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Is 'X-Men: First Class' the Love Story of Professor X and Magneto?

"X-Men: First Class" is a prequel to the three X-Men movies of the past decade. But does it reveal something new about familiar characters?

Spoiler alert

I'm not the only one who thinks X-Men: First Class is a love story.

No less an expert than actor James McAvoy, who plays Charles Xavier -- better known to millions as Professor X -- told reporters that the film is “kind of a love story” between Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr.

He noted, "This is the first time in their lives they've met someone who is an equal of sorts, someone who understands them."

Lehnsherr, played by Michael Fassbender, of course becomes Magneto, and the chief villain of much of the X-Men mythos. Magneto and Professor X are archrivals who once were the best of friends, and their frustrated regard for one another has long been at the core of what makes the X-Men one of the most compelling superhero stories.

Where so many superhero worlds are black and white, good and bad, the X-Men have villains who have hearts, minds, feelings, and loves; villains who once were heroes. And the heroes, well, they're plenty screwed up themselves. They're heroes the world hates and fears.

The mutant identities at the core of the X-stories have served as metaphors for both race and sexuality/gender at different times. This film is squarely in the sexuality and gender camp—in fact, its racial politics are pretty awful. But mutant identities are framed as attractive or unattractive, passing or non-passing, and something that can be “cured.” Or exploited.

“Bromance” is nothing new at the movies these days, but X-Men: First Class is far more than that, and far more than just a prequel to a series that had about outlived its freshness. It's shot through with queer subtexts, a film that isn't about learning to say “I love you, man,” but rather about people who cannot process or deal with their love for one another.

It's set in the '60s, after all; not the peace and love '60s, but the Kennedy/Khrushchev '60s, still the height of the Cold War and with World War II still recent memory. Very recent memory for Erik, who not only survived the concentration camps and saw his parents die, but was experimented upon and tortured when his mutant powers (he can control metal) became apparent. Erik's powers are at their height when he is angry, and so he has learned emotionally to feed on that anger as well, hunting down and dispatching Nazi war criminals around the world.

Meanwhile, Charles Xavier grew up posh in England, with the fun kind of mutant powers—telepathy and some mind control. Xavier sees being a mutant as sexy—mostly. He flirts with a girl in a bar because she's got two different-colored eyes, but ignores the affections of Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) because her mutation is less pretty—a shapeshifter (the same one played by Rebecca Romijn in the previous three X-films), her natural look is blue skin and yellow eyes.

Charles and Erik meet on the trail of the same bad guy. Now calling himself Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), Erik's concentration camp tormentor and twisted mentor didn't get the world destruction he was hoping for out of the Nazis and so is now out to create nuclear war however he can. Charles is working for the CIA, and Erik is a one-man kill team, a rebel vigilante perfectly willing to die in his attempts at revenge.

But Charles saves him and temporarily distracts him from the death drive. As McAvoy noted, here is his equal. It's part casual 1960s sexism that has led him to always ignore Mystique, part class narcissism (in a pointed remark in a bar, she says she's majoring in “waitressing” while Charles gets his PhD from Oxford), but mostly, who could help falling for Erik? Beautiful, broken, talented, and in need of saving; desperately in need of and afraid of love.

Of course, Erik too, can “pass,” though he's got his concentration camp tattoo to remind him how quickly and easily that passing privilege can disappear. Charles has never known anything but privilege, and ultimately that's his downfall, that's what causes him to fail everyone he loves.

For a while, Charles and Erik are the perfect team. With the help of Hank McCoy, a genius mutant with feet that make hobbit feet look cute, Charles can magnify his powers and track down other mutants, and they go on a recruiting trip around the world, a gorgeous montage loaded with meaningful looks between the two of them and mutants that make longtime comics readers squeal.

“We're the start of something incredible, Erik,” Charles says. But Erik is still damaged, still wary of humans. And the mutants who don't pass are wrapped up in their own struggles. Mystique's crush on Charles has been transferred to Hank McCoy, whose own self-hatred has led him to try to develop a “cure” for his physical difference—and to completely miss poor Mystique's attempts to flirt.

The one person who tells her that she's beautiful the way she is is Erik, whose comments on her looks are delivered in such a disinterested way that it's both easier to believe them and impossible to believe the movie's concession to heteronormativity when the two of them kiss. Of course, Mystique still has to do the pursuing, but Erik's grudging kiss at least comes with affirmation of her true identity. That's more than Charles and Hank can give her, though we still feel for her because it too is not enough.

But Hank and Charles both suffer for their choices, in two chilling scenes that explain how they became the Beast and Professor X of the comics and the earlier movies to which this film is prequel. Hank's attempt to “cure” himself goes horribly wrong—and where he fears Mystique's natural form, she finds his new Beast-body beautiful. And so does Erik. Villains they may wind up becoming, but villains who insist on remaining themselves and who offer their partners acceptance rather than a struggle to fit into the straight world's rules. Flamboyant mutants, perhaps.

Angel (Zoe Kravitz), one of the film's few characters of color (the other is killed off nearly as soon as we get to know him) is one of the mutants who can pass and one of the least comfortable with being “outed.” “I'd rather they stare with my clothes off,” the former stripper says when leered at for her strangeness. Once she can't go back, Angel chooses Shaw's nihilism rather than remaining with the teasing, messy family Charles and Erik are slowly creating.

For a while, it is intimacy that truly gives Erik strength—Charles' ability to literally get inside his head is what increases his power, teaches him to focus it. But when faced with Shaw, who has now created the Cuban Missile Crisis, Charles cannot understand the levels of damage inflicted on young Erik. To carry the mutant powers as sexuality metaphor one step further, Shaw's abuse of young Erik's powers carries a trauma very like sexual abuse, and it's something Erik is too deeply wounded by and ashamed of to share even with Charles.

And so they can hold each other's hands through the first part of the attack, through finding Shaw, but when it comes time to stare all his childhood trauma in the face, Erik must shut his love out of his head. He must use the helmet Shaw created to block out Charles for himself. Shaw, meanwhile, is the very embodiment of straight masculinity, of warmongering patriarchy. Shaw absorbs and reflects energy, turns it on his enemies, and treats the woman in his life (Emma Frost, as many have noted totally wasted in this film) like crap. In fighting him, Erik winds up becoming like him. He winds up becoming Magneto.

It's actually one of the movie's least believable twists, that abuse from a fellow mutant turned Erik against humanity and made him believe that mutants are superior. Still, his fate was sealed the minute he put on Shaw's helmet and closed out the possibility of true intimacy. Or did he? Would Charles have eventually failed Erik the same way he failed Mystique, willing to be friends and companions but ultimately rejecting his love?

It's a bullet from human CIA agent Moira MacTaggart's gun that hits Charles, but it's Erik's deflection that sent it into his spine. Charles gets to be the martyr for the human race that he wanted to be, and as he lies in Erik's arms he wastes his last opportunity to keep Erik by his side, the way he claimed to want.

“You did it,” he says.

And Erik leaves, taking with him Mystique and the evil mutants that were Shaw's henchmen, taking with him the helmet that keeps Charles out of his head, forever. Leaving Charles to plant a memory-erasing kiss on Moira's lips, choosing after all the human woman. Choosing the straight world. Choosing his mansion, his title of Professor, his students. But maybe having learned a little distrust of humans from Erik, he refuses to be a part of the CIA.

Along the way, the film highlights the utter stupidity of the Cold War, the frightening ease with which the world was brought to the brink of nuclear disaster, and the seeming endlessness of human prejudice. But it's at its best as a very human story of damage and love and the falseness of hero/villain narratives, of self-hatred and misunderstanding and tiny, avoidable personal tragedies.

It's at its best when it is a story about love. Failed and frustrated love, yes, but love all the same.

Sarah Jaffe is a contributor to AlterNet and a freelance writer.