X-Men: First Class (2011)

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

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I quite enjoyed X-Men: First Class back when it first came out simply because it’s fun.  It walks the line between dramatic and funny, combining the Cuban Missile Crisis and the always fun threat of nuclear war with “team up” montages and the same sense of fun as you would find in a summer camp movie.

It’s the story of the beginnings of the “X-Men,” led by Charles Xavier and his nemesis Magneto.  Here they have something like the dynamic in a buddy cop movie, with Charles (James McAvoy) the young and privileged and Erik (Michael Fassbender) a little older and very much tormented by his treatment in a concentration camp.  Talk about heavy sh*t.

They get together, with the help of a few members of the CIA, recruit a team of mutants, all pretty young, and go to battle with the movie’s villain, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), whose goal is to wipe out the entire human race.  He also happens to have killed Erik’s mother back in the concentration camp.

The story takes place in the early 60s, with the world burdened by the threat of nuclear war.  Shaw decides he will use this to advantage (and the movie will use it to make a point) to help the humans destroy themselves so that the mutants can rise up and live free.

What’s inherently interesting about the X-men is that there is more to the story than simple black and white conflict.  We already know that Charles and Erik will become enemies, and Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) bounces between them.  They want to be accepted, but they’re willing to fight for that through different means.

Charles wants to be accepted by the humans, making peace with them and demonstrating that mutants are not to be feared.  Erik doesn’t care what the humans think and is willing to go to more extreme measures for a cause he so deeply believes in.

And neither of them is wrong, at least at their core.  They are both justified in what they strive for, and similarly they can both be chastised for how they go about it.  It would be too easy to say that Erik is a madman and Charles has the right idea.  Both in this movie and in others we see how Charles’ desire for peace doesn’t always work.  He is often walking on eggshells around the humans, trying so damn hard to prove that mutants aren’t a threat, appealing not to humans’ hearts but to their minds.

It’s all very fascinating, and this has more to do with the characters as a whole, beyond just this movie.  Here some of that commentary (hard not to see how it relates to real world issues, particularly in the 60s) is told through Raven’s story.

She has known Charles most of her life, when they were both kids, but unlike Charles her “otherness” is on the surface.  She’s blue and covered in scales whereas Charles looks like any other human (not to mention he’s white, male and looks like James McCoy), and while Charles encourages her to shape shift into the form of Jennifer Lawrence, so she’ll be accepted, Erik comes along and tells her she’s beautiful as her natural self.  Over the course of the movie she will gradually accept who she is and own it.

And sure, it’s a bit simplistic, but for a superhero movie to spend as much time as this does on her identity and identity in general, well I think it’s fascinating and wonderful.  It feels to me like these messages are sincere, and in that way it feels as though the movie really is paying respect to the X-men characters and world.  These are characters created with social commentary baked in.

And it helps that the movie is fun, with a pretty great cast of young actors.  They meet up quickly and form a rag tag team of mutants, appealing to the part of all of us that both thinks were special and wants to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

Up Next: Certain Women (2016), Like Father, Like Son (2013), Stoker (2013)

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