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