Michael Fassbender, one of the stars in X-Men: First Class, plays the young Magneto known as Erik Lehnsherr. To study his role however, he didn’t flip through old comic books or imitate a young Ian McKellan. Instead, he researched Malcolm X and found the tools to understand his character, specifically Malcolm’s deviation from allegorically following Charles Xavier’s (James McAvoy) visionary, Martin Luther King, and his stance on the prejudice during the civil rights era.
It is rare to have a comic book series be directly impacted by real world historical events. The Marvel and DC Universes are called such because, well, they are different universes. In X-Men: First Class, and in the whole franchise for that matter, history is an integral part of the story to say the least. The story opens just like the first movie in the series, in a Nazi prison camp where a young Erik is separated from his parents and subsequently demonstrates his magnetic, hidden talent, pulling apart the metal gates with his surmounting anger. The other character profile then centers on a young Charles Xavier who befriends Raven/ Mystique and later develops into an Oxford grad, pre-wheelchair and bald head.
Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), Erik’s nazi camp torturer is the common denominator in both of the main character’s goals, Shaw using his powers for destruction and recruiting mutants to the dark side. While the United States and USSR are now in the midst of the Cold War, Shaw’s war is not about communism, it’s about extermination…of the human race. Xavier, with the aid of the CIA, and Erik Lehnsherr soon collide and must team together to bring down their common enemy, for different reasons undoubtedly. Charles and Erik soon round up as many mutants as they can thanks to a new creation called Cerebro. The newly deemed Professor Xavier makes his old home a safe haven for the flying, scaled, and furry misfit mutants. His goal is to harness their power, to control their ability in order to utilize their strengths in the right way.
The task for this movie has a Star Wars-esque appeal to it, trying to capitulate the origins of two men we have only seen as old and with vengeance. Anakin and Obi-One’s deviation stems from Good and Evil, but this picture storied by Bryan Singer and Sheldon Turner has a more dutiful/righteous theme. The multidimensional traits of characters is unlike the superhero blockbusters that have cheaply given us pyrotechnics to suffice for real personas, a la Transformers 2. The more Charles demands utilizing power for good, the more Erik questions his friend’s allegiance to the mutant race. Fassbender’s cunning glares make his character Erik’s motives to kill Shaw blur with the entire human race. Nicole Kidman’s character in The Interpreter warns her costar Sean Penn that “revenge is just a lazy form of grief.” Yet Erik believes his revenge may just be collateral damage in his quest for superiority.
The only black and white character is Mr. Bacon’s Shaw, who earlier claims “if you are not with me, by definition you are against me.” His sidekick Emma Frost is chillingly played by January Jones, though her lingerie wardrobe certainly suggests she isn’t so cold. She plays the character like Betty Draper, a stern blonde within the 1960s timeframe, and surrounded by mad men. On the brink of nuclear war, Shaw maneuvers his way into history by implementing the embedding of missiles into Cuba for the Soviets, a plan to create a third World War. Director Matthew Vaughn, with the movie Kick-Ass in his repertoire, artistically creates a crafty comic book adaption. The training scenes at the Xavier mansion parallel the US and Soviet warrooms, large round tables of nuclear discussion that would make Dr. Strangelove fans proud.
The symmetry between the Cold War and the mutant/human population coincides however without an obvious slap in the face. The small mutant team huddles around the 12 inch TV monitor to hear JFK’s public address, a collective moment that unifies a group with many personal aspirations and different desires. Issues of race and identity, specifically for Mystique played by Winter’s Bone star Jennifer Lawrence, certainly strike resonating tones fifty years into the future, but Vaughn never lets it get too far. The original X-Men trilogy had a serious aura about it. X-Men: First Class bounces in some humor and lightens the mood at a time when bomb shelters are as common as subway stops.
The political interweaving that this franchise has created certainly separates itself from the pack of remakes and reboots. But to the point of the Malcolm and Martin deviation, Fassbender finds his motivation in the film’s untouched racial barriers. Referring to Magneto and Professor X, “if their understanding , ability, and intelligence could somehow come together it would be really special,” he says, “But the split is what makes them even more interesting and tragic.” Tragic, yes, but then again this is just the comic.