Are superpowers a blessing or a curse? Are mutants more like ethnic minorities, or queer people? For too long, TV shows and movies have been asking these same old questions, without really finding any interesting answers.
So it's a pleasure to watch a movie like X-Men: First Class, which blows past these tired old questions, to give us some new ones. For the first time in eight years, the big screen versions of America's favorite mutants feel like they have cool places to go.
The "are superpowers a blessing or a curse" thing is really overplayed, and X-Men: First Class mostly sidesteps this cliché. Instead, superpowers are just part of who you are, and they're also skills, to be mastered and improved. It's like asking if red hair is a blessing or a curse, or the ability to yodel.
So X-Men: First Class breathes new life into Marvel's most overexposed set of characters by going back to 1962 and recounting the origins of Professor X, Magneto and their respective mutant followers. It mostly works, because of a strong focus on the characters, especially Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr. Where the movie doesn't work, it's because it's trying to do too much in one film, or because the plot is a bit silly, or because some bits simply don't work. But more on that later.
The movie's focus on character development absolutely does work - because once you recognize that your superpowers are just a part of who you are, a strong focus on character is obviously the best way to talk about mutant powers. And especially when it comes to Charles and Erik, the film manages to explore the idea that they both have major blind spots, which are both character flaws and a hindrance in using their powers fully. Charles can read and control minds, but his own smugness keeps him from understanding people. Erik can control metal and magnetism, but his rage keeps him from using his powers properly.
And it's definitely in the portrayal of these two iconic characters that the film shines the most. Any time James McAvoy (who plays Charles) or Michael Fassbender (who plays Erik) is on the screen, the movie just clicks. Michael Fassbender, in particular, has a few incredibly emotional scenes in which Erik's grief and rage feel absolutely present.
The movie follows both men from childhood. Charles starts out as an overprivileged British kid whose biggest problem is an absentee mother, then goes on to get a PhD in mutantology from Oxford. Erik, meanwhile, gets sent to a concentration camp as a small child, only to watch his mother die at the hands of a sadistic Nazi. Erik becomes a totally awesome Nazi-hunter, while Charles becomes fascinated with learning about this fellow mutants. The two meet when it turns out the Nazi who killed Erik's mother is also the #1 evil mutant.
The relationship between Charles and Erik has never been as fascinating - or as slash-ficcy - as it is here. They both help each other grow as people, and Charles especially helps Erik learn to work with others, and to find the space "between rage and serenity" where he can fully use his magnetic powers. McAvoy and Fassbender have amazing chemistry together, and their scenes involve a lot of tenderness and mutual understanding. You can really glimpse the potential for these two to become another Kirk and Spock, or maybe Luke and Han. The rise and fall of the Charles/Erik bromance goes way, way beyond a political alliance that splinters into disagreement.
After their first encounter with Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the former Nazi and current genocidal mutant, Charles and Erik start tracking down other mutants, forming the first proto-team of X-Men. (You'll hear the "Montage" song from Team America: World Police playing in your head a few times.)
And a lot of the middle section of the film has to do with preparing the newbie mutants to face their first real challenge. The interesting thing is, about half the mutants need to learn to master their powers. And the other half seem to have mastered their powers already, but need to learn to accept themselves as mutants. So the two tracks run simultaneously: learning to control your inner resources and strengthen your mutant muscles, and learning to accept who you really are, without hiding your true nature. So in a sense, mutant powers are both a skillset that need to be strengthened, and a form of identity that needs to be embraced. Like I said earlier, it's a nice way around the same old questions about mutant powers that you tend to see over and over.
At the center of the "accepting your mutant self" storyline is Raven, aka Mystique, who's been Charles Xavier's friend since childhood but is having a harder time finding her place now. She can make herself look like a normal girl, but her natural state is the blue spiky nakedness that Rebecca Romijn made famous in the first few movies. And even though Charles pays lip-service to mutant pride, he mostly wants Raven to keep her mutant awesomeness on the downlow. (And Charles, in keeping with his general smugness, doesn't appreciate how lucky he is to have an invisible mutation.)
Meanwhile, Raven falls for the sexy nerd Hank McCoy, another mutant who also "pass" for normal - except for his big prehensile feet. The only trouble is, Hank is a self-hating mutant who wants to find a way to erase all outward signs of his difference while keeping his superpowers.
The absolute best thing about X-Men: First Class is that it doesn't make any of this stuff look easy. It's all a struggle, as some of the most powerful scenes in the film make clear. Like one great sequence where the young proto-X-Men watch helplessly as a ton of people are slaughtered in front of them. Or some of the scenes where Erik, Charles and Raven talk about whether it's better to try and adapt to society, or make society adapt to you. Learning to be powerful and proud takes a lot of work.
There are other ways in which this film avoids asking the same old questions. For example, various characters talk about the idea that mutants are destined to drive humanity to extinction, in exactly the same way humans once wiped out Neanderthals. This is a notion that Grant Morrison bandied about in his New X-Men comics, but I don't remember the movies dealing with it before.
So like I said, the movie mostly works. When it doesn't work, it's usually because the film is trying to cram too much X-Men continuity into one two-hour movie. Or because a few of the requisite speeches about the future of mutantkind feel a bit canned. Or because the actual plot, in which Kevin Bacon almost starts World War III by confusing a few generals, does not feel even remotely plausible. (Grounding this story in the real-life Cuban Missile Crisis actually works against this storyline, because you just can't believe that Kevin Bacon orchestrated these events.) And there are a few outrageously cheesy sequences that try to prop up this storyline, including two separate "nuclear war is scary" montages where we see mushroom clouds and terrifying cartoons, trying to impress on us the danger of nuclear Armageddon. Oh, and now that Bacon has proved he can make a fantastic villain in Super, he doesn't seem to feel any need to prove it a second time.
But those are mostly minor complaints - I'd say X-Men: First Class is 3/4 of a great movie, with a few wobbly segments sandwiched in here and there. And if you've ever been fascinated by the Professor X/Magneto dynamic and wanted to delve more fully into their complicated, intense relationship, then X-Men: First Class is a dream come true. Most of all, X-Men: First Class fuses action and character development, in a way that makes the tragically overused mutant angst feel full of excitement again. Here's hoping this movie sparks a trend.