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.