Monday, June 6, 2011

X-Men: First Class

On the backs of strong performances from James McAvoy and Michael Hassbender, director Matthew Vaughn has delivered a surprisingly good prequel installment in X-Men: First Class. McAvoy's Xavier is a refreshing, youthful portrayal, a painting of a brilliant idealist who's yet to be tempered fully by experience into true wisdom. Hassbender as Magneto is single-minded and driven, and the audience gets from the two real chemistry and glimpses of their friendship. Perhaps most touching Xavier's attempt to foster Magneto's power in moving a satellite dish to point toward Xavier's estate. The two men share a touching moment as Magneto relives a memory of his murdered mother, one he didn't know he still had. It is for moments like these that I think Xavier and Magneto could really be called partners. Their friendship is made believable, despite their clear differences in opinion and outlook on the world.

The film stands well even outside these two performances. First Class promises an intriguing look at a time in which mutants still live in secrecy, and as such, it breaks new ground on long-standing themes for this series. Jennifer Lawrence gives Mystique (or Raven, as she is known for the majority of the film) a decidedly vulnerable quality, torn between conformity in maintaining her shapeshift to blend in with society and embracing her own identity, symbolized when she chooses to remain in her natural, blue-skinned form for the remainder of the film. Implicit in this is the notion that Xavier himself is somewhat too arrogant or normal to truly understand her, which is what drives their ultimate division. For the others, the choice between embracing humanity or fearing them is made, one by one, and the parallels between other times of minority vs. majority clashes are made clear. Perhaps most directly is when Magneto protects the mutants from both the American and Soviet navies' barrage of missiles and cannon fire. Magneto resolves to send the munitions back and destroy both sides, but Xavier insists that there are good men there who don't know better, who are "just following orders." On the one hand, it's a moment that makes everyone in the theater wince, knowing the association of that phrase with some of the worst atrocities in history, including the Holocaust. On the other hand, it epitomizes Xavier's idealism. Magneto's response to his comment if, however, utterly predictable.

It should be said, then, that in one sense while First Class is bold and new, it's still somewhat flawed. While Kevin Bacon's character Shaw is utterly sinister and a pleasure to watch, the arc of Magneto's journey is altogether too simple. That Shaw would seek out mutants and assemble them for an ultimate eradication of normal humans is not a new concept, of course, but Magneto's adoption of this philosophy feels misguided. Magneto was abused by normal humans and Shaw, a mutant, alike. In one way, his victimization in the Holocaust is enough to stimulate a deep mistrust of normal humans by analogy, yet he still has this deep-seated hatred for Shaw. This dissonance comes to a head when Magneto says point blank he agrees with Shaw's ideas--but Shaw killed his mother and thus has to die as well. I say there was dissonance--there should've been, but there wasn't, and at no time does he seem to consider abandoning his position (and adopting Xavier's instead) in response to Shaw. Hence, there never seems to be a real chance of anything other than the ending we know must occur--that Xavier will be unable to walk, that Magneto will go his own way with Mystique.

Perhaps that's the problem with First Class--that we know what will happen, and there's a temptation for the filmmakers to excessively acknowledge that. Hugh Jackman's cameo, telling Xavier and Magneto to, er, mind their own business? Hilarious. Xavier writhing on the beach, struck by a stray bullet, saying over and over that he can't feel his legs? It was enough when we saw the bullet hit him in the back. And perhaps because of needing all the pieces to fit, we never get the feeling of Xavier and Mystique's friendship, which the film sets up as having been established since childhood. We don't even get a strong explanation for Mystique's "crush" on Magneto, though her hopes for making a bond, for finding common ground with anyone, are clear.

Despite these problems, First Class is an enjoyable film, and though we normal humans may never embrace Magneto's position, we can certainly understand it. We understand it because even today, people don't always play nice with others based on what they look like, what they believe, or some other thin excuse for violence and prejudice. This, more than superpowers or fighting for good in the world, is what keeps X-Men relevant for years to come.

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