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Thursday, June 23, 2011

X-Men First Class Movie Review: Magneto Roolz, Charlie Droolz


X-Men: First Class was easily the finest Marvel movie I've ever seen, and probably the finest superhero movie (eclipsed only by Dark Knight, but at least First Class was unmolested by Christian Bale's goofy-ass growling) ever made. The difficulties with the film's production allowed director Matthew Vaughn and his crew to create a Marvel movie liberated from almost all of the cliche hollywood narratives, and gave us a superhero movie that actually had something important to say.

At its heart, the film is the story of the how X-Men's two key philosophers met,i.e. Charles Xavier (played by James McAvoy) and Erik "Magneto" Lensherr (played by Michael Fassbender). As expected from a movie about Xavier and Magneto, the story shows them drifting apart as their ideologies prove incompatible. But while the comics and the previous movies left the Xavier/Magneto equation as a matter of good vs. evil, X-Men: First Class shows us that Xavier is just as flawed as Magneto, and both men are equally victim to their hubris.

No punches are pulled in showing how different--and better-- Charles' youth was from Erik's. While Erik grew up in Auschwitz and saw his mother brutally murdered, Charles grew up in a mansion, and met a young mutant girl (Raven Darkholme/Mystique, played by Jessica Lawrence) to relieve him of his poor little rich boy angst. And while Erik spent his young adult hood hunting down Nazis in a quest to find the man who shot his mother, Charles went to Oxford, used his telepathic powers and knowledge of mutation to whore around, and kept the admiring adult Raven firmly in the friend zone (which he claimed was due to their childhood together, but was more likely motivated by his repulsion at her true, blue form; unlike Raven, Charles has no struggle trying to pass). Charles got the advantages of being a mutant without the drawbacks, and he didn't even appear to have the telepathic angst caused by stray thoughts.

The two men eventually meet when they end up facing a common enemy-- Sebastian Shaw (played by Kevin Bacon), who not only was the Nazi doctor who killed Erik's mom in an attempt to trigger his powers, but is using his Hellfire Club connections and mutant posse to try and heat up the Cold War. From there the two men instantly bond, and with the help of the CIA and agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne, playing a much different character than the comic version and her Scottish brogue), they start assembling young mutants. Of course, the more they get to know each other, the more they end up drifting apart, and the conclusion is tragic (though inevitable, given that this is a prequel).

Shaw makes an excellent villain because of the singularity of his vision and the lack of morals getting in his ways (as he did ally himself with the Nazis). But though neither Charles or Erik are as outright evil as Shaw, they both fall victim to their singular perspectives without trying to consider the other one's opinions. Note that the founding of the X-Men could not have been done without Erik-- Erik pushed to keep the CIA out of their affairs (while Charles would have cooperated), and Erik got Xavier to train the students for combat (Charles would've just taken them back to their homes, even for the ones whose homes were jails or strip clubs). Also note that Magneto doesn't become truly powerful until he embraces Xavier's motto that true focus lies between rage and serenity. When the two men cooperate, they can achieve virtually anything because they compensate for each other's weaknesses. It's when they become enemies that both end up being a detriment to mutantkind.

That's right, I said both. Vaughn's movie and McAvoy's performance give form to an idea that until recently many X-Men writers have simply danced around-- the idea that Xavier truly is holding mutantkind back. As we see in the movie, Xavier's idea of peace means teaching mutants to pass for human. He encourages Raven to maintain a regular blonde, Caucasian appearance, cooperates with government agencies that clearly want to enslave and/or terminate mutants (even if it's just starting as registration, as Erik points out), and advocates Erik against killing the former Nazi Shaw. He will use his powers to brainwash when necessary for survival, but that just makes him hypocritical. For Charles, the goal isn't "mutant and proud" so much as "you're a mutant? I hardly noticed".

Magneto's actions are similarly misguided, and definitely more destructive due to his extremist bent. Yet he's still more sympathetic than Xavier, because he actually knows what homo superior will have to face. Similar to Mystique, the audience finds him more appealing because he's fighting not just for mutantkind's survival, but also for mutantkind's individuality. Chris Rosa of Meltdown Comics got me excited about this film by telling me that Fassbender played Erik similar to Big Boss/Naked Snake of the Metal Gear Solid games, and the comparison is apt. As corrupted as both characters would later become, we see exactly what traumas put them on this path and sympathize with their perspectives, even if we can't condone their actions.

In many ways, this is a spiritual prequel to the modern X-Men comics. Grant Morrison's X-Men tried to resolve a dilemma similar to the one posed in First Class by having BOTH Xavier and Magneto prove obsolete. The way he portrayed Magneto's decline was a bit less subtle (if you can call getting high on drugs and genocide subtle, though I'd argue that it was a necessary point), but Morrison also demonstrated Xavier's impotence by having all the mutant cultural revolutions happen outside of his control. Keep in mind that the Xavier who outed the X-Men was actually his evil alien twin using his body; once the real Xavier returns, he finds himself a mere observer to a world far more complex than he could imagine. Yet that world was there all along, when the X-Men were playing superhero to appeal to the human masses while retreating to the gilded cage that is Xavier's Mansion during their off hours. This makes the X-Men's Utopia an inevitable response to a multicultural world*, allowing the new culture their own space to create their own society.

I could go on about the other details of the film, such as the specific actors' performances or the bizarre choices of characters, but the overall story was so great that complaining about small details** feels like a fanboyish waste of time. Highly Recommended.

* No matter how much of a douchepocalypse their president-for-life may be.
** I will note without reservation that the treatment of Darwin was angering, reducing one of the most charismatic of the new recruits to minority cannon fodder.

7 comments:

  1. I was overjoyed to discover that in his youth, Charles Xavier was essentially Austin Powers. On a similar note, I would also have gladly watched a two-hour film about Magneto hunting and killing Nazis.

    My only major problem with the film was how quickly things moved after Magneto killed Shaw. All of the strong interpersonal relations which had previously been the best part of the movie were suddenly breezed through to get to the predetermined outcome. Otherwise, a top-notch film.

    (If they make a sequel, I'd be totally in favor of making it a period piece as well, jumping to the 70's or 80's.)

    As for the comics, I always thought that, if you're going to go ahead and neuter Morrison's Xorn/Magneto plotline, you should at least take the opportunity to get some character growth out of it. Erik, it's not that this guy mimicked you and essentially became a Nazi that should bother you; it's that *everyone* honestly believed it was you, except your psychic boyfriend. That may be the universe's way of telling you that you should re-evaluate your history and choices.

    But as I recall, Magneto's response to all that was, "Meh."

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  2. *hearty applause* A well thought-out review! After reading this, I think I WANT to see the adorable Cute Shotaro Boy version of Kurt Wagner from "X-Men Evolution" throw off that holograph watch already! Also, wouldn't anyone who's seen anime, or hell, even the Smurfs, be fairly comfortable with blue-skinned people?

    "Douchepocalypse"--thank you for inventing that word. I shall use it in polite conversation whenever possible. ;D

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  3. Douchepocalypse isn't my word, though I can't remember from where I heard it ( I think How I Met Your Mother).

    Also, I was under the impression that it wasn't killing Shaw, firing on the US and Russian armies, or even causing a spinal injury that permanently drove Charles and Erik apart, but taking the anti-psychic helmet from Shaw. That gesture was both a betrayal of Charles' trust and a horrifying symbolic gesture (that Erik would usurp Shaw, and sympathize with many of his principles).

    Of course, you could also have argued that Charles could've done more good by trying to help Erik as ruler of mutantkind, playing the advisor to diffuse his rage (and if all else fails, backstab him in the traditional advisor fashion).

    And the recent .1 issue of Uncanny had the X-Men's publicist (yes, they have a publicist; how times change) confront Magneto about the events of Planet X, and tell him that being so easily impersonated by a drugged-out Nazi equals a PR catastrophe of Biblical proportions.

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  4. If the X-Men had a publicist from Day 1, perhaps said publicist might have told them how preaching peace and inter-species harmony while simultaneously having a secret para-military training ground with alien technology and several killers on payroll is the very definition of "mixed messages".

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  5. Friendly Neighborhood Spider-ManJune 27, 2011 at 7:29 PM

    I'm not sure that I can say the X-Men's Utopia was a great choice either, morally or pragmatically. Sure, it's a third option, but it's a BAD third option. If the X-Men are a metaphor for real life minorities, what exactly is the message here? That separation is a better option than integration because integration is too hard? In fact, I read the whole damn Utopia six-parter in Dark Avengers and Uncanny, and I'm still not exactly sure what prompted Cyclops and the other X-Men to make such a bone-headed choice to begin with.

    Also, exactly why was Morrison's depiction of Magneto necessary again? You said yourself that the new X-Men movie's saving grace was how it portrayed Magneto as a sympathetic person who started with honorable motives despite his horrific actions later. Why praise a story that does the exact opposite of that, reducing a once-complex villian to a one-dimensional caricature of himself? Hell, even X3 had a more well-rounded portrayal of Magneto, and one of the biggest criticisms of that film was that his motives seemed hazy and shallow compared to the first two movies. If X-Men is Metal Gear, than Grant Morrison's New X-Men was Snake's Revenge, with Xorneto as stretchy-limbed cyborg Big Boss.

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  6. " I'm not sure that I can say the X-Men's Utopia was a great choice either, morally or pragmatically. Sure, it's a third option, but it's a BAD third option. If the X-Men are a metaphor for real life minorities, what exactly is the message here? That separation is a better option than integration because integration is too hard? In fact, I read the whole damn Utopia six-parter in Dark Avengers and Uncanny, and I'm still not exactly sure what prompted Cyclops and the other X-Men to make such a bone-headed choice to begin with. "

    I'd compare it to a Native American reservation, where it's a space that allows the survivors of the race to live freely on their own terms and preserve what's left of their culture.

    "Also, exactly why was Morrison's depiction of Magneto necessary again? You said yourself that the new X-Men movie's saving grace was how it portrayed Magneto as a sympathetic person who started with honorable motives despite his horrific actions later. Why praise a story that does the exact opposite of that, reducing a once-complex villian to a one-dimensional caricature of himself? Hell, even X3 had a more well-rounded portrayal of Magneto, and one of the biggest criticisms of that film was that his motives seemed hazy and shallow compared to the first two movies. If X-Men is Metal Gear, than Grant Morrison's New X-Men was Snake's Revenge, with Xorneto as stretchy-limbed cyborg Big Boss."

    Because at that point Magneto HAD become a one-dimensional caricature of himself? The death toll from Fatal Attractions, when Magneto crashed all electromagnetic technology on Earth, was likely far higher than the death toll Xorneto wracked up in Planet X. The backstory Chris Claremont gave Magneto was immediately followed by the character realizing that he'd become like the Nazis who killed his family, and starting the path towards redemption. The final Claremont issues, and especially everything thereafter, had Magneto regress to his old ways, except instead of just being a super-villain again, he was now an exceptionally whiny super-villain, invoking the Holocaust in a superficial fashion representing the fictional equivalent of Godwin's Law.

    The Xorn story parallels this development; as Xorn, Magneto actually becomes a positive force for mutantkind as a teacher of the X-Men's special class. When he goes back to his old tactics upon revealing himself, he's just an increasingly faded copy of who he used to be.

    Also, note that Big Boss himself was reformed by Kojima, as seen in the MGS4 epilogue.

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  7. As they say the black guy always dies first!

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