...shining light on the media, one review at a time
The aptly named, highly anticipated X-Men: First Class delivers phenomenal special effects, gifted acting performances, and a powerful story—the stuff superhero fans dream of in an origins movie. But as one watches the young Professor Charles Xavier begin to gather, train, and instruct his fellow mutants and sees these youthful characters make choices that will decide the course of their lives, it’s easy to overlook the more subtle education taking place—that of the viewers.
First Class is packed with lessons that the filmmakers hit hard at every opportunity. Some of these messages are good, advocating peace, leadership, courage, and compassion. Consistent with previous X-Men movies, however, this film is also teeming with content from the opposite side of the moral spectrum, including rampant sexuality, violence, and profanity. The story’s damaging elements, which include a heavy emphasis on evolutionary theory, are prevalent to such an unnecessary degree that one is left with the indelible impression that the First Class filmmakers don’t believe in the moral ideas espoused by Professor X any more than the ultimately villainous Magneto does.
If the creators of the film don’t buy the positives they attempt to sell, it’s little wonder that their nods to the light end in smoldering darkness. Forget the “X”—in the category of overall moral value, this one earns a big, red “F.”
As the origins story of the mutant men we later learn to call Professor X and Magneto, First Class has something to offer that the other X-Men films do not. Not yet hidden behind their alter egos, Charles and Erik Lensheer, the men behind those famed identities, are here shown with more humanity and greater emotional vulnerability than we’ve previously been able to see. Charles emerges as a born teacher, through whom this film gets most of its positive content. Unfortunately, many of the laudable ideas that Charles promotes fall flat in the end, likely because they have little substance to stand on.
For example, one of the central lessons that Charles strives to teach his fellow mutants is pride in who they are—a self-acceptance of their unusual abilities and unique traits. While Charles’s effort is admirable, he fails to sufficiently communicate this idea even to the mutant closest to him, Raven. Since Raven’s appearance as a young girl in Charles’s childhood home, he has called her his sister. Raven, whose natural skin color is blue, can change shapes to look like other people. She uses this ability to hide her natural form, which she considers ugly. Despite her close proximity to Charles for most of her life, she apparently has not learned to accept herself as she is. Charles’s attempt to teach other mutants to be proud of their mutations is also hit and miss, as only a few of them embrace their differences, while others seek belonging and acceptance in violence, power, and sexual promiscuity.
In First Class, Charles is young and should perhaps be cut some slack for a youthful lack of wisdom. Nevertheless, he is still this film’s best hope for uplifting value, and, as an iconic superhero, his ideas inevitably hold great sway over moviegoers. It is particularly disturbing, then, that the reason for his argument that mutants should accept themselves comes not from a belief in the innate value of all human life, but from his conviction that he and other mutants are the next step in the ongoing process of evolution. One can easily see how this basis for convincing Raven and others to love their differences yields inconsistent results. If they are merely the products of natural selection, what is there to be proud of? They are still different and strange, with no reason to love themselves or others more because of it.
This same evolutionary foundation undermines even Charles’s most admirable message of peace and pacifism. While Charles tirelessly advocates harmony and organized self-defense over violence, his best argument for this approach is only that mutants are “the better men.” As the more advanced creatures, Charles apparently believes that compassion and sympathy should be their standards for living. However, there is no precedence or reason for such kindess within the theory of evolution.
Far more logical is the viewpoint of Sebastian Shaw, Charles’s nemesis and counterpoint in First Class. As the other teacher in the film, Shaw shapes his mutant sidekicks and pupils, Erik included, with harsh lessons in the survival of the fittest concept that is so necessary to the theory of evolution. As Shaw’s prize student, Erik absorbs his teaching better than most, and the film reflects the consequences of the training success.
[SPOILER WARNING] Starting the course of brutal violence that dominates much of Erik’s screen time for the remainder of the film, Shaw discovers through the merciless shooting of Erik’s mother that anger and pain increase the boy’s superhuman powers. Though Erik never forgives Shaw for the murder of his mother, he still becomes everything Shaw hopes for, even agreeing with Shaw’s worldview and sharing his desire for the destruction of non-mutant humanity to preserve mutant kind. As a result, we have Erik to thank for the most gruesome scenes in the movie, as he goes about exacting violent revenge for his family’s treatment in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
Erik quite obviously has no problem accepting himself and his mutant abilities. After all, they enable his revenge and mean that he will be among the fittest who survive. When Charles nobly (and correctly) tells Erik that killing will not bring him peace, Erik replies that “peace was never an option.” It’s hard to argue with Erik’s logic—an evolutionary worldview doesn’t include peace, but rather chaos, death, and a merciless fight to survive.
The burning question, then, is not how Shaw and Erik can be so cruel, but why Charles is not more like them. Perhaps Charles himself isn’t quite sure of his guiding principles, as he wavers and even goes against his own convictions when situations become complicated. Too often, Charles hesitates to prevent or stop Erik from enacting violence against others. One could argue that Charles is hoping Erik will change for the better and decide to be kind on his own, and, therefore, is reluctant to use mind-bending powers on Erik. Such reasoning may excuse Charles’s failure to act in situations when the violence is slight, but does not hold up in other cases, when lurid acts occur in part because Charles did not prevent them.
[SPOILER WARNING] The worst of these moments comes during the climactic scene when Erik confronts Shaw while Charles uses his telepathic powers to “see” the events through the minds of Erik and Shaw. With his superpowers, Charles manages to freeze Shaw, holding him still to help Erik. Consumed by the desire to avenge his mother’s death, Erik takes advantage of the situation to kill Shaw in a grisly manner. Charles pleads with Erik not to kill Shaw and is clearly tremendously distressed while Erik performs the murder.
Yet in the midst of Charles’s scream and expression of sheer agony during the murder, he never releases Shaw to give him a fair, fighting chance against his murderer. Charles likely holds Shaw still because, using his mutant ability to absorb energy, Shaw has absorbed enough power to become a walking nuclear bomb. Thus, Charles could be applauded for saving the lives of many at the cost of one evildoer. But in this sequence, Charles essentially takes part in an assassination, an act that is certainly questionable and definitively inconsistent with his pacifist ideals.
A result of this confusion of morals, precariously balanced on the quicksand foundation of Evolution, is the profuse sexuality that accompanies the women of this film. The heavy sensual content should be no surprise, as an animalistic view of sex (propagation of the species) and a removal of any reason for modesty (we’re all just animals) are the natural end for a line of reasoning tied to evolutionary theory. Even so, the amount of sexuality and immodest exposure in this film is so extreme that, about halfway through the movie, I found myself wondering if there would be a single female character in First Class who did not strip or otherwise shamelessly flaunt her body. These numerous scenes avoid what the ratings board deems nudity, but come about as close as one can get, with strippers and prostitutes parading about in lingerie and mutants barely clad in plunging necklines and super-short skirts that make one wonder why they bother wearing anything at all.
Apparently, I’m not the only one with that thought, as Erik actually encourages Raven to go nude in her natural blue form (which is a bit scalier than the usual human’s skin). Officially bringing the evolutionary perspective to its logical conclusion, Erik equates Raven with a wild animal—saying that one would never look at a beautiful wild tiger and think it should be clothed. Strangely pleased to be reduced to this beastly level, Raven attempts to follow Erik’s advice and goes unclothed to find Charles.
To his credit, Charles is embarrassed and tells Raven to clothe herself when he sees her. However, the power of Charles’s stance here is again undermined by his behavior at other times. At this point in the story, we have already seen Charles behave as a womanizer, using unique pick-up lines to try to seduce women in an indiscriminate display that devalues women, modesty, and sex just as much as Erik’s proposal and the many immodestly clad women in this film.
To be fair, it must be further acknowledged that some of Charles’s teaching and ideals are beneficial for the other characters, as well as the viewers. Perhaps the purest of these lessons comes in the brief period when Charles becomes Erik’s teacher and friend, and he tries to persuade Erik that hatred is neither the best option nor the only way he can increase his power. In a memorable training session, Charles helps Erik find an emotional place within himself that Charles calls “the point between rage and serenity.” This pseudo-profound phrase lends a nice bit of drama if one doesn’t think about it too closely, but the real lesson Charles is apparently trying to convey is a good one—that love provides just as much, if not more, power than anger and pain.
Again, however, Charles’s pupil is not convinced and discards the lessons that are inconsistent with the worldview—in this case throwing out the idea of love as weakness in favor of the animal’s fight to survive. Additionally, a close look at Charles’s actions also calls into question his own understanding of love. [SPOILER WARNING] In this case, the undermining moment comes when Raven wants to go with Erik to battle against non-mutant humans, but seeks Charles’s approval and advice. Instead of guiding her to do the right thing, Charles encourages his “sister” to go with Erik, because that is what she wants at the moment. Ultimately, then, Charles’s love for Raven (or his knowledge of real love) is not strong enough for him to encourage her to do what will be the best for her in the long run, rather than just what will give her temporal happiness.
The moral quicksand of this film, powered by evolutionary ideas, seems to have no end as it continues to draw the characters downward in its confusing, suffocating swirl. Unfortunately, the ideas First Class preaches are aided by incredible production values, which make the film both more dangerous and more tragic. The danger comes from elements like the remarkable special effects that make even the villainous powers of Erik and Shaw awe-inspiring, and the hypnotic powers of actors at the top of their game.
Michael Fassbender delivers on all levels as Erik, while James McAvoy as Charles is so appealing and heartfelt, that he magnetizes the audience more than Magneto’s superpower. Thanks to McAvoy’s depth and authenticity in every moment of his scenes, viewers will join with the other characters in wanting to wholeheartedly follow this fascinating and seemingly wise young man, wherever he leads. Added to this is the script, which boasts a well-crafted storyline, complete with high emotional stakes and fascinating, developed characters. Thus, the tragedy I mentioned comes with the realization that so much talent and effort was spent on a film in which harmful ideas, sexuality, violence, and profanity have the final say.
Are there positive messages conveyed in First Class? Yes—but a viewer has to trudge through so much noxious content to find them that one is bound to get dirty in the process. At the very least, moviegoers who watch First Class are likely to receive more of an education than they bargained for—and it won’t be a good one.