While X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) was about revenge and the exploration of who Wolverine is and what makes him tick, X-Men: First Class (2011) is about two points of view that are touched upon in the previous X-Men movies but, in my opinion, never really gone into in a satisfactory way. What results is a picture that presents thought provoking ideas that make you understand everybody’s motives. Unfortunately, this is at the expense of more thrilling and memorable action moments.
We travel back to 1962 and see the beginnings of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and other mutants we have not met in other films. The young Charles has recently become a professor and is an expert on mutants during a time when they aren’t known to the public at large. The CIA call on Charles and his mutant knowledge to stop Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his henchmen, among them telepath Emma Frost (January Jones), from starting World War III. Meanwhile, Erik, a holocaust survivor, is on the warpath as he travels through Europe killing former Nazis in a search for Shaw. Bacon’s character tortured and experimented on Erik when the latter was a child prisoner in a German concentration camp. Hellbent on revenge, Erik first meets Charles after the master of magnetism fails to kill Shaw. The two young men join forces and must recruit a team of young mutants if they hope to stop Shaw before it is too late.
I had become familiar with the relationship between Professor X and Magneto over the course of the original trilogy. The professor wished to live in harmony with humans; Magneto wanted mutants to take their rightful place as the dominant species of Earth. One point of view incited violence and destruction on the level of a serious terrorist. The other peace and protection against such horrors. First Class goes further than short conversations around a chess board and presents an entire film about what’s right and wrong about these different points of view.
The best part of this discussion is both sides are simultaneously right and wrong. Charles wants mutants and humans to co-exist. Alright. Nothing wrong with that. The professor goes about it all wrong, though. He wants it so badly that he’s willing, even if it’s just on a subconscious level, to forsake mutants being themselves, preferring his kind to conceal their abilities in order to fit in with so called “normal” people. Erik, on the other hand, refuses to be anything but himself, a mutant. This is good…in a way. Mutants should be allowed to be themselves. They shouldn’t have to pretend to be “normal” or have to actually be “normal.” They should celebrate what they were born with just like a good comic book artist might revel in his or her skills with a pencil. The problem is that Erik is not above killing people, causing mass devastation, and, as we see in X-Men (2000), turning humans into mutants. Basically, he either wants to destroy those who are different than he or make them like him, the latter going against his desire to hold on to what makes him who he is.
In the middle of this debate is the shapeshifting Raven. She’s lived happily with Charles since she was 10, but lately, a seed of doubt has been growing in her mind. Charles can pass as human without any effort, but Raven has to constantly will herself to look like everyone else. Over the course of the film, she questions more and more why she should have to do this. Why can’t she walk around with her natural blue skin? Don’t people find that just as acceptable, just as pretty as the way she has to make herself look? She even criticizes Charles for wanting her to hide who she is when he once was more excepting of her real appearance. This draws her closer to Magneto who encourages her to bare (pun not intended) her real self proudly.
It’s compelling stuff that allows conflict and character growth over the course of this new X-Men series. The differing views helped me understand both sides. I was neither fulling behind Xavier or Erik, a lot of ambiguity being part of the discussion.
The film isn’t entirely a moral debate There’s action, funny lines and situations, and all the other trappings and mutanty goodness of a great X-Men flick. The internal conflicts, however, are what drew most of my attention. The action actually seemed a bit slight in comparison. I remember a number of fast paced scenes with special effects and mutants fighting, but I don’t recall ever once being thrilled or awed by any of it. It’s not bad. It’s just not great either. That’s somewhat excusable, because, although I would’ve liked more memorable action, the film wasn’t about that. It was a story about where the place for mutants was in the world.
What I can’t forgive is the friendship between Charles and Erik as it is presented in the movie. I’m not familiar with all the iterations of this relationship. In this movie, they meet in their early to mid 20s. They spend a little bit of time getting to know each other and share a nice moment where Xavier teachers Erik a better way to control his power. There’s certainly a budding companionship between them. That’s all it is, though. The beginnings of a friendship. The two spend too much time debating and outright disagreeing for there to be a strong positive bond. Patrick Stewart’s and Ian McKellen’s portrayals of these characters presented a rich history full of conflict but also respect and love. McAvoy and Fassbender barely get to know each other in this movie, and I don’t believe they have the strong connection their older selves clearly had. This relationship is obviously going to be developed more in Days of Future Past and any other sequels. If this is to be the golden age of their friendship, however, then this film failed miserably at showing it.
Thankfully, the exploration of the two sides of the mutant debate is interesting and the movie is packed with enough fun to save the film from it’s faults. It was also nice to see an X-Men film that didn’t rely on Wolverine. If these are qualities you wanted to see in previous entries in the franchise, you should check this flick out. If you want a balls to the wall action picture that will amaze you and explain why Xavier and Erik are such good friends, you may be disappointed. Speaking for myself, First Class left me with something to think about when the credits rolled and the satisfied mindset that I had seen a unique comic book movie with plenty of grey areas and questions that didn’t always have easy answers.