Michael Fassbender as Eric Lehnserr and James McAvoy as Charles Xavier, superheroic teammates at their best working together in X-Men: First Class.
X-Men: First Class is good, the best of the franchise, I think, but I want to know. Who holds off Magneto for thirty years until Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops, and Jean Grey show up?
My question proves that I must have liked the movie because it shows that it made me care about the X-Men.
I never did before. Not in the first three movies---I cared about Wolverine---and definitely not in the comics. In fact, when I was a kid I loathed the X-Men. I think on sight.
My reflexive disgust might have been aesthetic. Those blue and yellow costumes were the goofiest supersuits in comic book-dom, Marvel and DC included, and the Legion of Superheroes sported some pretty ridiculous outfits. But my main reason for despising them was that they were a waste of time and money. I usually spent my allowance on baseball cards, Matchbox cars, and equipping my GI Joes. If I had change left over for a comic book, I wasn’t going to throw it away on a team of knock-offs. None of the X-men had an original superpower. What did you need Beast for when you had Hulk and the Thing? What did Angel do except fly? Hawkman had wings too but he was also a super-badass and he spent his air time with Hawkgirl who flew around almost as shirtless as he did. Iceman was a reverse image Human Torch---you know, cool-headed while Johnny Storm was hot-tempered? Cyclops had heat vision, one of Superman’s secondary powers. And Jean Grey…What did Jean Grey do? Oh, yeah. Telekinesis. Magic tricks.
Dark Phoenix came later. In my comic book reading days, a Marvel Girl was not nearly as awesome as a Supergirl or a Wonder Woman or even a Mrs Fantastic.
And all of the X-Men’s battles seemed like exercises in tag-teaming.
But it may just have been that my mind rebelled at squeezing in any more superheroes. My head and my dreams were already full up with Superman, Batman, the Flash, Spider-Man, Captain America, Daredevil, Supergirl, Wonder Woman, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, the Fantastic Four , Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and the Elongated Man.
I just didn’t have any more room in the Pantheon of my imagination.
My comic book reading days lasted about three years. I started in third grade and finished in fifth. Those were pretty stable years in the annals of comic book history. There was none of the re-imagining, re-envisioning, reworking, and rebooting to restore “continuity” and establish “canon” that has become the neurotic obsession of the industry in the twenty-five years since Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Crisis on Infinite Earths. When I bought what I thought was my last comic book, the X-Men and just about every other superhero were what they were when I’d bought my first, and if I thought about it, and I probably didn’t, I probably expected they would go on being what they were for as long as there were comic books. When I was in college, I started picking up comic books again, partly out of nostalgia, partly out of a need for mental health breaks---my usual forms of intellectual escape, movies and books, had become forms of homework---and partly because I’d heard that comic books were becoming interesting, even artistic, possibly even hip. And that happened to be true with Doctor Strange and Howard the Duck. But for some reason I also started paging through issues of X-Men. I was surprised to find that most of the old stalwarts were gone. Jean Grey was dead…maybe. The new crew, Storm, Banshee, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and especially Wolverine were interesting. So I followed their adventures for a short time. But it didn’t stick.
Whatever part of my imagination is fired by comic book memories is still devoted to my old favorites.
What I’m getting at is that if you’re going to make an X-Men movie and you want me to buy a ticket (or rent the DVD), you can’t count on remembered childhood affections to draw me in. You have to make a superhero movie that’s a good superhero movie in its own right. (Ideally, you’ll make one that’s a good movie in its own right.) And that’s what director Matthew Vaughn has pulled off here.
You don’t need to have been a fan of the comic books to enjoy or follow the movie. You don’t need to have seen any of the first three movies, although there are two inside jokes you won’t get if you haven’t seen them. Actually, one of the pleasures of this movie for me is that it made me forget the other three.
Not only is it possible to forget it’s one of the X-Men movies, it’s possible to not think of it as an X-Men movie at all or as any sort of superhero movie at all, depending on how willing you are to accept that there are people who can turn their skin into diamonds, fly, shoot lasers out of their chests, absorb the explosions of hand grenades with a grin, and use their telekinetic power to manipulate metal to lift submarines out of the water with a concentrated thought.
This is because the movie presents mutants with superpowers as givens, the way science fiction movies handle not-yet-invented and not-likely-to-be-invented-any-time-soon technologies and regular contact with alien life forms as givens. In fact, I wouldn’t compare X-Men: First Class with the other Marvel superhero movies of the past few years, like Thor or Iron Man. It’s more in the vein of the Star Trek reboot, a character-driven adventure yarn played out against a sci-fi background in which the heroes happen to save the planet while working through their personal conflicts.
X-Men: First Class isn’t the origin story of a team of superheroes. It’s the story of two men, each of whom happens to possess a superpower, who forge a friendship that makes both of them stronger and better men but only one of them wiser.
In his memoir and treatise on the history of comic book superheroes, Supergods, superstar comic book writer Grant Morrison says that one of the things he has always loved about superheroes is how in the telling of their stories important myths that used to convey essential truths about the human predicament but have grown stale and close to meaningless through rote incorporation in “realistic” melodramas can be reinvigorated. I would bet, then, that Morrison likes X-Men: First Class.
The myth at the heart of the movie is that of two brothers, devoted and up to a fateful moment inseparable, who chose to walk different paths or wind up on opposite sides of a struggle with tragic consequences for one or the other or both and that tears the kingdom apart. Cain and Abel, Jonathan and David, Arthur and Lancelot, Anakin and Obi-wan. Erik Lehnsherr and Charles Xavier---Magneto and Professor X.
Since the movie depends on them, it’s good that the two leads are terrific. The supporting cast---which features Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Oliver Platt, January Jones (taking her ice queen turn as Mad Men’s Betty Draper to a literally icier level), and a leering, monomaniacal, but strangely charismatic Kevin Bacon---is fine and one of Vaughn’s achievements as a storyteller is how well he uses his secondary characters and their subplots to mirror and shadow the movie’s main themes. But it’s the friendship between Erik and Charles and the performances of Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy that center and make X-Men: First Class.
As Erik, Fassbender has the showier role. Besides the fact that he gets to play the more actively heroic part throughout the movie---There’s a fun and exciting scene in which Erik, a Holocaust survivor, confronts a pair of former Nazis in a bar in Argentina that could be straight out of Indiana Jones, if Indy used telekinesis instead of a bullwhip---his power is the more physically demanding and demonstrative. He has to reach out and strain to use it, while Charles’ power, telepathy, requires him to sit back, look inward, and literally pull his hand back, and how’s that for symbolism? On top of that, Erik’s back story makes him the more tragic and sympathetic figure from the start.
This means, however, that McAvoy has the tougher job. One of the problems he faces is the same one he had in The Conspirator. Like the young lawyer he played in that film, Charles is noble, brave, kind, decent, and a little too good to be true or to make interesting without help. Fortunately, this time out McAvoy has more than one fellow castmate to play off of. There’s Fassbender, of course, but he’s also challenged by Lawrence as the blue-skinned shapeshifter Mystique who, though she loves him like a brother, is constantly questioning his motives, his integrity, his authority, and the rightness and righteousness of his cause, and to one degree or another the other apprentice X-Men confront him with the same rebellious doubts.
Fans of the comic books and the movies probably noticed I left somebody out of the roll calls of both sets of X-Men.
However I felt about the other uncanny X-Men, I always admired Professor X. Not for his powers. For his leadership. He was the only adult member of the first team. I don’t know how old Cyclops, Beast, Angel, Iceman, and Jean Grey were supposed to be but they struck me as teenagers, and teenagers in a way Spider-man and the Teen Titans weren’t. Spider-man and Robin and the others were teenagers because that’s where those characters were in their lives. The X-Men seemed to me to be teenagers because they seemed meant to be stand-ins for the kids reading the comic books. Spider-Man was trying to be a man. That’s the root of his whole struggle. He wants and has to grow up. “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Robin is an apprentice Batman. Becoming a grown-up is part of his training. The X-men just seemed to be kids playing at being superheroes. But Professor X was a grown-up. The only grown-up in the room, and that’s what made him cool. In a time when being a grown-up was by definition the opposite of cool, Professor X made being an adult a superpower.
Patrick Stewart’s Professor X was one of the top three coolest characters in the first three X-Men movies, but then he was played by Patrick Stewart. James McAvoy doesn’t attempt to play a younger version of of Patrick Stewart, which would have been impossible anyway since Patrick Stewart was never young. McAvoy seems to have decided, though, that Professor X as Stewart plays him is what the man would be like after thirty years of confinement to a wheelchair and having had to be the only adult in the room riding herd on generation after generation of whiny, high-strung, and neurotic children in uncertain control of their tempers and therefore of their dangerous powers. It would have tended, I think McAvoy concluded, to take some of the joie de vivre out of a man and make him a tad grumpy. His Charles isn’t grumpy. He’s lighthearted, filled with good humor, amused and enlivened by company, extremely tolerant of other’s foibles and flaws to the point that he almost doesn’t see them as foibles and flaws, and not quite as grown-up as he’s going to be and needs to be.
When we meet him, he isn’t exactly a natural leader, he’s more of a natural big brother. But then he doesn’t have anybody to lead and isn’t yet aware that it will be his destiny to lead them. He knows he has a lot of growing up to do but he plans to take his time about it (his feelings on the subject summed up in his putting off accepting the title he’s earned professionally and by which he will become known, Professor), and we can see that if circumstances don’t intervene he will cheerfully allow himself as much time as he needs and grant himself extensions.
Of course circumstances do intervene and his innate sense of responsibility kicks in. He takes on the leadership role in the group almost without a thought and enjoys it, not for the power to bend others to his will, which is something he could always do if he'd wanted because that’s his superpower, but for the opportunity it gives him to touch minds in a different way---that is, because it allows him to teach. A teacher by definition is the only adult in the room. His job, though, is to send his students into other rooms where they will be the adults. Good teachers see it as their responsibility to help their students outgrow them and leave them behind. Good teachers want to be outshone. McAvoy is very good at conveying the joy and pride Charles takes in this, but he also gets at the loneliness as it slowly dawns on Charles what’s ahead of him. A big part of becoming a grown-up is knowing you have to do what is right for others and not what feels right for yourself. In other words, you have to give up a lot of things that are fun. But another part is realizing how little control you have over other people. Not only can’t he hold either of his star pupils back, but he can’t stop them from taking paths he knows are wrong and will lead to heartbreak and disaster. In the one case it’s a matter of his not having the power to stop him. In the other, however, it’s a matter of his realizing he doesn’t have the moral right to use the power he does have.
Actually, Stewart’s Professor X isn’t the only adult in the room. He has Storm and he has Cyclops. Wolverine doesn’t count because he resents being in the room and is always contriving ways to leave it. But that’s decades in the future. McAvoy’s Charles Xavier doesn’t know if anyone will ever show up to keep him company and he has to push away the one other adult willing to stick by him. For all he knows, when he finally accepts the title Professor X, he will be the lone adult in the room for the rest of his life. The movie lets us see Charles’ acceptance of his destiny as the only adult in the room as heroic and tragic. McAvoy makes us see it as really sort of cool.
X-Men: First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn, screenplay by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, and Oliver Platt. Rated PG-13. Now on DVD and Blu-ray and available to watch instantly at Amazon.
Correction: In an earlier version of this post I compared Iceman to Jack Frost, whom I called “one of the Flash’s cheesier villians.” But Fraser jumped in to the comments to save me from my mistake. “Jack Frost was one of Iron Man’s [villains],” he reminded me, I was probably thinking of Captain Cold. He was right. So I was going to fix it and even considered throwing in a reference to Batman’s nemesis Mr Freeze, but then I remembered the Human Torch and…Flame on!
But that got me thinking. Iceman, Captain Cold, Mr Freeze, all these other superheroes and supervillains with freezing powers don’t measure up to the…ahem…coolest of them all, Frozone!
X-Men: First Class, along with most of the movies discussed or reviewed on the blog, are available on DVD and to watch instantly through the Mannion at the Movies section of my aStore. Shopping at my aStore is one of the best ways to help support the blog.
Previous movie review from the Mannionville Daily Gazette: Everything Must Go.