In X-Men First Class we get the backstory behind Charles Xavier's school for mutants and its most important alumni.
This X-Men movie takes place in an alternate 1960's cold war reality where some people have developed pretty astounding mutations: the ability to read minds, fly, change appearance, shoot lasers out of their chests, and just about anything you want to imagine, but most mutants are unaware that there are other mutants.
A very powerful mutant, Sebastian Shaw wants to destroy all non-mutants, leaving only mutants to inhabit the earth. His strategy: manipulate the Russian government into starting a nuclear war with the United States. Moira MacTaggert, a low-level CIA agent, learns of this plot in a scene set in a high-brow Los Vegas brothel (and involves the impromptu removal of her clothes to go, um, under cover). Having obtained this information, she has to figure out how to convince her higher-ups in the CIA that Sebastian Shaw is actually a crazy evil mutant who wants to blow up the world.
Moira finds newly graduated professor Charles Xavier, who is a mutant who can read minds. She recruits him to assist in the quest to stop Shaw. Charles recruits other mutants and helps them develop their abilities, thus revealing how his school for X-Men got its start.
The fun thing about this movie is that within this plot-situation we learn the history of the big-name X-Men from the other movies. We learn all about young Charles Xavier, how he became a professor, what he's a professor of, why his thesis on genetic mutation was the start of something bigger than he ever imagined, and how he became confined to a wheel chair. We learn how Charles first met Eric Lehnsherr (Magnito) and how two close friends eventually became enemies. In the prison camps of Nazi Germany, we learn how, as a boy, Eric Lehnsherr, in a violent outburst of rage, discovered he could control anything made of metal. We see the terrible crime against him that created his rage, and set him on a life-long quest for revenge. We learn that the shape-changing Raven/Mystique grew up with Charles, and we learn how she came to join Magnito in a dramatic scene where she has to choose between him and Charles.
There is no shortage of action in this movie, and the climactic
scene does not disappoint with its alternative telling of the Cuban Missile Crisis that involves a supersonic jet piloted by a genius beast man, U.S. and Russian warships, cruise missiles, a nuclear submarine. And nuclear missiles of course.
There is also no shortage of theme in this movie. In their L.A. Times article, "X-Men: First Class reminds us we are all mutants now", Gillespie and Welch (2011) see the diversity of X-Men reflecting the social diversity of American identity. This is a key aspect of the movie, but no less important is the way the movie shows us the experience of anger and the effects of it at the individual level. We all want to be liked, and when we're disliked and ostracised for dumb reasons (unconventional interests, big nose, crooked teeth, wings growing out the spine ...) it makes us mad. X-Men First Class shows how some individuals react to this anger: finding comfort from friends, letting it go, trying to conform, or lashing out. In the character of Eric Lehnsherr, however, we are taken from anger at the level of being slighted to anger at the extreme with his experience as the victim of an irreparable crime.
In an interesting twist we see that the object of his revenge isn't just anybody, and we see how corrosive anger can errode any belief in the sanctity of life. The loss of this belief then leads to a
philosophy where ends justify means, and, in Magnito, develops into a willingness to kill anyone in his way.
In the face of some amount of past anger, each mutant then has to make a choice. They all face this delimma: there are some humans who will hate them because they are different, but there also humans who will accept their existence peacefully. Is it worth bothering to differentiate?
Charles Xavier maintains hope that differences can be worked out and that it is worth respecting the sanctity of life. Eric Lehnsherr dons his helmet, cape, and moniker of Magnito and declares that it isn't. And at that moment, each member of the audience has to scan their own experience/memories and ask themselves: the next time I'm angry, who am I going to be more like.
Gillespie, N. & Welch, M. (2011). 'X-Men: First Class' reminds us we are all mutants now. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/print/2011/jun/05/opinion/la-oe-welchgillespie-xmen-20110605
Goodman, G., Kinberg, S., Donner, L. S., & Singer, B. (Producers), & Vaughn, M. (Director). (2011). X-Men First Class [Motion picture]. USA: Twentieth Century Fox.
© Jason Kantz 2011