For the better part of the past decade, moviegoers have gotten a new batch of comic-book adaptations every summer. The trend continues in 2011 with Captain America, Thor, Green Lantern, and the latest film in the X-Men franchise, X-Men: First Class.
Set in the 1960s, First Class goes back to the origins of the mutant team, before leader Professor Xavier and archenemy Magneto became foes. And as the just-released trailer for the film reveals, this prequel has an unexpected political twist.
It seems that the X-Men intervene in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now, there are a couple different directions this could go: a) President John F. Kennedy is, for whatever reason, unable to stop Soviet aggression himself, so it’s up to our heroes to save the day, or b) the X-Men have to get involved because the United States and the Soviet Union are both hell-bent on settling their differences in the most violent way possible rather than talking to each other. Either scenario could pan out—we all know how Hollywood feels about America and Communists, but we also know how much leftists revere JFK, and may be reluctant to portray the country as too evil under him.
The trailer doesn’t give us much to go on—we see Magneto taking out a Soviet soldier and lifting a (American?) submarine into the air, though given that his increasing hatred of all humanity is sure to factor into the plot, these can’t yet be declared representative of what the movie says the good guys should have done. We also see an unidentified character fighting a few gun-toting men in black suits—Secret Service, maybe? But again, we don’t know how the action fits into the story.
The X-Men franchise has always been politically charged—the original story of people hated and feared because of the mutant powers they were born with was originally meant as an allegory for racism, and this theme showed up in the previous films as well, with critics inferring messages about everything from gay rights to McCarthyism. These parallels have never been a perfect fit, in part because Russian spies really were out to get us, but mostly because fearing people who can level entire city blocks if they’re not careful is just a teensy bit more rational than fearing people with different skin colors or sexual orientations.
Still, the core message is a valuable one which gave the films a bit more depth than the average superhero blockbuster, and the trilogy actually turned out to be fairly pro-American—X2: X-Men United’s villain was a renegade acting largely against the president’s wishes and without the president’s knowledge, and the X-Men fought alongside American soldiers to ward off Magneto’s forces in X-Men: The Last Stand.
Perhaps future X-Men films could freshen up the prejudice theme by taking a cue from The Incredibles and exploring how hatred of those with extraordinary abilities is sometimes rooted not in fear of newness and change, but in jealousy and radical egalitarian impulses to erase every kind of natural inequality. But before we start speculating about how conservative the X-Men’s future could get, we’ll have to see how far their First Class drifted to the left.