X-Men: First Class
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Look, I don’t want to seem like a humorless fogey, someone unable to have fun at a popcorn movie, someone who takes a superhero epic far too seriously when it’s simply intended to be a rousing adventure with a few pompous bits of thumb-sucking philosophizing intended to make 12-year-old boys think there’s something more profound going on than how cool it would be to have supernatural powers and wear things made of Lycra.
But as I sat in the theater and watched the opening moments of the new and highly touted X-Men: First Class unfold before me, I actually considered rising from my seat and demanding that the audience follow me into the lobby in protest of what may be the most sickening misuse of Holocaust imagery ever—and that is saying something. The movie begins, basically, at the gates of Auschwitz, as a Jewish mother is torn screaming from her teenage son. In his agony, he screams, and the fence in front of him begins magically to pull toward him. In this manner, the boy and a character modeled after Josef Mengele learn of the existence of mutant superpowers.
Are you kidding me? I mean, are you (expletive in gerund form) kidding me? Auschwitz? You begin a superhero movie at Auschwitz? Has the world gone mad? We are a mere three generations removed from the slaughter of the six million and it’s all right to turn imprisonment and torture and murder at Auschwitz into a motivating plot point for a character who is also, literally, a human magnet?
It is at this point that enraged readers will doubtless begin to compose condescending emails informing me that the Auschwitz angle was in The Uncanny X-Men issue 12 in the Pleistocene Era of the Comic Book, and that it was an enormous leap forward for the comic-book industry that it was willing to tackle such serious subjects, and that the whole business is only intended to provide a more complete picture of the character who becomes the great adversary of the “men” of the title. They will also, doubtless, point out that the original X-Men film began at the gates of Auschwitz, too, back in 2000, and I didn’t complain about it then, so why am I complaining now? I did see that movie—although, truth to tell, the only thing I remember of it is the British actor Patrick Stewart saying of another character, “He beCAME MagNEEto” and thinking, yet again, that Stewart was some kind of genius to be able to speak that line convincingly enough to prevent audiences across the world from dissolving into hysterical giggling.
I might have been in the bathroom when that opening scene unspooled, or maybe I’m just getting older and my patience is wearing thin and my sense of where the boundaries lie between appropriate and repugnant has become more exacting. But all I could think of, watching what I was watching, was the craft table: That’s the area you can’t see on a movie set where they pile up tons of food and beverages and coffee and snacks for the cast and crew to nosh on between takes and at lunchtime. So when they decide they need more sinister lighting, extras clothed in grey rags with yellow Jewish stars sewn into them and numbers written on their arms in pen can grab a snack and stand around shooting the breeze.
Now, there’s no reason those extras shouldn’t be hanging around the craft tables: They need not starve themselves because they are playing Jews in concentration camps. And after all, there were craft service tables on the set of Schindler’s List, too, and The Pianist, and Sophie’s Choice, and other Holocaust films. The point here is that cinematic depictions of the most monstrous crime in all of human history are problematic by their very nature, and so they need to have at least a modicum of gravity. And modesty—the kind of modesty that recognizes it is impossible for us really to come to any kind of understanding of the evil done, and so whatever it is we are seeing must seek to evoke it in a manner that is respectful to the enormity of the horror.
X-Men: First Class is an act of monumental disrespect—something that turns the Holocaust into the opening “environment” of a cultural experience more akin to the thrills and chills of a roller coaster than a work of art. Later on, near the climax, the boy at the camp gates utters the words “Never again”—the phrase used following the Holocaust as a promise and guarantee that efforts to wipe the Jews off the earth another time cannot be allowed to stand. And it is at this point that he concludes his transformation into the villain of the piece.
Never again? Never again? How—how—how dare you.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.