History in Films: X-Men First Class

Tonight I saw the movie X-Men First Class. What follows are some thoughts about the use of history in the film, all put behind a tag so that those who haven’t seen the film can keep themselves spoiler-free if they want to.

Before the cut, I want to state for the record that I am, or at least have been, a comic book geek. From 4th grade until maybe 8th, I was a huge fan of Marvel Comics; I still read Marvel trade paperbacks (collected issues) on occasion, for particular authors or storylines. I have, however, tried to keep the comic geekery in this post to a minimum, focusing on history geekery instead.

Going into the film, I was aware that it was set in the 1960s – only logical, since that was when the first comics were published. I had not, however, realized that the film included the Cuban Missile Crisis as part of the story arc, and a major part, at that. The film uses archival footage of President Kennedy and news reports, as well as still images of newspaper headlines, to convey the escalating tensions between the USSR and the USA. As I sat in the theater, I thought about the fact that for many people, this would be their first encounter with that footage, possibly with this episode in history.

I am a child of the 1980s. My advanced US history class in high school ended at the start of World War II, mainly, I believe, because we ran out of time. Never in my K-12 years was I taught about the Vietnam or Korean Wars; the only reason I even studied the Cold War is because it was on the International Baccalaureate curriculum my senior year, and I was in the program. I suspect that my experience is fairly normal, although I would be delighted to be wrong. My point is, there’s a fair chance that most of the people under 30 who see this film have not previously encountered the Cuban Missile Crisis, or at least not in an academic setting.

I loved that the filmmakers decided to use actual footage from the event. It also, for me, raises three questions. First, were the writers and filmmakers aware that this might well be the first time their audience ever saw this footage? If so, did that in any way affect what they chose to use?

Second, what will it be like for children and young teens who see this footage for the first time in this movie, when they later encounter it in a class? Will it be a moment of disorientation, or seem really cool, or not even register?

Third, how many people, of any age, will watch the film and think “Did that really happen? The missiles in Cuba?” or “Hey, I remember hearing about Cuba and missiles and Kennedy. What happened?” How many of them will go to a library, or (more likely) Google to seek out more information on the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis? How many will be inspired to read a book? I can’t give you numbers on books, but Wikipedia does allow you to see the article traffic on a page.

Screenshot, 11 June 2011 22:58, Wikipedia

X-Men First Class was released on June 3. The number of views on that date is about average. On June 5 and 6 the views are higher than they have been for the previous 30 days, although not drastically so. The average number of hits to the Wikipedia entry on the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 21 days prior to the film’s release was 7.1K, and the average number of hits in the 9 days since the film was released is 8.9K.  I do not have enough knowledge of statistics, and especially not of patterns of Wikipedia hits, to really say if this is significant – maybe someone can offer an analysis in the comments?

Returning the film in general, I appreciated the way it presented the Cold War, and hinted at other social and political forces at play in the 1960s. The X-Men comics series has often served as a metaphor for movements or issues in the US. The 1960s and 70s were a time of minority action and awareness – the Civil Rights Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, action by Native American Indian tribes and rights groups, the Feminist Movement, and so on. The X-Men were a group of people, different, a minority, who were fighting for the good of all the humanoids on Earth, even when reviled by their neighbors. As AIDS became an increasingly urgent and visible issue in the real world, Marvel’s X-Men started to suffer from the Legacy Virus. Whatever the X-Men have been a metaphor for, the message that I, at least, have always taken away is that a peaceful solution is possible and there must understanding from both sides to achieve it.

The movie continued this message, retroactively to the Cold War. We see Americans and Russians being manipulated by an evil individual. During the climactic scene on the seas near Cuba, we see, over and over, the commanders of USSR and USA vessels giving the same orders, having the same reactions. They are all human (and it feels very odd to write that phrase in the context of this movie). The generals and politicians of the USSR are no more fearful or foolish than those of the USA. I am so glad that the story was told this way.

When I was a teenager, I went to St. Petersburg, Russia, as part of a church youth pilgrimage. Our adult chaperones had all been raised at the height of the Cold War, while none of the youth had even been 10 when the USSR cracked and fell. We had no problem being in Russia, but our leaders were so uncomfortable. They had been raised to equate Russian with Bad Guy, and they could not get over it. The movie could have gone that way, but it didn’t. The choice to show the humanity of all sides was, I feel, consistent with the overall message of the X-Men comics.

(okay, comic geekery here. I adored the Wolverine cameo – consistent with the canon set up by Wolverine: Origin, and so hilarious! I could not stop laughing!)

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One comment

  1. Janice Dean · · Reply

    I also loved the Wolverine cameo! Ahahahahaha!!

    More seriously, I am happy to report that my AP US History class, which I took during the 2001-2002 academic year, ended with a (very) brief discussion of the 2000 presidential election (in particular, I remember an explanation of the involvement of the Supreme Court). We actually discussed the Cold War at reasonable length, including a section on the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    Interestingly, during the previous academic year the honors and AP history classes took a field trip to see a matinee of “Thirteen Days,” the excellent movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Having said all that, I admit that I didn’t really understand at the time (and still don’t) what happened during the missile crisis. I think, as you mentioned, that it was hard to imagine what that event was like without having the experience of being alive during the Cold War. After seeing “X-Men: First Class” I did think about brushing up on missile crisis. Maybe I can find a short-ish book on the topic, and then we should get together to watch “Thirteen Days.” 🙂

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