The first “X-Men” film, directed and co-written by Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects”), framed the mythology of “mutants” as the Civil Rights movement; militant Magneto is the Malcolm X figure, with Professor Xavier as Dr. King. Singer recruited two titans of the Shakespearian stage, Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart, to embody the adult roles, which leant the film a certain gravity. Singer’s ambition was to explore these lines of thought in a pop-psychology way, resulting in a blockbuster that the savvy filmgoer didn’t have to defend as a “guilty” pleasure.
The second “X-Men” was similarly ambitious, updating the theme to how nativist Americans see minorities: In “X2”, the mutants are ostracized because they’re different—not just different, mind you, but threatening because they aren’t understood. They’re a problem, so say the senators, and they must be dealt with by legislation like the Mutant Registration Act. The next two “X-Men” films abandoned ambition entirely, so it’s exciting to see a director with ideas (Matthew Vaughn, “Kick-Ass,” “Layer Cake”) back at the helm. This explains the odd framing of the X-Men’s origins around Kennedy voiceovers of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender ably impersonate younger versions of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, whose relationship fractures violently in only the way tight bonds can. The film returns to its civil rights roots, with long debates about the nature of difference and assimilation. The Cuban Missile Crisis might seem a tad overwrought for blockbuster material, but the script draws lines from the Holocaust to the rise of America to the confrontation with communism. The world doesn’t reboot after the Fuhrer and the Emperor surrendered. Magneto’s mistrust makes sense in context of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, and perhaps Xavier’s rhetoric seems naïve, especially on the brink of destruction. Unfortunately, Kevin Bacon can’t carry the weight of all this on his shoulders, but consider the franchise rebooted.