The three prequels to the original X-Men trilogy (2000, 2003, 2006) offer a fun and playful take on key cultural and political moments in recent US history. Rather than mindless superhero action films, they are a thoughtful critique of Cold War diplomacy and post-WWII American society.
X-Men: First Class (2011) is the origin story for Professor Xavier, Magneto, and their mutant cohort. Set in 1962, the film centers on the mounting Cold War catastrophe between the US and USSR, and culminates in a refashioning of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A sadistic Nazi doctor, Klaus Schmidt (a la Josef Mengele), escapes judgment after WWII and seeks to destroy humanity by exploiting Cold War tensions to achieve an atomic war. Magneto is Jewish and wants revenge for the murder of his family by Schmidt. Xavier, on the other hand, aims to save lives by thwarting Schmidt’s scheme.
Together, Magneto and Xavier tackle two huge issues in the post-WWII world: the organized Israeli hunt for Nazis on the run, and the collapse of US-USSR relations. In this telling, Americans and Soviets are both pawns of Dr. Schmidt; the Soviets are not the “bad guys,” Schmidt and the disillusioned mutants who join him, are. In the climatic confrontation between US and Soviet ships off the coast of Cuba, Schmidt and his baddies play the two sides off each other to get well-meaning US ships to fire on seasoned Soviets. Again, neither side is portrayed as the aggressor or victim.
Impressively, the film does not actually alter history (no ships attacked, no atomic war) and takes care to treat events with respect. Clips of President Kennedy on television are employed, and even the names of the vessels involved in the Cuban stand-off are correct (such as the Aral Sea). Moreover, much of the film actually concerns the often overlooked issue of the placement of US missiles in Turkey, which the Soviets perceived as an authentic threat to their security and an act of aggression by the US.
As for culture and social context, First Class has a distinct James Bond vibe, which is appropriate given the cinematic debut of that character in Dr. No in 1962. First Class also subtly comments on gender and power in that era of conformity. The “good” mutants (Xavier’s “X-Men”) exhibit gender and species equality, while the villainous Dr. Schmidt is expressly chauvinistic. In fact, Schmidt’s female partner, Emma Frost, is played by January Jones, who gained fame as the frustrated housewife Betty Draper on the AMC series Mad Men. Like Draper, Frost is subservient, submissive, and sexy. Conversely, the female lead of the X-Men, Mystique, struggles with issues of identity, displays courage and confidence, and commands respect from her colleagues.
In short, First Class offers both a more balanced approach to the Cold War diplomatic narrative and a critique of post-war masculine society.
The next installment, X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), jumps forward ten years to the 1970s and concerns the diplomatic dance to end US involvement in Vietnam. This time, mutants have united to combat the plans of scientist/businessman Bolivar Trask, who has developed killer robots that can absorb mutant powers. Trask aims to convince US military policy-makers that his robots are a necessary defense against the looming mutant threat. The American public is unaware of any such threat, and thus Nixon officials decline funding. Rebuffed, Trask takes his project to the North Vietnamese delegation at the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, where mutants attempt to stop him. Mutant intervention, however, alarms the public and pushes the Nixon administration to embrace Trask and his project. Key scenes in the film involve the Paris meetings, as well as Nixon White House machinations. The insertion of mutants into actual footage of the Paris meetings is especially enjoyable.
Unlike First Class, though, Days of Future Past plays loose with the history and imagines a variety of alternatives for politics and diplomacy in 1973. Nevertheless, the film’s interpretation of Nixon (angry, yet cowardly), its treatment of delicate diplomatic negotiations, and its depiction of early ‘70s ethos is deft. America is portrayed as a society learning to live with mutants as part of its burgeoning culture of diversity. Where do mutants fit? How much is too much diversity? Can mutants be “Mutant-Americans”? These questions are not the focus of the film, but provide interesting cultural context to the action.
Released this summer (and likely still in your local theater), X-Men: Apocalypse is equally rooted in history. Set exactly ten years after Days of Future Past, on the tenth anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords, Apocalypse deals directly with the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and the atomic frenzy and fears of the 1980s. There are scenes of Eastern Bloc life: ironworks in Poland and underground fight clubs in East Berlin. But the film primarily focuses on the apocalyptic nature of superpower brinksmanship.
As the Reagan administration dramatically increased military spending and nuclear weapons stockpiling, the Cold War heightened and crisis loomed. As has recently been uncovered by the National Security Archives, there was actually a second “Cuban Missile Crisis” in 1983: the Able Archer Crisis, wherein US military operations resulted in a global nuclear confrontation with the USSR. Americans were terrified and horrified at the prospect of the destruction of mankind, and contemporary movies, such as The Day After (1983 – the same year as the setting for Apocalypse) reflected those fears. Apocalypse is smartly in that vein, imagining the emergence of a super-mutant from the distant past that threatens to destroy all humanity – a living atomic weapon, if you will. Or, alternatively, the villain represents the hypocrisy of superpower global domination since he repeatedly declares the end of “superpowers,” yet he himself seeks superpower status. Either way, Apocalypse is appropriately named, as it explores how a world armed to the teeth can so easily be destroyed.
These three connected films show three crucial moments in the Cold War, and three distinct periods of American history, all exploring the dangers of militant nationalism and the rights of racial minorities in a majoritarian society. By injecting mutants into the historical narrative, the filmmakers have asked audiences to reassess the nature of “good” and “evil” in an era of superpowers, as well as consider what being “American” means. But, perhaps equally importantly, the films are terrific fun, especially for a summer afternoon.