X-Men: First Class
If the name ‘X-Men’ conjures up images of post-op trans-gender candidates then you clearly haven’t been following one of the most popular comic book film adaptations of the past decade.
Part of being a superhero is, well, being super. You are able fly or shoot fire from your fingertips. Or perhaps you can read people’s minds. Anyone raised on Superman or Spiderman expects that having extraordinary (dare I say supernatural) abilities is met with awe and appreciation from a grateful public. But this isn’t always the case.
X-Men: First Class is the fifth X-Men film since 2000 and the reason for its popularity is no different to when the first comic book came out in the 1960s. X-Men struck a nerve with its readers because its superhero characters were not revered by the public in the comic books. They were feared. Their powers were seen as a threat and a clear indication of how different they could be. Mainstream society called them mutants, placing a pejorative emphasis on the genes which made them so unique. Some fans of the comic books often came from sub-cultures which identified with being outsiders. To others, it came as a welcome reassurance that being different was okay.
The latest film is a prequel, taking the story back to the Mad Men era of the swinging sixties where the two main protagonists first meet. On the one hand is Charles Xavier (later known as Professor X, played by the charming James McAvoy), a telepath who believes that mankind and mutants can live side by side in mutual respect. On the other is Erik Lehnsherr (later known as Magneto, played with steely resolve by Michael Fassbender) who, having survived the holocaust, fears that mankind’s only reaction to those it can’t understand is war and extermination. He fears mutants will only be persecuted. In the middles stands Sebastian Shaw (a sinister Kevin Bacon) who is hell-bent on using the Cuban missile crisis to begin a war between the two sides. But it’s really the relationship between Charles and Erik which invites attention.
For those who’ve seen the later movies, their enmity is well established so it’s of great interest to see them when they are still friends, when the argument over how to deal with their differences is being debated face to face.
The issues this throws up are worth considering. How does any group which acknowledges its differences to society approach such a relationship? Is the only solution to adopt a mentality similar to the Amish in America, whereby you completely remove yourself from the surrounding society, thus preserving your identity? Or should you play an active role in society, trying to change it without absorbing any of its corrupting influences?
Christians are one group who are well aware of those differences. Over their heads hovers the verse from Romans which says ‘do not conform the patterns of the world’. But then again, they are encouraged to go into the world to ‘be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves’ in Matthew. At Christianity’s heart is a desire to build the kind of relationships which its believers already have with Jesus. These relationships extend to fellow believers but also to non-believers. It’s a world of union not uniformity.
With the rise of secularism and multi-religious nations, individual faith groups become the outsiders. Their followers feel different to those around them. At one point in the film, Erik and Charles discuss such differences, both acknowledging that society may try to destroy them out of fear. But it’s Charles who points out that, despite the persecution they may face, it’s they who mustn’t fight back – ‘We need to be the better men,’ he says.
But is this a better film? It’s certainly a lot better than the last two X-Men films (X-Men 3: Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine). It returns to the storylines which made the first two X-Men films such critical and commercial successes. Its subject matter is certainly more serious than the likes of other comic book heroes such as Spider Man, Thor, Iron Man or Captain America, but perhaps lacking in the depth of The Dark Knight. For fans of the original comic books (this reviewer included: my sister and I collected The Uncanny X-Men for most of our youth) there are knowing asides and glimpses of familiar characters, all designed to satisfy their curiosity.
Comic books are good vehicles for exploring the issues of the day. The X-Men are outsiders who wrestle with the conflict over living within the world or apart from it. As W H Auden wrote,
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.