Way back in 2003, writing about X-Men 2, I wrote the following: "A more subversive queer subtext can be derived from Mystique, whose character suggests a polymorphous transgender sexual revolution. She's the ultimate genderbending mind-fuck; the perfect sexual object, one that can take the shape of your heart's desire. Furthermore, she likes it and is unrepentant about it." I'm kind of surprised to be resurrecting this line of thought concerning X-Men: First Class (2011, directed by Matthew Vaughn), but this theme isn't even subtextual anymore. I mean, it's true that the X-Men have always been a vehicle for examining the oppression of any given "other," but what Mystique articulates in this movie, and how it relates to both Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr seems to me to be unmistakable. It causes some serious problems for the movie itself--as was the case with X-Men: Last Stand, the villains have the moral high ground in this movie--but, damn, it makes the movie more fun to watch than any other dumb tentpole movie this year.
This is kind of a reboot by way of a prequel. It's set in 1962 (the year the X-men were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby), and it posits an alternate American history where the Cuban Missile Crisis was not a battle of the Cold War, but was, rather, the first volley in the battle between humanity and mutants. The instigator of the crisis is Sebastian Shaw, who heads the shadowy Hellfire Club. Shaw wants to kindle a war between the superpowers because humanity can only lose, while mutants will only gain. "We are children of the atom," he explains to his followers. Shaw isn't the only mutant stepping onto the world stage, though. There's also Erik Lehnsherr, who can command the forces of magnetisim. Shaw and Lehnsherr are old acquaintances; it was Shaw who oversaw the awakening of Magneto's power in the dark bowels of Auschwitz. He also killed young Erik's mother in front of him. Meanwhile, Charles Xavier has made himself one of the world's authorities on mutants and finds himself in England with his childhood friend, Raven, who burns with an unrequited love for Xavier. Raven is a blue-skinned shapeshifter who disguises her mutation with her powers. Xavier is recruited by CIA agent Moira McTaggert to advise the agency on how to deal with Shaw. The paths of all of these characters eventually collide. Charles and Erik wind up working together to found a school for mutants, while Shaw and his agents--notably the telepath, Emma Frost--work to undermine the peace of the world. It all comes to a head in Cuba.
In terms of its plot, X-Men: First Class is basically a Bond movie, complete with gadgets and convertible submarines and grandiose evil plots. Like a Bond movie, it's a globetrotter, too. And Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon, is an archetypal Bond villain. Although the movie provides a variety of mutants, the primary players in this movie are again Xavier and Magneto, who evolve competing ideologies during the course of the movie. Caught between them are Dr. Hank McCoy, boy genius and Beast-ly mutant, and Raven Darkholme, shapeshifting pariah. The movie is scrupulous about allegorizing Xavier as an MLK figure while presenting Magneto as Malcolm X, and it's clear that the X-Men universe chooses Xavier. His team constitutes "the good guys," but nothing is so cut and dried with the X-Men. The comics have a thirty year history of shifting the burden of villainy and heroism back and forth between players. The movies have copied this.
There's a new batch of mutants filling out the rest of the cast. Prime among them is the sinister Emma Frost, The White Queen of the Hellfire Club. The rest of the villains are Azazel, a teleporter who looks vaguely demonic (fortunately, the movie doesn't extrapolate on his comic book origins, which are pretty silly, actually), Riptide, who creates controlled tornadoes, and Pixie, who has insectile wings and spits energy bolts. January Jones's Emma Frost excepted, the villains don't get much chance to make an impression as characters. They're mainly identifiable by their powers. The new crop of X-Men don't fare much better. The movie isn't very interested in Banshee and Havok and it kills off Darwin before he can actually do anything.
In a way, this is all to the movie's benefit. Without being distracted by, for instance, Wolverine's mysterious past or Jean Grey's doom, it can focus on its primary themes. Xavier and Magneto get to fence more in this film as ostensible friends than they did in the previous films as enemies. Not to take anything away from Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, but James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender sparkle in the roles (and I'm not just saying that because the movie is an excuse for me to imagine them in a hot, nekkid embrace...). Though good as they are, the actor who really steps up to the plate here is Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique. She's eighty times the actress that Rebecca Romijn is, and she gives the character depths that were never even hinted at in the first three movies, while making the same kind of visual impression.
Which brings me back to Mystique and Hank McCoy. Both of them have mutations that they have to disguise. Hank feels a need to assimilate. He longs for a "normal" life. I think it's interesting that McCoy's ultimate attempt at assimilation blows up in his face. He's a closet case who has been outed against his will. Mystique is different. She's unashamed of her mutation and chafes at having to hide it. She would rather be out and proud than hide in a closet. As a matter of principle, I tend to side with Mystique on this point. Human rights should not be contingent on an appeal to the norms of the majority. Mystique rightly points out to Xavier that it's easy for him to assimilate with and defend the dominant culture: he not only has economic privilege, but he passes for "normal." It's entirely different when you wear your minority on your face. This movie is a lot more pointed in its critique of the mechanisms of oppression than its predecessors. Mind you, I tend to view all this through a transgender lens, in part because the previous films have made direct parallels between being queer and being a mutant, but also because of the emphasis on passing for normal. The hypothetical politics in this movie strongly resemble the very real politics of identity and assimilation currently raging in the trans community (and, indeed, in the broader queer community). Of course, you can apply this to any visibly "ethnic" other. That's the thing about allegories: sometimes they're mirrors. I see what I, myself, bring to the movie.