More Science and Snark on X-Men: First Class

Discriminating readers who have intuited that the new film X-Men: First Class is not a documentary probably already suspect that its science might be a bit askew. For Scientific American, I’ve written a short commentary about some of what it gets wrong about evolution, for example. Still, it looks like those of you who have gathered today outside the moat of my home and stronghold, the Fortress of Sullenness, have some additional questions. Let me answer what I can. Yes, you in the back.

Thank you. Isn’t it customary to warn people at this point that there may be spoilers ahead?

Sure, why not. SPOILER ALERT, people. SPOILERS AHEAD. I don’t think I’ll be saying anything too sensitive. But read at your own risk.

You’ve faulted the way that evolution is presented in the X-Men movies. Does that mean people shouldn’t see this new one?

Of course not. It’s a movie about mutant people with superpowers; surrender of disbelief goes with the territory. The X-Men films aim to be entertaining, not educational. If people find them entertaining, that’s all the excuse they need to go. Moreover, after my Scientific American piece appeared, Zen Faulkes at Neurodojo observed on Twitter (@DoctorZen):

Even when comics get science wrong, it can evoke enough interest for someone to find the real stuff. http://bit.ly/j359vG

Read his linked appreciation of how Marvel Comics helped him get interested in the science of radiation.

I agree with him. Even flawed science in popular culture offers opportunities for introducing people to new ideas and inspiring them to learn more. I didn’t criticize the X-Men version of evolution to condemn it but to highlight that its misunderstandings are probably widely shared.

Did you enjoy the movie?

I did, though with reservations. As a visually rich, big-budget summer blockbuster, it’s full of entertainment value, but I wished some of the heart it showed at the beginning hadn’t succumbed to goofier, far-fetched developments by the end.

This movie, like the original X-Men movie, begins in Auschwitz in 1944, where the desperate struggles of imprisoned teenager Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) against the Nazi guards tearing him away from his parents trigger his latent magnetic powers. The emotional resonance of that moment of wish fulfillment is great for cinema, but unfortunately, nothing else later in the movie can match it—not even the plot-driven threats of genocide and nuclear war.

Fassbender digs into the anti-hero role of Magneto with grim verve and conviction, even if the role does occasionally oblige him to make hand gestures more appropriate to a cruise-ship magician. His passion holds the film together.

He plays opposite James McAvoy as the young Charles Xavier, a.k.a. Professor X:  not yet a true professor and not yet the victim of the crippling accident that will eventually turn him into Patrick Stewart. McAvoy’s portrayal emphasizes the character’s original good-hearted callowness to distinguish it from the seriousness and gravity that Xavier earns over the course of the film. But hearing Xavier try to pick up women in bars by telling them they have “a very groovy mutation” makes it sound too much like he is using his telepathy to channel Mike Myers as Austin Powers. It’s surely a deliberate choice, and an unexpected, funny one, but it may cartoonishly undermine the movie too much later.

Can you comment on some of the other performances, too? Perhaps while making snide observations?

I’ll do my best.

Before the snark kicks in too much, let me say that Jennifer Lawrence deserves credit for her performance. As the lonely shapeshifter Mystique, she may be the beauty that launches a thousand blue latex fetishes, but she is also believably sad and vulnerable.

Nicholas Hault plays Hank McCoy, the kind of scientist most easily found in comic books: he invents experimental jet planes, builds telepathy amplifiers, designs costumes and performs genetic experiments on himself, which is always the hallmark of genius. He also has freaky prehensile monkey feet that allow him to run extremely fast, which makes sense because apes are the fleetest animals in nature.

Vying against Xavier’s mutant team is Kevin Bacon in the role of a villain so evil that he kills and experiments on prisoners for the Nazis just to warm up. He, too, is a mutant: he has the power to work with everyone in Hollywood and to compel small towns to dance against their will. —Nah, just kidding, he absorbs energy, whatever that’s supposed to mean. The point is, he’s extremely evil. Why? We don’t know. We don’t need to know. He has a yacht and a submarine and he wears an ascot. Do not question his evil.

Helping him is January Jones as the world’s most powerful mind-reading lingerie model. In the blink of an eye, she can also change into a diamond-hard crystalline figure, then back to her original wooden form. She hates mankind—I think that expression is supposed to be hate—though to be fair, if I were a lingerie model and could read minds, I’d probably hate mankind, too.

Do you have any other random observations in closing? Perhaps ones with more potential as SPOILERS?

It bothers me that at a crucial point in the story, while on the run from their powerful enemies and the federal authorities, Xavier and his mutants flee to the one place no one will think to look for them: his palatial estate in Westchester County. You know the one—it’s about a mile away from the giant radio astronomy dish. No? Maybe it’s harder to find than I think.

It also drives me crazy that at the film’s climax, when all the main characters face imminent death, one mutant who could save them all stands around idly waiting for the end. And yet when the moment of crisis has passed, he then matter-of-factly uses that power to do what he should have done in the first place. If he were on my team of mutant henchmen, he would get a formal reprimand. (We run a tight ship here at the Fortress of Sullenness.)

Call me crazy, but I think that at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, when the U.S. and Soviet fleets were itchy with anxiety over who might shoot first and start World War III, flying a mysterious unidentified jet aircraft into their airspace might be about the worst possible move.

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5 Responses to More Science and Snark on X-Men: First Class

  1. Pingback: Science News: More Science and Snark on X-Men: First Class – PLoS Blogs (blog) | MiloRiano: Science & Technology news, tips, guides

  2. Gary says:

    As a long long time reader of SA I am glad to see a good sense of humor from a scientific mind.

    Welcome over to the snark side. I’ll be a regular reader. Thanks for blogging.
    G

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  3. I thought Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Mystique was rather weak, actually. The heart of the movie was the Magneto/Xavier doomed bromance, and I thought both those performances were fantastic. Although I found myself rooting for Magneto. Young Xavier just a bit too smug. It’s easy to be all magnanimous and understanding when you didn’t live through the tortures of a Nazi concentration camp. :)

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    • John Rennie says:

      Thanks, Jen. I wouldn’t want to be taken as claiming that Jennifer Lawrence’s performance was great, but at least it had some emotional underpinnings, whereas few of the others did (with the exception of Magneto/Xavier, as you said, which is the mainspring of the movie).

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