X-Men: First Class had virtually everything going against it in pre-production– series fatigue (it’s the fifth entry in Fox’s X-Men saga), none of the original actors in starring roles, 1960s period costumes–on paper, it seemed like the ultimate studio cash-in, only to be outdone by the inevitable X-Men in Space: Electric Space Boogaloo from Space (in 3D!). Fortunately, it’s nothing of the sort.
Despite many flaws common to the superhero genre, First Class is quite possibly the best film in the series, not because it’s chock full of impressive special effects and action, but because broiling beneath its main characters’ performances are ideas–not just any ideas, but the central political and philosophical questions of the film’s time period whose minutiae our modern pundits still grapple over. This is not so much a review as a jumping-off point for discussion, so beware of spoilers ahead.
First Class focuses on young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor X (James McAvoy), at this point known as Erik Lehnshnerr and Charles Xavier, framing their worldviews through their respective experiences of World War II. Magneto is a Holocaust survivor forced to watch his own mother gunned down by Sebastian Shaw (a scenery-chewing Kevin Bacon), while X, though British, lives untouched by the war in New York, comfortable and affluent. As such, Magneto manifests the deep cynicism of Europeans, who decades before the first world war prophesied that civilization would make war a thing of the past, and X embodies the optimism of his young, victorious, prosperous nation.
If the film has one fatal flaw, it’s that McAvoy’s Professor X is a monstrously one-dimensional good guy–perfectly empathetic, perfectly charismatic, perfectly humble. He’s given a few humanizing moments of triviality in the first act, but once the central conflict kicks in, he merely serves as the angelic foil to the deeply tormented, deeply human, and deeply moving Magneto. Michael Fassbender, best known for his brief turn in Inglourious Basterds, deserves an Oscar nomination for his work here. He takes charge of the role with intimidating physicality, harnessing intense emotions into subtle shifts in Magneto’s inevitable path to top-hat-and-cape-wearing, mustache-tweaking evil. Yes, though we know exactly where he’s going, Fassbender injects suspense into the actual mechanics of the transformation; we care about him, sitting mortified but silently cheering when he gets his moment of revenge.
And that is the central drama of First Class: it’s not the Cuban Missile Crisis, stopping the madman Sebastian Shaw, or the shoehorned attempts at modern political salience (one a lame Patriot Act dig, the other a tired “Baby, you were born this way!” after-school special monologue)–it’s that the protagonist, for a reason we completely sympathize with, is making a horrendous, morally bankrupt choice. And this is where the politics kick in: Despite the film’s attempt to morally equate the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., Magneto’s arc shows the fundamental difference between the political philosophies behind the Soviet Union and America.
Young Erik Lehnshnerr suffers at the hands of Nazis, those who used superficial traits as justification for declaring certain human beings ontologically inferior to themselves, while Charles Xavier flourishes in the wealth of Americans, whose nation was founded on the idea that God creates common men no differently than kings. I hesitate to continue referring to it as American vs. Soviet ideology; it really is served best by the terms of Mark Levin’s bestselling book: Liberty and Tyranny. This contrast screams at the audience in a central dialogue scene wherein X and Magneto discuss their betrayal by the mutant-phobic CIA. Trying his best to dissuade revenge, X remarks, “We have it in us to be the better men.” Magneto coldly retorts, “We already are the better men.”
The heart of tyranny is the belief that one knows better than another how he should live his life (or whether he should live at all) because somehow the one is superior over the other. Of course, Magneto is a lot more powerful than the average human–able to control metal with his mind, pull a submarine into the air and all that–but power does not equal righteousness, which X was telling him in the first place. In the film’s climactic action scene, Magneto decides that it would be best to start a nuclear war between America and the Soviets, wholly embracing the eugenicist ideology that killed his mother. That kernel of tyranny, the belief in his own ascendancy, becomes the justification for genocide.
But the heart of liberty is the belief that each person, though they may sometimes get it wrong, ultimately has their best interests at heart, and that self-interest should be respected. Charles Xavier realizes that his self-interest–meeting, grooming, and uniting mutants around the world–is not inherently at odds with the interests of humans, so his progress does not have to come at others’ expense, as Magneto has decided. The parallels between our metal-tossing protagonist and the real world are sadly spot-on. The authors of the Frankfurt School, thankful as they were for the shelter and freedom America provided as they fled Nazi Germany, soon propagated the same insidious ideology that brought about Nazism: that some humans are more equal than others, and those more equal should revolt and take away the way of life enjoyed by those who are less equal.
These philosophical undercurrents give X-Men: First Class the heft that its predecessors strained for but never reached. Whether director Matthew Vaughn intended them as subtext or not, the clashing ideas of Magneto and Professor X constitute the primary political conflict of the 20th century stripped to its basic arguments. Coupled with Fassbender’s can’t-miss performance, this is one summer blockbuster that’s gonna stick with me for a little while.