Friday, June 3, 2011

X-Men: First Class

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender
When we first see the adult Erik Lehnsherr — the super-powered mutant who will become the villain Magneto — in X-Men: First Class, he's a multilingual globe-trotting assassin hunting down the man who tortured him years before in a Nazi death camp. This seems a suitable origin for a character who eventually turns against humans and comes to believe that mutants should rule over them. (George Lucas, take note: this is how you turn a character to the dark side!) What is not so suitable is that in Magneto's own origin story it is revealed that before there was Magneto, there was . . . another Magneto. Perhaps not the Magneto, but an evil mutant named Sebastian Shaw, who has his own dangerous powers, dangerous motives, and a dangerous team of evil mutants similar to the one the aged Magneto commanded in the previous X-Men movies. This is the disappointing thing about X-Men: First Class, because the interesting possibilities of such an origin story — in which the future Magneto befriends and then parts ways with his future rival Charles Xavier — are abandoned in favor of the team-vs.-team formula of the previous three X-Men films.

This is particularly surprising because First Class uses as its backdrop the Cuban Missile Crisis, a historical event weighty enough to provide sufficient threat and conflict for any super team. Given the novelty of the period setting and the possibilities inherent in the blending of history with fiction, it is puzzling why the filmmakers decided to eclipse the drama of Magneto’s supposedly unique origin with a villain who is essentially the character we know Lehnsherr will become, a character we have seen plot against humanity and be defeated before.

The other major figure is Charles Xavier, destined to become Professor X, a man committed to protecting humans regardless of how poorly humans treat mutants. The younger Xavier portrayed by James McAvoy is less restrained than the serene elder portrayed by Patrick Stewart in the other X-Men movies. Because his mutation — the ability to read and influence other peoples' minds — is not readily apparent to the outside world, Xavier effortlessly enjoys human society, winning drinking contests and hitting on women with a practiced pickup routine. Consequently, he is detached from the pain felt by mutants who, like his friend Raven, a scaly blue-skinned shape-shifter, must work hard to conceal their difference in order to be accepted. We see in Xavier a genius with a lot to learn, and though we can assume the events at film's end will humble him somewhat, we never see a true epiphany.

We do get to see Xavier, supposedly a professor in earlier films, actually teach in First Class — he helps Lehnsherr develop his powers of magnetism to astonishing levels, and watching him show a young mutant named Banshee how to fly is the film's highpoint of fun. The role of cool Nazi hunter suits actor Michael Fassbender very well, maybe in part because he played one so well in Inglourious Basterds, though certainly his own multilingual European background and good looks make him a natural for such a role. He keeps Lehnsherr's childhood trauma just under the surface at all times, unpacking it as needed to great effect and making Lehnsherr the most tortured — and most appealing — character of the film.

See also: Iron Men


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