11 June 2011

A Demon and Mutants and Russians, oh my

Just one thing first: I love Beast when he turns blue.

Having seen the new X-Men film recently, I found it both wonderful and problematic. It suffers from the same problem all X-Men films prior to this have (too many characters, not enough screen time), but the problems I saw with this film went beyond that.

The basis for this story is the friendship and then the distance between Professor X and Magneto. The necessary development of this friendship is sparked by the common enemy faced in Sebastian Shaw (and the clever explanation of the Cuban Missile Crisis). However, for being the entire point (or nearly the entire point) of the film, it is very thin and not well written. I cannot fault either Michael Fassbender or James McAvoy for their performances. Both men are wonderful actors, but even the best actors can do only so much with a bad script. I find Magneto's characterization to be the less problematic of the two. He is given a very clear history, a reason for his rage and hatred. He is almost fully 3-dimensional. He is a character with a clear origin, his conflict is very explicit and easy to understand (and with which to sympathize), and what drives him is simple and unambiguous. His is a story about revenge. Fassbender plays the character with subtlety and nuance. He has a very clear motivation, but he does not let the character he is playing become a caricature. The rage that drives him gives his character focus and clarity. He is single-minded but not innately cruel. He saves his savage cruelty for those he feels have wronged him: the man who killed his mother; the banks that facilitated the Nazi theft of Jewish gold, livelihoods, names; the men who fled justice for the atrocities they committed. But when it comes to others like him (other mutants), Magneto does not take out his irrepressible rage and his hatred for humanity on them. He controls himself; what drives him does not dehumanize him. Fassbender's portrayal of Magneto is often wide-ranging and yet he is not over the top or campy in how he plays the character. He feels real, genuine and sympathetic. Charles Xavier, however, is a pale and paltry character in comparison.

Xavier's introduction is so narrow and brief compared to that of Magneto. The scene feels to be simply a placeholder--a brief catalytic blurb to explain the presence of Raven (Mystique) later in his life as a friend/companion. He seems to be a sweet little boy, but there is no substance to the introduction, no explanation as to his nature, or how he copes with what he knows to be is his difference. As a young man, he is little better. His mutation lends itself to a very superficial explanation as to why he researches the nature of human mutation, but he feels to be a caricature rather than a fully fleshed person. His motivations are never explained, nor is what drives him. He turns into this big cuddly feel-good character who appears to have empathy with everyone, but he lacks subtlety and depth. He bonds with Magneto, but there is never any evidence that he gets anything out of the relationship. Repeatedly through the film he refers to Magneto as 'my friend,' but there is never any true development of that friendship. He fishes Magneto out of the water and all of a sudden they're best buds. There is no explanation as to what binds them to one another; Xavier does not have clear motivations or goals, nor does he have any real reason for being there other than he is. McAvoy plays the character as well as he is able, and he does drag up what is inherently a badly written character, but there is a point where not even a virtuoso performance would give the character any more than is written on the page.

There were other, peripheral aspects of the film that were admirable. Especially the gathering of mutated young people, which lent itself well to discussion of their mutation as a parallel to the natural awkwardness and feelings of Otherness that everyone experiences while going though the painful experience of adolescence. Each of the young mutants feels alone and isolated because of how different they are. Each is trying to hide or to fit in, and they struggle with the dichotomy of being fascinated by one another's differences and wanting nothing more than to be normal. For the first time in their lives they're among people like them (or as unlike them) and they can truly be themselves. The scene in the lounge where they show off each of their powers is beautiful because they're kids being kids, but they're so different from 'real' people that it makes the feelings of being different that they're experiencing more universal.

One of the most moving and intriguing parts in the scene is when Angel Salvadore says that she would rather have men look at her without her clothes on than to look at her the way the government agents did when they were teasing the 'freaks.' This is an interesting commentary on the nature of self-objectification and ostracism. When Angel voluntarily objectifies herself (dancing), she is in control of the situation. As much as she may hate some of her customers, she is in a position where it is (at least apparently) her choice. However, when she is ridiculed by the men at the compound, it is a kind of attention over which she has no control, and that is deliberately malicious. Angel exemplifies the need to be in control, and how not being in control is what makes one a victim. She was not victimized in her previous line of work, but to be made helpless to stop the ridicule and the reality of the social rejection is unbearable.

Mystique later has a similar series of moments with Hank McCoy and Magneto. Her relationship with Hank starts out promising--he is fascinated by her mutation, and having a physical deformity of his own, they relate well to one another in their desire to look 'normal.' However, it is Magneto's stance on the opposite side of the argument that is wonderful and truly beautiful. When he calls Mystique out on dividing her focus between her appearance and any other task at hand, forcing her to revert to her natural blue form, she is puzzled and conflicted. Hank's rejection of her natural blue form reinforces what Magneto is trying to show her--she is torn between the idea that she is beautiful and unique, that she shouldn't have to hide or be ashamed, and the fact that the one person whom she thought would understand and accept her exactly as she is tells her that her natural form will never be beautiful. The culmination of these moments in the bedroom scene with Magneto is breathtaking. When he looks at her and demands to see the real her and not some facsimile she thinks he will find appealing, and when he looks at her in her true form and deems her 'perfection,' is one of the most moving moments in the film.

That is the most important message I think these films are trying to convey: self-acceptance. Yes, these are a franchise that are built on comic books and made to please the fans, but the writers sometimes are getting things right. They're allowing (some of) the characters to explore what it really means to be human. That is the whole point of the genre of science fiction. It gives us an Other to show how we're united in our humanity. This particular franchise is about how we're all connected, we're all important, and we're all unique. And accepting that about ourselves is the first step toward understanding and tapping our full potential.

On another, lighter critical note: I really wish that Riptide and Azazel had actual speaking parts (I'm not sure that fewer than 10 words counts as a true 'role'), and I disliked how Azazel's name was pronounced (as a variation on an Hebraic name, the emphasis would be on the first syllable, not the middle one).


  1. To be honest, I like viewing the character of Xavier a bit differently.

    We have a character of wealth, intelligence, physical attractiveness and a gift for social interaction. He's been able to (apparently) breeze through life with little effort and who's gifts are subtle and hidden from the world. He hasn't had the internal or external struggle that the other major mutant characters have had. He's NORMAL, for all intents and purposes.

    Due to his normality, he shows a surprising lack of actual empathy with the other characters. He is a telepath, able to experience the lives, memories and thoughts of any other person on a level that is the same as being that person. Yet, for all this power, he constantly missteps and says the wrong things. His own... hubris perhaps? privelege? prevents him from truly realizing his gift(s).

  2. ARGH!!!... Comment unfinished!

    Ok, so as I was in the middle of saying.

    This puts an interesting spin on the idea of a telepath. His inability to process and predict the reactions of others are what causes the major breaking of the relationships he holds most dear. It isn't until the bullet severs his spine that he begins the growth and development into the true telepath/leader/empath that the comic paints him as.

    Ok, done... I think

  3. I think you're reading far too much into the character that was presented. The writing for Charles was thoroughly lacking: he wasn't presented as a slightly bumbling but sympathetic character--he was completely flat. There was absolutely nothing about the character to suggest why anyone agreed to go along with him (other than MacTaggert who needed mutants to fight mutants, but it didn't matter which mutants she got), nor anything to suggest why anyone would consider him a friend (except for the implicit taking care of Mystique).

  4. True, I admit to reading into the situation.

    As the character of the film is somewhat flat and we see him merely being a plot point, in order to bring the mutants together and focus their powers, I was fascinated with the idea of the implications if his lack of depth was a deliberate choice rather than a function of the writing, directing or editing.

    I'm admit to guilt in this case of thinking zebra when hearing hooves, but I thought it was a fun idea and would have been an interesting. discussion