The First (and Best) Class

This review of X-Men: First Class is somewhat delayed…but then again, a week on the beaches in Kauai tends to derail much creative energy. Check out my conversation with Tony about one of the best superhero films of all time and one of the more entertaining films of the year after the jump.

X-Men: First Class tells the story of the origin of the X-Men, but not the ones (Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops, etc.) with which many of you are most likely familiar. The film traces the emergence of Magneto/Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) and Professor X/Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) as leading mutants who have drastically different upbringings. The former, a victim of the Nazi concentration camps, experienced extreme torture at the hands of their scientists, specifically Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), who were attempting to perfect the human race. The latter, was a child of wealth and privilege who had a mutant adopted sister and attended Oxford University. The two develop a friendship when an evil mutant, Schmidt-turned-Shaw, and his colleagues, Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and Emma Frost (January Jones), attempt to exterminate non-mutants and create a new world order. Yet Magneto still retains his distrust of humans and the film concludes with mutant “battle” lines drawn between him and Professor X that set the stage for the X-Men movies already in existence. Not only is the film entertaining, well-acted, and frequently funny, there are some important themes for discussion in there as well.

Tony: As I shared via Facebook, I really think this is among the best superhero movies ever made. I normally tend to agree with the critics, but the reviews I’ve read so far on this one are too unkind. Michael Fassbender as Magneto is incredible, and McAvoy as Xavier is very impressive as well. The young mutants are not nearly as well rounded, but they do a decent job in the time allowed with Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). My biggest complaint here is that they don’t develop why it is that Xavier is so compassionate and understanding. From a psychological perspective, his philosophy of “helping those who hate and fear them” is not a natural human response, but a rare exception that usually needs to be developed through mental and spiritual discipline.

Ryan: Tony, I totally agree with you on all fronts. The film, to me, benefitted first and foremost from near perfect performances from the leads. I had stayed away from most of the trailers, so you can imagine my surprise and delight when I saw Kevin Bacon on screen! Magneto’s development and “turn for the worst” is pretty self-explanatory. I agree with your critique of the lack of development of the Charles Xavier/Professor X characters. I think the filmmakers assume (and have us assume) that his charmed upbringing allowed him to be so magnanimous. Of course, we know too well that persons or characters with such backgrounds also turn out to be far more like Magneto than Professor X!

Tony: I also like what appears to be a social commentary on the stupidity of war. The US and USSR are played against each other like two lumbering oafs who only know how to solve their differences with violence. The parallel shots where each side is shown doing or saying the same thing attests to their unwitting collusion in nearly destroying the world in nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Ryan: I know critics have said this already, but I appreciate how the film blended comic book history with American history and wish more films like this would do the same. The banality of evil on display here is, again, nothing short of ludicrous. I was, in a way, reminded of Dr. Strangelove (of course they’re in completely different leagues). The X-Men version of American history benefits from a powerful third party that is able to step in and prevent destruction…even as a member of this third party attempts to escalate the tensions. I’m left wondering what those real-world parallels might be for us now? Who helps escalate or ease the violent cycles in which we often find ourselves ensnared?

Tony: Speaking of cycles, there’s also a deeper moral lesson on the destructiveness of responding to violence with yet more violence, both broadly (between nations) and interpersonally. This is especially clear with Magneto’s history, particularly through the death of his mother and his quest for revenge against Schmidt (later Shaw), which simultaneously consumes him and turns him into a generally vicious person. Xavier, always the cooler head, tells him that killing Shaw will not bring him peace. Magneto’s refusal to listen to this wisdom inadvertently leads to the wound that paralyzes Xavier, his best friend.

Ryan: This is one of the narrative’s strong points as it shows us that our obsession with violent revenge not only consumes the individual and the “enemy” but destroys our friends and allies as well. Magneto’s assertion that “peace was never an option” had me questioning whether or not, among many of our world leaders and war profiteers (obviously), peace, indeed, is ever an option. Has war become so ingrained in the human experience that we struggle to make meaning without it?

Tony: At the same time, the film does not present the preferred position of peace and nonviolence without ambiguity, however. After the Americans and Soviets turn their weapons away from each other and toward the mutants, we see that Magneto was right about Xavier’s naivete regarding humans. Repaying violence with violence is not the answer, but neither is it viable to think that non-mutants will integrate mutants into society willingly and without conflict. On this point the film takes a thoroughly realist approach without giving us all of the answers about how exactly to respond. This, of course, is one of the chief conundrums of human interaction. To respond to oppression with violence historically breeds only more violence, but to respond to oppression by tolerating it passively only legitimizes the violence of the oppression itself. This difficulty has been at the heart of the X-Men franchise from the beginning.

Ryan: Violence and war and peace are certainly two of the major themes here, but let’s touch on another one in closing which also has rich spiritual, religious, and theological themes. What did you make of the intense attention to acceptance and individuality (mutanthood)?

Tony: This is chiefly Mystique’s conundrum, where for most of the film she covers up her natural blue skin with the white skin and blonde hair of a normal human. At first she feels driven to do this in order to be accepted in larger society, but Magneto in a few places tells her not to hide who she really is. The mantra “mutant and proud” is spoken in a few different places, and eventually Mystique adopts it as her own and joins Magneto. This lesson of self-acceptance is not learned by Beast, who, in order to pass as normal, takes a serum which he thinks will shrink his enlarged ape-like feet. What happens instead is that he grows blue hair all over his body and becomes more cantankerous…a nice piece of poetic justice! Interestingly I think the film does a good job of not identifying mutants with any one oppressed group. In the earlier X-Men film trilogy, mutanthood was most often read as an analogy for homosexuality. Here, it is portrayed not only in those terms, but also in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and social class. On the other hand, this message of accepting oneself regardless of how the larger culture sees you is borderline cheesy.

Ryan: I agree. At the same time, I’m wondering if, in a comic book action-oriented film, themes such as this (or violence and war and peace) can be anything other than almost-trite or almost-cheesy. It would be interesting to see if some of our readers could list similar films where the writers/directors have transcended this. As you pointed out, I’m still glad they included this message, especially for younger viewers, who will most likely flock to the film. Any non-hate-filled message, no matter how trite, is fine by me…especially in a film this fun!

X-Men: First Class (132 mins.) is rated PG-13 and is in theaters everywhere.