There is a long tradition of friends becoming enemies in literature and movies with varied and different reasons. From King Arthur and Sir Lancelot falling out over Guinevere to Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell fighting over the corners of Baltimore, there is something about the conflict that is caused by friends turning on one another. Part of it lies in the drama that unfolds watching a good relationship turn sour while part of it lies in the difficulties of facing off against someone who knows you better than most. As Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass said in Unbreakable, “In comics, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain’s going to be? He’s the exact opposite of the hero, and most time’s they’re friends, like you and me.”
Which brings us to the troubled, complex relationship between Erik “Magneto” Lensherr and Charles “Professor X” Xavier.
If there’s one thing that Matthew Vaughn got right in his X-Men: First Class, it was the personalities of two lead characters and their dynamic. This is the first time that both of them have been front and center as the main characters. Yes, Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen portrayed them beautifully in Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men movies (and did a fine job in the shitfest that was X-Men: The Last Stand). But they were always second to characters like Wolverine, Jean Grey, Storm or Mystique. As much as they set the plot forward by their actions, they were often the least involved – leaving the fighting to the younger mutants. Not so here.
As we meet them, Erik is travelling across the globe, hunting Nazi war criminals. He’s barely tapped into his powers, but they’re capable of protecting him. Meanwhile, Charles is in Oxford, completing his Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology while drinking and partying his way into any attractive girl that comes his way. His telepathic skills nothing more than a party trick to make sure he knows the right words to get scholarly lasses on their asses (so to speak). He has a young Mystique beside him – a girl he found raiding his fridge as a child. He cares for as a sister, even as it becomes clear that she wants more.
Both of them are so far and away removed from the people we know that it’s a bit startling to see how the pieces come together and how they’re united by a common foe – Sebastian Shaw. It’s clear that neither Charles nor Erik set out to become the leaders of the new mutant race. Charles was just helping while Erik was pursuing his personal revenge.
In many ways, it’s Kevin Bacon’s Shaw that is the spark that lights both of them individually as well as the world that X-Men comic books have portrayed over through the years. The leader of the Hellfire Club of mutants sees a world that is growing with his kind and sets out to put himself atop a new hierarchy. In order to do that, he manipulates the Soviet Union and the United States into the brink of nuclear war by scheming, buying and threatening the men on both sides towards the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It is Shaw’s growing threat and trained mutant squad that forces Erik and Charles to seek out other potential mutants to oppose him. It is Shaw and his mutants decimating the secret CIA base that forces Charles to open up his family’s mansion as a training center. It is Shaw who brings so much terror to the men in power of humanity that they see no other recourse but to treat all mutants as a grave threat. It is Shaw who ultimately colors the debate between Charles and Erik: to try and peacefully co-exist with humanity or to accept that coexistence is impossible and defend this new strain of life at any cost.
Along the way, First Class allows us to gain a new understanding of the choices Charles and Erik make. Erik is a man who has suffered for being different from those in power. He has seen the depravities that humanity is willing to reach. It is easy for Charles to speak of peace and coexistence since he hasn’t seen those things. But how do you respond to a dangerous world when it’s already made you suffer so much? What do you do when the same men that sat back and let millions die in the furnaces target you again for being different again – and a greater threat due to your individual power?
If anything, First Class reveals how naïve Charles Xavier was at the start of his journey. He helps Erik (his eventual rival) harness the full potential of his power because he’s unable or unwilling to accept the darkness that dwells within the young Magneto. He flirts with every woman near him, even as it is obvious that Raven/Mystique is crazy about him. Instead he openly pushes her towards Hank McCoy and, later, towards Magneto. He makes the choices that someone who has never had to brave difficulties would make – and they land him square where he didn’t want to be.
What First Class ultimately reveals is that the heart of the X-Men’s entire saga is the debate that these two friends were having as they played chess so many decades ago. Charles wants peace. Erik wants safety. Both think their way is the best and only way forward for mutantkind. The tragedy lies in that their schism is the reason for so much death and destruction. Unable to reach a compromise, they instead head down the path towards recruiting soldiers for their individual armies – X-Men for Charles, Brotherhood of Mutant members for Erik. That both of their goals could be achieved together if they had united and worked towards them is apparently a thought that doesn’t occur to them. Their powers, their history and their ideals blinding them to what should have been obvious. Even the friendship they share is unable to cut through their thick-headedness.
I’m glad Vaughn made this movie. It rescues the X-Men from the twin morass of suck that were the last two movies. I’d sign up for more if I knew they were bringing these guys back and hope that the next villain is Apocalypse – the third part of the equation in Charles and Erik’s never-ending debate. (Peace with humanity? Ruling over it? That’s all immaterial. The strongest rule all).