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‘X-Men: First Class,’ Gay Rights, and the Intelligence Community

By Alyssa Rosenberg  

"‘X-Men: First Class,’ Gay Rights, and the Intelligence Community"

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I saw, as I assume many of you did, X-Men: First Class over the weekend. The yawning void that is January Jones notwithstanding, it’s a stylish, fun movie without too much fat on it, with more fun in ten minutes than Thor had in its entirety. It’s an origin story not so much in that it’s introducing us to these characters for the first time, but in that it’s showing us why they behave the way they do towards each other in previous movies, whether it’s shading in the full cruelty of Magneto’s rejection of Mystique when her powers are stripped from her; setting up that Wolverine’s always been a dreadful grouch; or providing a fairly good reason for humanity to be as freaked out by mutants as they are at the beginning of X-Men. But most importantly, the movie’s a great gay rights metaphor with a lot to say about the intelligence community’s inability to adapt to new realities. Spoilers as to why in subsequent paragraphs.

First Class is much more concerned with Magneto’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor than X-Men was in 2000, and it remakes that scene of a little boy tearing down the gates of a concentration camp fence with the sheer power of his need for his family, but with subtle differences that set up his torture and tutelage at the hands of a disguised Sebastian Shaw. But while the movie has a lot of the hallmarks of a Holocaust revenge flick—as an adult, the man who will become Magneto rips the fillings out of a Swiss banker who helped the Nazis and wreaks havoc on a couple of rank-and-file former soldiers of the Reich holed up in Argentina—when it comes to mutant powers, the movie’s less about finding a separate homeland, and more about whether mutants will compromise to fit into human society, or whether they’ll force that society to except them exactly as they are, with no alterations to make anyone more comfortable.

In X2, Iceman’s visit to his parents took the form of a coming-out sequence, complete with confusion and rejection by a sibling. In First Class, those comparisons are even more explicit. When Professor Xavier accidentally outs Hank McCoy to his boss at the CIA (Oliver Platt, gone from the movie too soon), McCoy sheepishly explains “I didn’t ask, so you didn’t tell.” Mystique’s radicalism develops largely from how her Xavier, who has essentially adopted her as a sister, treats her performance of her mutation: he prefers her when she’s disguising herself as an un-mutated human than in her blue-skinned natural state, substituting physical for gender performance. Similarly, her budding relationship with McCoy falters when he develops a serum that could keep her disguised permanently, realizing that he values hiding his mutation more than he values the chance to be with her as she actually is; at the end of the movie, she’ll remind him “Mutant and proud,” before walking away from him. It’s just another variation on Brittany and Santana’s troubled relationship on this season of Glee (which shouldn’t be interpreted as a knock on First Class: that’s been the best part of Glee this year). When Mystique and Magneto sleep together, it feels more like an act of solidarity than a budding romance.

Which makes sense, because Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy as Magneto and Professor X have more chemistry than any of the other sexualized pairings in the movie. Whether Magneto’s telling Xavier “I thought I was the only one” on their first meeting; Xavier’s gently touching the lost, tender parts of Magneto’s mind, unlocking his power and bringing them both to tears; or Magneto’s holding the man he’s crippled and is about to lose on a Cuban beach, I imagine this is an interpretation that will make a lot of shippers very happy. It’s also a nice little rehash of old-school gay rights debates, about whether the goal should be assimilation with straight society or the preservation of a separate, rich gay culture.

The whole thing’s also a very funny riff on how slow the CIA is to adapt to new realities. When Xavier first tries to reach out to the agency, a group of officials refuses to believe mutation is a possibility until Xavier reads—and blows—their minds and Mystique gives them evidence their eyes can’t deny. Even then, the agency hands them over to Platt’s character, who is clearly meant to be smart, but kind of a kook, someone who throws a lot of ideas at the walls before anything sticks. Then, rank-and-file CIA agents immediately offer to sell their new mutant colleagues out when under attack, ranking short-term survival over long-term alliances. And at the end of the movie, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne, who in between this and Bridesmaids, is having herself a nice summer), the only person in the agency who’s seen what the X-Men are and tried to do right by them, ends up with her memory erased by Professor X, and the same superiors who doubted her declaring that the CIA is no place for a woman. History, even fictional history, repeats itself.

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