback to the ostentatious spy-porn of yesteryear.



Speaking of Emma, she's just such a great character emblematic of the whole movie and symbolic identity politics' attempt to be post-material and post-political. She is naturally one of the most powerful mutants, but has no trouble being a subordinate (both professionally and romantically) to Shaw. She wears the sixties bombshell villainess outfit. She deals with this by telling herself it doesn't really matter, and this sort of subordination isn't really "her" - which is best epitomized in the scene with the Russian General, where she allows her body to be sold as the goods for a transaction that gets Shaw the missile codes he wants (or whatever.) Of course she cynically watches the whole encounter, because it's not "really" her being molested, but a psychic projection she is creating. Exploitation is okay if you can detach yourself from the experience, she tells her self. (And how different is that from the intro scene where Moira Taggart strips down to infiltrate a gentleman's club on behalf of the CIA?)

Way to make this thematically fit with a mutant whose body is literally a precious gemstone. (A side effect of which is that she thinks she is utterly immune to attack, but she forgets that she can still be constricted.)

And at the other end of the exploitation spectrum, we have a lower-class stripper who Charles and Eric find on their adorable cross country road trip of mutant awareness. As they tell the all-too-young-for-this girl "You show us yours, and we'll show you ours."

Xavier and Magneto are the source of a lot of homoerotic tension and fan-writing, of course. The movie keeps it at the subtext, with Eric trying to show off that he can stop a bullet point blank from hitting his head, but Charles redirecting him to greater displays of power. It's all very flustering.

Sleazeball Xavier though may be the best addition. As the world's greatest telepath, Xavier is famously humanist, wanting to share his liberal love with everyone. Which is great in theory, but when denuded of revolutionary fervor - love in the universal abstract - it can focus on the specific and be more like... a pansexual Lothario who wants to get in everyone's bed, and uses his deep understanding of people to do that.

And then they bring in Mystique as the correct revolutionary who sees through this. Early on she pretty clearly wants Xavier's attention, and try to cuddle-flirt with him, hoping to replace all these women he is going through with herself, throwing in some troubling sibling-confusion themes. But that doesn't really work.

Let's go back a second and reiterate how awesome it is that the shapeshifter is made the proper revolutionary figure for this trilogy (again, see the Apocalypse review.) As a shifter, one would expect her to be in the more accomodationist faction (like Charles), because she can seamlessly slip into the existing power structure no matter what it is. Zizek describes this as the post-human ideal.

What I think is that today’s capitalism thrives on differences. I mean even na├»ve positivist psychologists propose to describe today’s subjectivity in terms like multiple subject, fixed-identity subject, a subject who constantly reinvents itself, and so on. So my big problem with this is the painting of the enemy as some kind of self-identified stable substantial patriarch to which these multiple identities and constant reinventing should be opposed. I think that this is a false problem; I am not impressed by this problem. I think that this is a certain logic, totally within the framework of today’s capitalism, where again, capitalism, in order to reproduce itself, to function in today’s condition of consumption society, the crazy dynamics of the market, no longer needs or can function with the traditional fixed patriarchal subject. It needs a subject constantly reinventing himself.
Mystique could fit into a capitalist world so well, and profit from it remarkably. Instead she is the one who most actively wants to tear stuff up. Why? Because she suffers this question of identity - is she the skin she crafts herself to be (which Charles encourages her to wear), or is she the monstrous blue scales she is by default (which Eric specifically calls out as the true her, and as more sexually attractive to him)? This purely emotional struggles leads her to identify with all mutants in terms of rescuing them from being caught in the same trap of self-abnegation, that Xavier for all his mind-reading can never really appreciate.


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