June 08, 2011
X-Men: First Class is the fifth screen adaptation since 2000 of the Marvel Comics series. What’s the appeal of these Homo superior mutants whose superpowers cause them to be oppressed by the bigoted and backward majority, us genetically inferior Homo sapiens?
Well, every adolescent sees himself as victim and victor.
X-Men: First Class is a prequel set during 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis. It explains the split between former best friends: nice Professor X (played boringly by the usually charming James McAvoy, the faun in Narnia) and tormented Magneto (an impressive Michael Fassbender, who was also strong earlier this year as Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre).
At first, the handsome pair gladly teams up to recruit fellow mutants for the initial year of their new academy. Then they fight the Dr. Mengele-like Nazi geneticist who murdered Magneto’s mom at Auschwitz and who has since become a Dr. No-styled international super-villain egging the US and the USSR into nuclear war. (Kevin Bacon plays him with a cheerful lack of effort at making sense of his character.) They also combat a telepathic villainess, played (horribly) by blonde starlet January Jones (Mrs. Don Draper) as a tribute to Ursula Andress’s ice queen in the first James Bond movie.
Ultimately, Magneto realizes Nazi ideology was right; Hitler was merely on the wrong side. So he recruits all the nonwhite mutants away from the moderate Prof. X to join his radical team.
The basic conflict in X-Men between the Martin Luther King-like Professor X and the Malcolm X-like Magneto over whether to tolerate the majority’s prejudice or to give them what they have coming is similar to the struggle in the Harry Potter series between the saintly Dumbledore and the sinister Voldemort.
In contrast to J. K. Rowling’s tale, First Class sympathizes less with Professor X, the outdated assimilationist, and more with Magneto, the mutant supremacist who learned not to trust the majority during the Holocaust. In First Class, one mutant has an epiphany: “We shouldn’t try to be more like them. Society should aspire to be more like us.”
Bryan Singer, who directed the first two X-Men movies and is back to produce First Class, often explains how being Jewish and homosexual makes him an outsider, which lets him empathize with the persecuted mutants. The vastly successful Singer’s self-pity always reminds me of that scene in Garry Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show where veteran showbiz producer Artie, played by the redoubtable Rip Torn, explains to cocky young joke-writer Phil why he should be careful making wisecracks about gays.