The Quintessential Mutants of America

My first column from The Times, looking at the generally spectacular X-Men flick, is up:

But as "First Class" roars to its final climatic scene, it appeals to an insidious suspension of disbelief; the heroic mutants of America, bravely opposing bigotry and fear, are revealed as not so much a spectrum of humankind, but as Eagle Scouts from Mayfield. Thus, "First Class" proves itself not merely an incredible film, but an incredible work of American historical fiction. Here is a period piece for our postracial times -- in the era of Ella Baker and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the most powerful adversaries of spectacular apartheid are a team of enlightened white dudes.

OK, so not totally spectacular, but a good film nonetheless. More after the jump. Please don't read if you haven't seen First Class, but plan to.

On my first viewing, I didn't fully experience the film because after they turned Darwin into Crispus Attucks, I was in shock. At that moment I started looking at the film through a different lens. It occurred to me that I was watching a period piece which seemed blind to its own period.

I'm not arguing that X-Men should have been "about" the Civil Rights Movement, or that black characters should be immortal. The appropriate comparison for me is Mad Men. The show is about an exclusively white world, but it is never blind to race. I can't think of only one "racial" story-line, and I am fine with that. But race is always there, in the subtext, in the side comments, in the jobs which black people work. I'm struggling to say this because I think these debates often devolve into a call for tokenism. But tokenism isn't awareness and I would hate for anyone to think I'm arguing for that.

At any rate, I went to see the film again a second time this week to fact-check the column. On that go-round, I was better able to just appreciate its artistry. It is easily one of my top five comic book movies ever, and significantly better than any of the other X-movies to date.

One final thought: There's been some discussion about my omission of women in this column. To the direct point, the "era of Ella Baker and Martin Luther King Jr." and the "team of white dudes" was an intentional sentence.

But in a broader sense, I wasn't really interested in how X-Men comports with the liberal dream of America, so much as I was interested in the fact that the X-Men were conceived during the same year as the March on Washington, the same year Malcolm X gave his "Message To The Grassroots" speech, the same year Medgar Evers was shot, the same year white supremacists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Beyond that, I actually thought the film did a good job at least nodding to the sexism of the era. Moira Mactaggert is clearly not taken seriously because she's a woman. Emma Frost is ordered to go "fetch" some ice. I'm not saying the film was perfect on this score. (More on that here.) But I thought in terms of some sense of an awareness of history, it at least made an attempt. 

I think that when you are lucky enough to write in a prominent place, there's some sense that you must not just represent your own views, but those of your comrades in struggle. (We've debated this a bit before in terms of representing African-Americans.) I understand the frustration--I doubt that there will be a Times column analyzing First Class from the perspective of gender.

But the salient point, for me, is to always write first, and represent second. To do it in reverse, would result in a poorly written mush of liberal complaint which would, I assure you, represent no one well.