Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class is a fascinating depiction of the 1960s. X-Men dabbles in period nostalgia using the Cuban Missile Crisis as a backdrop to explore how the past informs the present. First Class is primarily a historical fantasy that places its characters at the center of the most contentious time in American history. Vaughn’s film exhibits Boym’s idea of historical emotion and how past events can be altered to fit into someone’s fantasy. Svetlana Boym’s notion of nostalgia is broken up into two categories: reflective and restorative nostalgia.
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Nostalgia is defined as missing a home that is no longer in existence or that has never existed in the first place. It is also adoration of one’s fantasies. In X-Men First Class, we see how specific movements in history are discussed through the lens of mutant and human relations. It is no surprise that this film alludes to the civil rights movement, and the treatment of oppressed minority groups that exist in the American landscape. After watching this film, there is one question which needs an answer: What form of nostalgia is X-Men: First Class? In order to answer this question, a clear definition and discussion of the distinction between reflective and restorative nostalgia should be provided.
In Boym’s work, The Future of Nostalgia, she discusses the word “nostalgia” and its usage by a 17th-century medical student named Johannes Hofer. Hofer used “nostalgia” to describe a brain disorder that was affecting Swiss soldiers and others who were far from their homeland. Restorative nostalgia emphasizes the root word nostos which means returning home. From a restorative nostalgists’ perspective, their ‘home’ is always being attacked, so they have this overwhelming urge to protect it. This form of nostalgia focuses on rebuilding what was lost and safeguarding the truth.
On the other hand, reflective nostalgia focuses on the root word algia which means aching. Boym states,” Reflective nostalgia dwells in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance. It lingers on ruins, the patina of time and history, in the dreams of another place and another time” (, p.233-234). Reflective nostalgia can recognize when the past is being idealized, and it is critical of one’s ‘home’ or past. It also highlights possibilities in the past regarding the present – often playfully or with irony. It is also escapist by nature.
What is intriguing about the X-Men franchise, in general, is that it has created its own “alternate history” that is full of intriguing deviations from our interpretation of history — along with similarities that stress the grave mistakes society has made over time. With that being said, I think that First Class is an excellent example of reflective nostalgia. X-Men was first published in 1963 and given that First Class takes the film series back to 1960s allows for a re-evaluation of the series based on the identity politics and social issues that inspired it initially. First Class starts with a young Erik Lehnsherr destroying the gate of a German concentration camp after being split up from his mother. First Class continues with Erik’s heartbreaking childhood, refusing to weaken the correlation between mutant life and the excruciating circumstances that come with being an “other.” Thus, Eric’s motive is no longer based in a horrific historical moment but has become a part of his lifelong mission of fighting social hatred on behalf of the oppressed “other.”
Mutant’s appearance is also an essential part of the film as well. Eric’s Jewishness is more evident than his mutant status. However, when Charles accidentally tells Frank’s secret of him being a mutant to his boss, Frank replies, “You didn’t ask, I didn’t tell,” which refers to the failed military policy Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. This event draws a connection between being a mutant and being in the closet which is associated with queerness. The fact that some mutants can appear “normal” while some are “abnormal” suggests that mutant life stands for all kinds of identity-based stigma with varied visibility (as homosexuality is “invisible,” and race is “visible”).
The film calls into question the social standards of what is deemed reasonable. It is in this way that First Class symbolically addresses the struggle for civil rights not in a historical context associated with the early 1960s. Superhero movies always reflect the social and political climate of their time. First Class is not focused on recreating the 1960s but analyzing and allowing audiences to think critically of the ideas and politics that existed during that time. Social issues such as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia are all mentioned in the film as metaphors or symbols, but the issues are not mentioned directly.
X-Men as a franchise is known for being nostalgic and using different periods to tell their stories. Each film has a historic backdrop of some kind that correlates with a social issue. As a franchise, it is always analyzing and critiquing the ideas and the politics of the past and present.
Since First Class takes place in 1962, during the height of the Cold war, it is considered a Cold War film. It is accurate in its portrayal of historical events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. In Movies to the Rescue: Keeping the Cold War Relevant for Twenty-First-Century Students, Gokcek and Howard discuss how film can be an effective medium in understanding Cold War concepts and politics. For the movie selection, they chose The Undiscovered Country (1991) and Crimson Tide (1995). They argue that big Hollywood films produced after the Cold War are compelling teaching tools to make abstract Cold War concepts more understandable and to motivate college students to become active learners. In terms of nostalgia, it is integral for students to know how policy decisions of the past impact the world in which we live in today.
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In our class, we used films, tv shows, and comic books to help us better understand the Cold War. For example, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) was released to the public while the Cold War was going on. Fear of annihilation was prevalent during this time, so Kubrick decided to make the famous political satire film. Dr. Strangelove poked fun at the people in charge and showed us how easy it would be to wipe out both the US and Russia. Young people can appreciate Dr. Strangelove’s transformation from existential dread into a comedy. It is nostalgic but does not dwell on creating the perfect Cold War scenario where both sides learn their lesson in the nick of time. It is a nightmare scenario where both sides annihilate each other. The film is not reclaiming the past but providing a harsh reality of what could have happened.
In There’s No Nostalgia Like Hollywood Nostalgia, Thomas Leitch discusses how nostalgia appears in American culture especially in the film industry. He also explains how nostalgia occupies specific Hollywood genres and the distinct ways in which those genres have altered their use of nostalgia. Leitch points out that America is more focused on the future than the past and that there is little to no investment in our country’s history. Leitch states, “any nostalgic longing for the past has a strictly limited place in such a resolutely future-oriented world” (Leitch, p.3). He makes an argument that American culture is not accustomed to restorative nostalgia like other European nations. Leitch mentions heritage cinema which came to fruition in Great Britain in the 1980s. These films focused on historical accuracy and portraying the ‘perfect’ version of Great Britain.
However, the United States has never developed anything close to heritage cinema. Heritage cinema’s restorative nostalgia has no equivalent in America because of the nation’s futuristic orientation. America’s lack of desire to look for asylum in an idealized past has prompted them to alter restorative nostalgia. Instead of using the “restoration of origins” as a cornerstone, they focused on conspiracy theories. Leitch mentions the rise of Trump and how he helped usher in a new wave of restorative nostalgia by his well-known phrase Make America Great Again.
Hollywood nostalgia and its alienation from MAGA nostalgia is noticeable given the economic conservatism of the US film industry, which has led to the constant backing of retro superhero franchises and other sequels and remakes. This resurgence of retro superhero franchises comes from the political climate that has repeatedly made superheroes relevant to their contemporary audiences.
Restorative nostalgia takes place in films about films. For example, the movie The Artist (2011), is a nostalgic interpretation of the days of silent cinema, whereas Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is reminiscent of the transition from silent films to “talkies.” Restorative nostalgia also appears in family movies represented by Little Women (1994, 2018) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). The past about which these films invite younger audiences to become increasingly nostalgic is not remembered but established by films whose purpose is educational as well as sentimental. In films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), Matilda (1996), and A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), childhood is less likely to be considered as an object of nostalgia.
Nostalgia is everywhere on tv shows, movies, and art. As a nation, we recover art from the past for entertainment to calm present troubles and anxieties. We discuss the present in terms of the past, and we judge the present by the standards of long ago. I used X-Men: First Class to show how films can be critical of a specific time period and still be entertaining and have sentimental value. Boym’s academic work on nostalgia has forged a deeper understanding of how nostalgia plays out in our everyday lives. Boym’s dichotomy of nostalgia is used to spot the difference between idealization and analysis. Film is heavily immersed in nostalgia and allows for audiences to look back into specific periods of their lives and enjoy those memories.
- Boym, Svetlana. “The Svetlana Boym Reader.” 2018, pp. 199–297.
- Gokcek, Gigi, and Alison Howard. “Movies to the Rescue: Keeping the Cold War Relevant for Twenty-First-Century Students.” Journal of Political Science Education, vol. 9, no. 4, 2013, pp. 436–452.
- Leitch, Thomas. “There’s No Nostalgia Like Hollywood Nostalgia.” Humanities, vol. 7, no. 4, 2018, p. 101.
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