Certain stories about the origins of superheroes are easier to update than others. For example, by changing the origins of Iron Man’s comic book in the Vietnam War to reflect the role he played during the War on Terror, the character was easily modernized. That story laid the groundwork for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, using only global conflict as a backdrop, keeping the dramatic focus on Tony Stark’s internal transformation.
But in the X-Men franchise, Magneto’s origins are firmly rooted in trauma he endured during the Holocaust, posing a major challenge to writers seeking to actualize the powerful mutant’s backstory. Imagine Erik Lehnsherr becoming Magneto in a different way; separating the character from that painful historical context would essentially amount to creating a new character.
The fact that Magneto is tied to such a specific time period can be considered a hindrance (time will tell if and how the MCU adapts the supervillain). But ten years ago, Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: first class embraced the challenge of a piece from the superhero era with flair – and an impressive success. It’s not perfect, but the strengths of it First class far outweigh its flaws.
Nazi concentration camps aren’t exactly the favorite setting of summer blockbusters, though First class does not even consider that young Erik is brutally separated from his parents (a scene set in the first of 2000 X-Men entry). Rather, it puts him in the arms of a Nazi-affiliated villain: Sebastian Shaw, played by a mustache-spinning Kevin Bacon.
With Bacon’s character, First class does a nice trick by giving Magneto (Michael Fassbender) an opponent related to the Nazis and not tied to their history, who claims to pursue different goals than the rest of WWII Germany, but eager to use the sadistic methods of his soldiers. Bacon has said his performance was influenced by the young Hugh Hefner, conveying the feeling that he is always looking for a party, even in scenes where he tortures others with demented joy.
There is an imbalance in the two origin stories presented by First class. Magneto must survive the Holocaust, while Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) essentially uses his emerging powers to have sex. As the two bump into each other while investigating Shaw, their drastically different backstories give the film its dramatic core: the amazing, often tense chemistry between Magneto and Xavier, played by Fassbender and McAvoy.
The concept of the X-Men rests on these two main mutants presenting vastly different worldviews – then moving heaven and earth to make them a reality. Xavier is the pacifist trying to reconcile humanity with mutants, while Magneto pledges never again to trust the species that once subjected him to unimaginable atrocities, instead seeking dominion over everything.
It’s easy to see Magneto’s side of things, given its origins in as dark a chapter of human history as the Holocaust. Early scenes in which the mutant works alone to chase Nazis in France and Argentina are the best in the film, showing Magneto as a powerful figure propelled by rage and the desire for righteous revenge. It is initially more difficult to understand Xavier’s more abstract, ideologically optimistic position. He needs other people to prove that his vision of human-mutant collaboration can work, and the collaboration with the CIA gives him the technology needed to find other mutants. A small team develops, including Havok, Darwin, Banshee, Beast, Xavier’s childhood friend Mystique and Magneto. It is not built to last.
That loose alliance of mutants, all struggling to reconcile their own ideological tensions, is challenged when Shaw emerges with a mutant team of his own, including Emma Frost, Riptide and Azazel. It’s easier to keep up with all the new players on the screen than you might expect, as they all show unique powers quickly. (While Alex Gonzalez doesn’t say a word like Riptide, it’s easy to remember someone causing cyclones.)
The period of the early 1960s also keeps the film moving; it’s full of neat suits, secret societies, Star Trek-like control panels and nasty yachts straight out of a Bond movie, while the plot hinges on the Cuban Missile Crisis. First class traveled a long, winding road through development, and this may make the film feel overcrowded. It was originally seen as a solo Magneto project, following the character’s struggle through the Holocaust and the quest to ultimately get revenge on his former captors. (The screenwriter originally threw it like “The pianist meets X-MenWith Ian McKellen appearing to open and close the story.) But the 2007-08 writers strike messed up those plans, and the project underwent many rewrites to add and remove characters, storylines and historical settings.
It doesn’t all fit together seamlessly: A potentially intriguing love triangle between Beast, Mystique and Magneto never fully develops, and a training montage set in the X-Mansion seems to come out of nowhere. Two months later First class appeared in theaters, another piece from the superhero period – Captain America: The First Avenger – debuted in theaters. While Captain America was serious and straightforward in his approach to setting a superhero story against real history, First class offered a sense of style – and with it a few moments of narrative confusion – in his historical reinvention.
But for those willing to go along, this prequel offered a fresh start for the X-Men, with an appealing set of stories that more philosophically minded hunters could carry.
X-Men: first class now streaming on HBO Max.
Filmy One (FilmyOne.com) – Exclusive Entertainment Site