Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Between rage and serenity... X-Men: First Class

Blood and honor... Which would you like to shed first?” - Erik Lensherr

I am going to admit it; I am probably a little bias when it comes to X-Men. I’ve loved it since I was a child. The original cartoon aired in the 90s was amazing. I was in love with Gambit and wanted to be like Storm, but I loved all the characters equally.  I still can’t pick a favorite character, Nightcrawler or Gambit? Or Wolverine? Ah! Other than Iron Man, X-Men is the best Marvel Comic concept and full of “marvelous” characters (Sorry I couldn’t resist that one).

The first two films are great, especially X-Men 2 which boasts one of the best opening scenes in film history as Nightcrawler attacks the White House with Mozart’s Requiem scoring the scene (makes me want to stop what I am doing and watch it right now). The third film X-Men: The Last Stand is regrettably horrible minus Archangel and a spot-on casting of Kelsey Grammar as Beast. I pretty much would watch it again just for those two because every other character basically went to pot, along with the script. X-Men Origins: Wolverine definitely fell short, but mainly I was just happy to finally see my beloved Gambit on screen. And now we have X-Men: First Class, the prequel we never knew we wanted and certainly never knew would be this amazing. Saddle up, cowboys; this is going to be a great big blog!

The film opens immediately taking us back to the first film with the moment Erik discovers his power as he and his family are rounded up in the Nazi concentration camps in WWII. We get to delve a little deeper into the scenario though when we meet a man named Schmidt, known the rest of the film as Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon. I must say he was a fantastic villain. I was impressed that he could speak German and Russian so beautifully. Kevin Bacon has always creeped me out, so this was a perfect role for him. We get to see the events that made Magneto hard as metal, including the killing of his own mother right before his eyes by Shaw. Shaw then delivers to Erik one of many great pieces of dialogue that reveals the character, “So, we unlock your gift with anger… anger and pain…”

The story of Magneto, Erik Lensherr, is the most compelling part of the film. It’s utterly sorrowful, as we all know how the story ends up later on, and deeply sad to see how all the wonderful parts of him get snuffed out by this “anger and pain.” At one point Erik refers to himself as Frankenstein’s monster and Shaw as his creator. There’s such a deep philosophical connotation throughout the film that speaks of controlling what’s inside you before it controls you. Oddly enough, Magneto proves incapable of that while his friend and counterpart, Charles Xavier, chooses to meet that challenge every day. Another notable observation is that Magneto’s helmet is the helmet Shaw wears throughout the film, so essentially, Magneto ends up becoming just like the man who destroyed his life, as so many villains do.

What makes Magneto’s tale utterly superb is the mesmerizing performance given by Michael Fassbender. He is an actor quickly climbing my charts since seeing him in Inglorious Basterds and Jane Eyre, but it’s this role that shows he is capable of drawing out a deep emotional response not only from himself, but from his audience. Each scene he was in was thoroughly intense. I couldn’t take my eyes off him the entire time and often it was his moments without dialogue that spoke the loudest. The mark of a fine actor.

I have to mention my favorite scene in the film, which is a moment when Charles Xavier, Professor X, is trying to help Erik control his power. At this point, they are training with other mutants to find and apprehend Shaw to essentially stop WWIII from starting during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Charles challenges Erik to move a satellite dish. To say the thing is huge would be an understatement. Erik thinks he needs anger, emotional stimulation, to conquer the task, but Charles knows it’s so much more than that. Then he says the film’s great tagline, “I believe that true focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity…” This ties into the theme I mentioned earlier of control and finding balance. These mutants must learn to balance their desires, emotions, and abilities. He uses his telepathy to dig into Erik’s mind for a serene moment and he finds a memory of Chanukah Erik had with his mother. Charles explains it as he “accessed the brightest part of Erik’s mind.” Fassbender beautifully allows hope and disbelief to simultaneously wash over his face, he replies, “I didn’t know I still had that…” Gah! That line tore me apart. That entire scene was filmmaking magic.

James McAvoy had a great challenge in his role as Charles Xavier, who is THE X-man,  but he nailed it. He’s been a favorite actor of mine for years and never disappoints. He showed us with believability what a younger Charles would be like: boyish yet responsible, respectful yet with a bit of a swagger. He perfectly captured the spirit of an incredibly intelligent young man just out of college with a bright future ahead... who uses science in his pick-up lines at the bars. He kept up the quintessential characteristics of Charles, such as putting others before himself and always thinking about the bigger picture. Unlike Magneto, Charles was always aware he was a part of something greater than himself.

The film also hit a major point about our society, particularly in the obsession with image. At first glance, it may seem silly, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized what a great moral point to make in our age. The way the mutants felt about their appearance, the insecurity and the rejection, can easily be compared to the ridiculous standards of our society today. The mutants, particularly Raven (Mystique) and Hank McCoy (Beast) felt they had to hide their natural forms and that their cosmetic appearance needed to fit with the rest of the world. However, they were hiding who they naturally were, who they had evolved to be. This is comparable to our society that values dieting to point of anorexia, taking drugs and supplements to speed up muscle production, and plastic surgery to shape our faces and bodies and smooth away "imperfections." This expectation alienates what is natural, and that was very much the issue in the film. In the previous X-Men films they dealt more with the fear from humans toward their kind, and in this film it touched more on acceptance versus rejection from the world.

Even Charles thought they should hide their forms and seemed to have the same expectation of the world’s view on beauty and acceptance. So did Hank McCoy, he was extremely insecure. However, these two characters meet and ironic fate. Charles, one of the most powerful mutants of all time, ends up in a wheelchair, and after many times of making a big deal about his hair, he ends up going bald. He is like any young man with a misplaced sense of vanity. Hank makes a serum to undo his mutation, and it ends up accelerating it instead, causing him to fully become Beast. The thing is that once Hank really becomes Beast, it’s like he finally comes into his own and sheds his boyish insecurity to become warrior-like. Proverbs is truly right; beauty, while enjoyable, is absolutely fleeting.

On the subject of Charles and his wheelchair, there is some debate as to the way it happened in the film, but personally I thought it was the way it ought to be. There is a C.I.A. agent named Moira McTaggert, played by the lovely Rose Byrne, who fights for both humans and mutants. (I was sort of secretly hoping she and Charles would get together, but anyway…) Magneto is trying to kill hundreds of humans during the climax, and she begins to shoot at him to stop him. She fires off bullets and Magneto deflects them, and one of them hits Charles square on the lower spine. To me, this makes perfect sense in the scheme of the story. Charles was the one person who wanted absolute reconciliation between both sides. He was the symbol of peace and righteousness, and he becomes paralyzed because of a human and a mutant fighting each other. Such a grand symbol of the war, and how the war between these two sides can only prevent or paralyze, peace and righteousness. Awesome!

This film also brought an onslaught of mutants, some of which we have seen in different forms before. For the baddies there was a guy named Azazel who was like a red version of Nightcrawler and had Guillermo Del Toro’s fingerprints all over him, clearly. There was Riptide who wore swanky purple suits and could start tornadoes from his palms. Then there was Emma Frost who was a telepath that turns to diamond form. Personally, I thought she was a pretty worthless character. You could have taken her out of the film and made no difference. Basically, I think she was just some eye candy for the boys out there as she uses her cleavage more than her telepathic ability to get what she wants. That’s also how I felt about the Angel character too. Yeah she was pretty, whoohoo she’s a stripper with beautiful wings who spits fireballs like Super Mario, but she was worthless to the story other than to be eye-candy. And Lenny Kravitz, I’m sorry, but your daughter can’t act.

However, I really loved the adorable redhead known as Banshee. He was charming and had a sweet ability. When he learns to use his sonar, that screaming voice of his, to create enough sound waves to make himself fly, that was pretty legit. He should totally be in a metal band too as his day job. It was also awesome to see Cyclops’s relative, Havok or Alex Summers, in this film. You can see how Scott Summers has similar powers and both of them have a sense of honor and fear of hurting others with their gift. There was also Darwin, a guy who can adapt to any environment, and last but certainly not least young Raven, or Mystique, played by rising star Jennifer Lawrence. Even William Stryker’s father made an quick appearance.

My criticisms of the movie are slim, but there. For starters, I mentioned my dislike of Emma Frost and Angel as merely being eye candy and little of any other kind of substance. That goes along with the scene where Moira strips down to her lingerie in Vegas to follow a Colonel into Shaw’s lair filled with other girls in their lingerie. That’s what I like to call “fan service.” Necessary? Absolutely not. But they throw it into the movie because sex sells and we buy it like sheep. The other thing I didn’t like was the whole “Mutant and Proud” slogan Mystique kept harping on throughout the film. It’s akin to a cheesy banner you’d find at a Pride parade and, I’m sorry, but that isn’t X-Men. At least they could have come up with something unique and less annoying. But other than that…

Heavens, this post is long but there’s so much to say. I didn’t even mention to groovy way they used the 1960s as a backdrop and weaved our historical events into the plot. Or the fact that there were some majorly creative shots in the cinematography. Or the wonderful cameos, particularly Hugh Jackman’s quick insert as Wolverine that made the whole audience chuckle. At any rate, this was the best time I’ve had at the movies this year so far and I am happy that the prequel I never thought I wanted became something I got to have anyway. 


  1. Yes - I actually read this all the way thru even though I've had to pee since before beginning it! I loved the film too and think it might be my favorite of the series (will need to rewatch 2 & 3 soon JUST to be sure). I don't have all of your analyses, but good job. I think what makes it my favorite is just getting to see WHY things are the way they are - I've always loved getting backstory on characters in film and tv - guess it comes from a theatrical background. Anyway just wanted to say hi and I <3 James McAvoy!

  2. i really love your analysis, especially about:
    "The quintessential characteristics of Charles: putting others before himself and always thinking about the bigger picture. Unlike Magneto, Charles was always aware he was a part of something greater than himself."


  3. Great analysis, I agree with almost everything you had to say, but for one thing... The connection made about acceptance:

    Erik Lehnsherr: If you're using half your concentration to look normal, then you're only half paying attention to whatever else you're doing. Just pointing out something that could save your life.
    [the barbells suddenly drop and Raven shape shifts to her natural blue form to catch it]
    Erik Lehnsherr: You want society to accept you, but you can't even accept yourself.

    These scene hit right at home... There is more than just the individual but rather the entire mutain race. In comparison, the homosexual society and gay pride was a clear indication to the main idea.

    People that are homosexuals feared for lives and lived the lives in the cloest.

    And in this past decade there has been more acceptance.

    Mutants are a metaphor to what is different... race, sex, size, looks...in today's society.

    Homosexual spent most of there lives in fear, not able to acceptance themselves so they lived there lives in the closet, hidden, trying to make themselves fit in and not only be normal... normal from society.

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  5. This is the kind of material "students" should read so that they can appreciate a "lesson" better. A great piece of commentary to accompany one of Reel History's best film!

  6. I think, these words are great!

    That is what MK Gandhi tried to explain in his letter to A. Hitler.

    (History repeats itself)

  7. You've done a good job in re-telling the plot and also have been able to pick up on little psychological or sub-concious "themes" that come up with the different characters. Which, don't get me wrong I liked. The only thing I wanted to add was the relationship with Charles and Raven. It was curious, seeing as I haven't read all the comics, that they had formed a crucial relationship between themselves and how they became the best of friends but like Erick they go there separate ways in the end of the movie. Why I can't say but I think it just follows the plot of X-men to the bone. In other words they could have been more of a reason for this. I mention that only because you said that was one of the problems that the last X-men movies had. Plus I loved the way Raven was portrayed in the movie. The little things that most people would have missed about this movie.

    In short I loved the movie and It really has a place in my heart for that type of power and raw emotion throughout the entire film .

    Happy days.

  8. I almost forgot. "Mutant and Proud" you say it's cheesy I have to strongly disagree. This can be applied to almost anything I reckon. Whatever, whoever you are, what you want to be, you should be proud of who you are no matter the circumstances. If you are trying to be someone you are not, why focus so much energy on that than rather just be who you are and damn proud of who you are. Also you'd be saving yourself a whole lot of grief you'd be more relaxed you could be able to think straighter.

    I want to be "Mutant and Proud"

    1. Hello Nick, sorry I only just now saw your comments. This site never tells you when you get comments, I hate it! Anyway… ;-)

      The “mutant and proud” thing goes deeper for me in dislike. First, it’s very self-exalting and annoying like bumper stickers. The whole concept of bumper stickers is “my opinion is so awesome everyone should have to know it.” It’s extremely irritating. There is a difference in being proud of who you are and being proud of your beliefs and being smug or self-exalting about them. There needs to be humility, and that’s what Magneto’s character struggled with. In the end, slogans like “mutant and proud” actually create division and not unity because you are focusing on differences only, instead of core similarities which encourage unity.

      It’s the same as racial exaltation like White Pride, Black Pride, Brown Pride etc… Does that really encourage unity between the races, or does it segregate because of pride? When you lump a group all together yes that creates sectional unity but not overall unity and it can become such a problem that it creates the violent feelings of racism between the groups.

      Now, it may be silly to think that could come from this slogan, but in the X-Men world it certainly does. “Mutant and Proud” is the falling of small rocks that creates an avalanche of anger, segregation, and mutants thinking they are above humanity, rather than co-habitators with them. Hitler’s reign had the same pride and look what happened. In essence, Magneto becomes the very monster that created him. One group who thought they were better than everyone else exterminated his family, and now as a mutant he too believes he is better than humans and wishes to exterminate them. It’s a vicious circle.

      Anyway, that was a lot haha, but I thank you again for your comment and sparking discussion. :-)