When X-Men: First Class came to me in the mail as a rental I had forgotten I put it in my queue. I have to admit I was annoyed. I use my rentals to help me get through trudging on the treadmill and the higher octane the better. For some reason, my perception of the movie was that it would be a shallow, pop culture gag-fest. As I’ve noted previously some of the choices by the X-Men movie franchise seemed more to mock the comicbook faithful rather than be loyal to them and not the least of which have been some of the casting decisions. Bleh! With a special emphasis on the dry-heave noise.
But one character, one actor and one composer turned this movie (for me, anyway) from that pop culture gag fest into an absolute thriller.
As the movie opens, we recap from a previous X-Men “Magneto” flashback, to his time as a Jewish boy in a German concentration camp.
Having been inculcated with endless references to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement as the embodiment of evil has numbed us to it. Godless government (the epitome of which is Communism) has slaughtered far more than the Nazis ever aspired to. While the death toll for Hitler has been estimated to have been approximately 6 million Jews and 9 million total, Communist Joseph Stalin was responsible for murdering 40 million of his own people, approximately 7 to 11 million of them he starved to death in order to take their grain and further empower himself . One of his most infamous statements is, “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” Truly a soulless monster.
He is outdone by an even greater soulless Communist monster, Mao ze Dung (so beloved by fools that now we all just call him “Mao”). He is now known to have been responsible for an astounding 70 million Chinese deaths. The number deadens the mind like talking of United States debt.
How many movies have we seen depicting Stalin, Mao ze Dung or any Communist as a bloodthirsty monster, the epitome of evil? How many Nazi movies have you seen?
But empathy with the character of “Erik Lehnsherr”, a.k.a. “Magneto” (alternately spelled “Lensherr”) can make the realistic depiction of Nazi brutality newly disturbing, if you open your mind to it.
It is here that we are shown the antagonist who made “Magneto” what we all know him to be. “Sebastian Shaw” differentiates himself from the Nazis and is apparently using them as a vehicle for genetic experimentation. Thanks to endless permutations within Marvel comics across 50 years, being loyal to original storylines is near impossible but a very large portion of what excites me about comic-come-to-life movies is to see what I remember reading as a teenager given some level of realistic incarnation. Casting Kevin Bacon as the X-Men arch villain was ridiculous. I did have to look up the character and was very pleased to see that both who he is and what he does was based upon previous comic storylines but Kevin Bacon?! I knew he didn’t look the part before I ever saw what “Sebastian Shaw” had been drawn to look like. The nearest I could figure (outside of some more links for a “6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon” drinking game) was the “absorbing energy makes me younger” deal. Bacon is in his mid 50’s and, although he’s no Dick Clark, I guess his face was plastic enough to go any direction makeup wanted to take him.
We then have a stark contrast drawn from Lehnsherr’s experience in a concentration camp to the extreme privilege that Charles Xavier, a.k.a. “Professor X” grew up with, and it is poignantly done.
What the Hollywood X-Men series is also good for is endless propaganda about “evolution”, though the “theory” is now so discredited that it requires the fascist iron fist to beat down dissenters.1
Bacon’s German is fair; a little stunted and staccato but a decent effort. I appreciate the producers requiring it rather than some lame, cheesy accent implying a different language.
Bill Milner, on the other hand, is an excellent and compassion-drawing “Young Erik”. As he reacts to the murder of his mother as part of an experiment, we get a taste of Henry Jackman’s unbelievably moving score. Perhaps more than any other single force, Jackman’s music makes this movie what it is. It is an odd twist of irony that the foundation for all the previous movies has been the character of Wolverine played by actor Hugh Jackman.
But it truly is a combined effort; Henry Jackman, the Marvel writers and movie producers…and Michael Fassbender.
Where so many comic-come-to-life castings have been absolute duds, such as Ioan Gruffudd as the Fantastic 4’s “Reed Richards”, others have been truly “fantastic” such as Robert Downey, Jr. as “Tony Stark” a.k.a. “Iron Man”. Fassbender as “Magneto” now joins the ranks.
After Young Erik has his mother killed by Shaw in an effort to elicit a manifestation of his mutant powers, we fast forward to Geneva, 1962 and a mature Erik Lehnsherr staring at his Nazi-tracking map board. The scene lasts only about 90 seconds but it is amazingly powerful because of the score/image/actor combination.
While a mature Erik Lehnsherr tracks down the man who murdered his mother and the Nazis who murdered his people, Young Charles Xavier is partying up “at university”. Young Charles is played by James McAvoy and if the look we were going for is the next generation of wavy-haired Hugh Grant metrosexual than it was a resounding success!
The first target on the list is a black market Geneva banker. Barely 5 minutes into the movie and I’m already thoroughly pumped.
The banker has had dealings with Erik’s quarry, going by the name of “Klaus Schmidt”. Fassbender is a fantastic 1960’s European sophisticate, right down to the mannerisms of clicking his tongue at the banker and smacking his chest with his hand.
The exchange he has with the banker is textbook suspense-building; Lehnsherr produces a bar of Nazi-engraved gold implying he intends to deposit it there. The banker threatens to turn him in but he presses that he knows better. The banker asks, “Do you know our terms?” “Yes,” Erik tells him, “And you should know mine. This is all that’s left of my people. It was melted down from their possessions and torn from their teeth. It is bloodmoney.”
The banker fearfully tries to say, “This is not that kind of bank” but Lehnsherr cuts him off. Magneto then uses his “mutation” to slowly pull a metal filling from the banker’s mouth in order to learn that Shaw can be found in the post-war Nazi haven of Argentina.
Masterfully done. Jackman’s score sends it right over the top.
Fassbender’s French is better than Bacon’s German. Not blinding fast but near normal communicating speed. Impressive.
We then move to a “CIA stakeout” of the “Hellfire Club” in Las Vegas, where we begin to peg the Marvel/Hollyweird lust meter with plenty of scantily-clad women. Though we are shown how sexist the CIA is regarding women, agent Moira MacTaggert (Australian-born Rose Byrne who spoke her lines without a hint of an Australian accent!) infiltrates the club by stripping down and using “what the CIA didn’t issue”.
I did find it interesting to note that there is comic lore surrounding Sebastian Shaw using “the Hellfire Club” as a safe haven for mutants under the guise of a strip joint. High marks for loyalty…low marks for depravity.
The Hellfire Club is a real association, though much more sinister than a comicbook strip joint or super villain team. In its heyday it was known for radical debauchery and Satanism and our own Benjamin Franklin may have been a member.
Another body we are “treated” to is that of January Jones who plays “Emma Frost”—a Marvel character with enough “good girl/bad girl” polarity shifts to make a WWF wrestler jealous.
She’s always drawn like a Playboy cartoon so we have to be loyal there!
Despite loyally pulling characters from comic lore, half of them come across as cheesy preteen fantasies of “what I could do if I had superpowers!” Álex González as Janos Quested, a.k.a. “Riptide” was one of them (or, as I wryly call him, “tornado fingers”). No gravitas or substance.
Straddling the fence was teen heartthrob Nicholas Hoult as a young Hank McCoy, a.k.a. “Beast”. “Beast” is a central X-Men character and, although there wasn’t much weight to Hoult’s scenes (no need to beat him down, could’ve been the writing) they are given dramatic weight in Kelsey Grammer’s depiction of the character in X-Men III: Last Stand. The scene where Beast reaches his hand into the field of a mutant boy who’s power is to make mutants “normal” and has a momentarily-human hand is powerfully acted by Grammer and he truly did bring what could’ve been a silly character to silver-screen reality. His voice or a facsimile thereof is dubbed over some of Hoult’s lines after he becomes the boy-Beast. Though I can not find the credit thereof, I liked the effect.
A minor character that I did enjoy was Jason Flemyng as the demonic teleporting “Azazel”, if for no other reason than the make-up and special effects. More than that, the character has some very interesting lore behind it as the father of blue teleporting X-Men favorite “Nightcrawler” and mixing in plenty of Biblical references to “Nephilim” malignant beings from another dimension interbreeding with women, which I have covered in the past.
The plot has an interesting take on the history revolving around the “Cuban Missile Crisis”. The less-well-known placing of Jupiter missiles in Turkey by the U.S. government is referenced as well as the ratcheting up of the Soviet response in sending missiles to Cuba but it is the unseen hand of Sebastian Shaw forcing all of the provocations, hoping for a world conflagration in which mutant kind could then reign supreme.
After some of the research I’ve done on “unseen hands” who precipitate conflict and bloodlettings for their own gain, I found myself liking that aspect of the plot, greatly.
Back to Nazi hunting.
At the Villa Gesell in Argentina, Lehnsherr finds a bartender and two older men playing checkers and drinking beer…German beer.
One tells him with wry humor that the climate brought him there to be a “pig farmer” whilst the other tells him that he’s been a tailor since his youth in Dusseldorf. Lehnsherr remarks, “My parents were from Dusseldorf!” They ask him what were his parents’ names. As the score playing in the background begins to build, he says, “They had no names. They were taken from them…by pig farmers…and tailors.”
Some of the best movie entertainment and revenge scenes that (for me, anyway) may top them all; “Deathwish”, “Punisher”, all of them.
Lehnsherr shows the number tattooed into his arm and then dispatches all three.
Fassbender is fantastic here. He enters speaking passable Spanish. But when he takes the Nazi dagger from the “pig farmer” and reads it, his German is fast and near flawless!
“‘Blood and honor.’ Which would you like to shed first?”
— “We were under orders!”
Truly thrilling entertainment.
The plot then winds through Xavier making connections with the CIA and fighting Shaw’s maniacal plot.
Remote viewing and mind control are old hat to the CIA but it has been, and is, not nearly as fun as Hollywood would make you think. To give you an idea, the “Patriots” at Langley got a lot of help from (ironically, given this movie) Nazis!
Then Lehnsherr corners Shaw on his boat but his attempt on Shaw’s life is foiled. He fights back with his mutation, wielding the ship’s anchor and chain.
In the cut before the scene, boy tornado-fingers overturns some zodiacs with his “power”. It looks silly and contrived.
But there’s something about the anchor attack that just makes it real and threatening; almost certainly the combination of the character, the actor and the score.
As they continue their “research”, Xavier’s telepathic abilities are enhanced with a construct fabricated by Hank McCoy called “Cerebro” (plenty of comic lore behind it) where he can reach out all over the world and locate all of the new Atomic Age mutants and recruit them.
The concept is an important one to digest. If a force has superior abilities, why would they stop there? Why not utilize technology to make them more potent. I bring this up only as a segway into the subject of “are demons real” and, if so, do they interact with us and how do they do it?
Each one of the characters that are recruited are *bleh* (comic loyalty notwithstanding). —A bunch of teenagers with miraculous though silly superpowers.
In fact, now that I have researched the likes of “Angel Salvadore”—the wasp-winged acid-spitting stripper (played by Zoë Kravitz)—I’m even more annoyed. Not only is the character silly, but it is a recent one that should never have been re-written into the origins of the X-Men.
We can have a wasp-winged acid-spitting stripper flying around ridiculously but the films will mock any attempt at incarnating the flashy costumes the comicbook faithful longed to see.
If you want to see a chick flying around with insect wings, bring to life the 1963 Stan Lee creation “The Wasp” (a.k.a. Janet van Dyne). That’s the first thing I thought—”What a lame ‘Wasp’!” OK, so you eschew my generation for a newer generation; do comic books matter to kids these days as they did 20, 30 and 40 years ago?
At least Lee had the intelligence to make the silly idea somewhat believable in “The Wasp’s” diminutive size verses “Angel Salvadore’s” full-sized body with moderate-sized insect wings that melt into her skin when she wants. Ridiculous!
The best part about the recruitment scenes—besides the cameo appearance of Hugh Jackman unchanged from later films (because his regenerative mutation keeps him young…what, am I the only nerd here?!)—was the “bro-mance” between Xavier and Lehnsherr. I’ve seen one reviewer lament it but I enjoyed it (and I think that reviewer was no deeper than the comics he read). It was both loyal to the comic and mature. I enjoyed the contrast between Lehnsherr’s deprived, pain-ridden upbringing juxtaposed to Xavier’s privileged childhood. When they all retreat to Xavier’s mansion to get out of the mutant crosshairs, Erik quips, “Honestly Charles, I don’t know how you survived, living in such hardship.”
In the background during the recruitment is a catchy tune called “Run (I’m a Natural Disaster)” by Gnarls Barkley. It’s a contemporary song with a perfect 60’s feel—especially the instrumental version.
The friendship is tastefully done without homosexual innuendo (much like the recent Downey Jr./Jude Law Sherlock Holmes films)—though I may have come across a picture of Fassbender in drag, sitting next McAvoy, mocking his role. I neither saved nor examined it. I am very pleased to have no other knowledge of Michael Fassbender than this role until the odd chance that he should again appear in a movie I think I want to see. I was equally thrilled by the Daniel Craig James Bond movies and really pushed it watching him in Defiance (surprisingly important to me in a “How to survive when the Machine is hunting you,” fashion with another Jew vs. Nazi twist though this story taken from real life) and then again in Cowboys & Aliens (great work; took what could’ve been silly and did a believable acting job—I’ll try not to examine Spielberg’s creepy agenda too deeply).
Actors and actresses, in order to be good at their trade, need to be empty, vapid, weird people so that they can more easily clothe themselves with someone else’s imagination.
The “bro-mance” is further fed when we find Charles and Erik are playing chess before the Lincoln memorial. Really.
But what I found poignant was their exchange. Xavier has a dreamy, utopian recounting of looking into the hopes and aspirations of each of the mutants he has found stating, “We can help them.”
Lehnsherr has a more cynical view—especially give that the CIA is doing the “helping”:
“Identification. That’s how it starts. And it ends with being rounded up, experimented on and eliminated.”
I found this scene personally powerful now that I have delved deeply into the power structure that is running the United States and the world.
Now it is quite clear that threat could apply to anyone who gets on the wrong side of the so-called “New World Order”.
Perhaps the lowest point of the movie was when the worst of the characters—the teen mutants—all got together to show off their “super powers”. Ludicrous eye-rolling gag-fest.
But there was more Magneto action to be had!
A team with Xavier, Lehnsherr and “Agent MacTaggert” are surveilling a Soviet hideaway looking to intercept Shaw but only Emma Frost shows up. When the plan is to pull out, Erik disagrees and storms the hideout.
Again, what should be silly is believable and powerful.
What happens next should send my Freedom Movement Libertarian friends into a frenzy. Emma Frost is confronted and puts on her hard candy shell (some sort of “diamond” effect to her body). Lehnsherr then has the brass bed pull her in and begin to choke her tighter and tighter while Xavier protests louder and louder.
He eventually stops and Xavier is able to subsequently read her mind.
What my Freedom friends object to is the glorifying of “torture”, and it is a valid point. Today, when “the enemy” is only a stunt to be used to increase power—and eventually, you are painted by the state as “the enemy”, those in power torturing whomever they please is a truly unsettling proposal.
Now, what my Libertarian friends don’t understand is that, in a fight, in war, in combat, there is a deep-seated desire to win at all costs. Combat of any kind should be avoided as much as possible, then finally accepted with no holds barred.
Am I making a case for “torture”? No. But I am making a case for a change of the issue: we should not concern ourselves with the ruthlessness of combat, but who the protagonists and antagonists are.
And, honestly, the myth of “torture is cool” (at least in this scene with these characters) is a little bit of counter-culture to another Hollywood myth: the female sex object who can kick yer ass!
During the “training”, Xavier attempts to help Lehnsherr find the full potential of his strength in serenity instead of anger. It calls for both actors to be deeply moved and I have to say that Fassbender was more believable than McAvoy, the one giving real tears and bloodshot eyes vs. a wiping away of the tear that wasn’t easily seen (a cheap parlor trick for someone who can’t elicit the emotion easily).
The last time I saw a toughguy emote believable tears on queue was James Caviezel in the 2008 Science Fantasy action film Outlander. The film was fair entertainment but Caviezel’s acting was outstanding.
There is a finale where the two mutant teams collide and it’s more of what we’ve had previously: the teen titans are over the top (reminding me of something you’d see on a Power Rangers episode) and, with the exception of Azazel the demon teleporter, only “Magneto” and “Professor X” are fun to watch.
One very surprising aspect that was masked in the conflict of two fleets, American and Soviet, was that the jerk who continually prods the Soviet fleet commander is called “Zampolit” by him though it is untranslated. A “Zampolit” was a state political officer who was not a professional soldier or sailor but who was more like a mole or spy for the Communist Party. It is the Zampolit that Xavier manipulates to simultaneously destroy his career and save the day. Interesting.
The movie closes with all of the characters where we know them, including a super loyal depiction of Magneto in his protective helmet (which—shocking myself here—wasn’t as pleasing to me as I would’ve thought) and Xavier being paralyzed from the waist down thanks to a bullet fired by “Agent MacTaggert” but deflected by Magneto. I would’ve thought that the tragedy of paralysis would add some depth to the Xavier character, but it was limited to only a brief period of the movie.
And perhaps that’s what really worked the best for fleshing out the Magneto character: pain. It is the pain of Erik Lehnsherr’s past that makes him such a powerful figure.
Pain deepens the soul…and makes a fantasy comic-come-to-life movie character, just a little more believable.
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NOTE: rating is based solely on the Magneto scenes and not on the never-ending Darwinian propaganda laced with cleavage.