Pop Culture Catch-Up: X-Men: First Class (spoilers)

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X-Men: First Class
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence, and more
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language

Two men fight for truth, justice, and genetic equality in X-Men: First Class. © 20th Century Fox/Marvel Studios
Two men fight for truth, justice, and genetic equality in X-Men: First Class. © 20th Century Fox/Marvel Studios

When I first saw the X-Men: Days of Future Past trailer, I expressed a ton of confusion about it, and was told that I needed to see X-Men: First Class to really understand what’s going on. I was a little reluctant at first, but upon remembering that my local library has DVDs you can rent, I immediately requested it.

See, while I saw and loved X-Men when it came out in 2000, the two subsequent sequels left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. However, with the help of some friends who were kind enough to let me know that First Class was a much better movie than X-Men: The Last Stand I dove into this viewing of the DVD with much pleasure.

The Five-Sentence Synopsis

Traumatized by the horrors of the Holocaust, Erik Lensherr vows to enact revenge upon the man who wanted to turn his mutant gift into a terrible weapon. At the same time, doctoral candidate Charles Xavier wishes to help troubled mutants like Erik discover the full extent of their abilities to usher society into a new age of evolution. When the engineer of Lensherr’s despair schemes to throw the whole of humanity into the chaos of a nuclear war during the turmoil of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s up to Charles and Erik to guide a team of unproven students to defend the world. Ultimately, however, the two men are too different to be able to work together as the battle lines between them and the world around them are drawn.

‘Ships to Enjoy

As mentioned in the DVD extras, core of this movie is the relationship and friendship between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender): how it began and how it ended. You can’t imagine a more imperfect pair than these two, especially the way they’re portrayed here. This Charles Xavier is a bit of a flirt, one of the idle (but brilliantly intelligent) rich like Bertie Wooster for whom everything seems to have fallen into place. At the beginning of the movie, he’s rakishly charming and has his own pet/virtual companion in Raven, an orphan who has grown up doting on him. The only dark blot in his past is the fact that his mother has never seen him grow up in his ancestral home; this is something that young Charles Xavier doesn’t dwell upon at all.

In contrast, you have the emotionally and psychologically tortured Erik Lensherr whose entire world was ripped from him when his mother was killed before his eyes. Exactly what Klaus Schmidt/Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) did after Erik’s full mutant potential was unleashed is never really specified, Judging from the fact that over a decade later, Erik is still out for vengeance, it must have been pretty horrific.

Where the two shine together is when they start working with the students in response to Sebastian Shaw’s gambits. You start to see Charles really settle down into becoming not just an academic professor but a real teacher, working within each person’s personal limits to make them feel more at ease. You also see Erik push them beyond their limits as he was once pushed. In the little family they built upon the Xavier estate grounds, then, Charles takes on a more nurturing parental role and Erik is the stern taskmaster whom everyone wants to please. The two men balance each other, like a ying and yang symbol and when their ideas become conflicted, to watch the balance and accord break is heart-rending.

‘Ships to Avoid

What I appreciate the most about First Class is that unlike the first X-Men movie and comics, there is no overwrought love triangle to complicate the more serious “racial prejudice” themes that have been at the core of the X-Men since they were first created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in 1963. Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) shares an almost-kiss with Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and a kiss with Erik, but a budding romance are not the point of those scenes. In the former, the scene introduces the concept of negative body image and the latter is the climax to that entire sub-plot. The scene after between Charles and Raven also serves to reveal to the audience that his approach to Raven’s upbringing was an utter mistake and ultimately, it was Charles’ youthful arrogance that made joining up with Erik the better option for her.

This is what it looks like when all your illusions about yourself are stripped away. © 20th Century Fox/Marvel Studios
This is what it looks like when all your illusions about yourself are stripped away. © 20th Century Fox/Marvel Studios

Best. Scene. Ever.
For me, it has to be the scene between Hank and Raven when he comes to tell her that he has perfected the serum that will remove their appearance of their physical mutations. Already, the movie had established that Raven feels a strong emotional and possibly sexual connection with the men who have been able to see her in her “true” form and not been judgmental about it first in the scenes where Raven is talking to Charles about how he picks up English co-eds and later in the scene where Hank comes to her with the idea of the serum in the first place. Now, we see her realize that her self-image issues are a form of self-hatred, something that Hank just isn’t able to understand because he’s filled with so much of it. Hank’s intellectual brilliance is masking a deep, deep self-loathing and just as he tells her that she is hiding her true self away from even the people who have been able to accept her, I think she also realizes that poor Hank has way more emotional issues about his mutation than she does.

Final Thoughts

X-Men: First Class was the right movie, with the right actors and the right crew, at the right time. Director Matthew Vaughn was wise to hold off on making an X-Men film until this project came along; at the same time, I wonder if there’s a way he could have avoided all of the problems of The Last Stand. Perhaps he did need a bit more seasoning before he was ready for the franchise. Alas, with Bryan Singer at the helm of Days of Future Past, we will never know.