Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr were born a little … different. Charles' genetic template gave the lad brown hair, light skin and the remarkable ability to read peoples' minds. Erik was born with brown hair too, a splash of freckles across his face and the power to manipulate metal: to attract it, to repel it, to literally twist it at his cerebral will.
While Charles was raised safely in a well-to-do family, Erik and his parents were forced into a Nazi concentration camp. His mother was killed in front of him. And when a German doctor discovered that Erik's curious gift could be leveraged through rage and pain, he embarked on a plan to inflict unimaginable anguish on the boy, all for the sake of developing his "talents."
X-Men Origins: Wolverine dove into the backstory for, well, Wolverine. X-Men: First Class explores the origins of the mutant struggle, with Professor X and Magneto at the fore. The two legendary antagonists start out as friends when they first meet in 1962. And with a little help from the CIA, they begin tracking down fellow "mutants" to create a special governmental task force. Slowly they piece together a team of remarkable individuals, one that's quickly nearing its first real challenge. You see, another band of mutants has been forming, a band led by Erik's old, abusive doctor, now named Sebastian Shaw. His "deviant" mutants have plans to engulf the world in nuclear war, hoping that in its aftermath, mutants will be the planet's undisputed rulers.
Charles and Erik can't let Shaw win. But their motivations are as divergent as their superpowers.
Charles hopes that by helping humanity, the world will accept mutantkind as brothers. Erik's view of humanity is far less generous, and his goals are far less altruistic. He's not looking to save humankind, but to burn away a festering wound.
"I'm not going to stop him," Erik says of Shaw. "I'm going to kill him."
None of us are born a hero or a villain. Not even genetically "enhanced" superbeings are hardwired for salvation or destruction. And so we see that Charles has chosen his path. And Erik, it seems, has chosen his.
The X-Men narratives have always been far more than throwaway stories intended to amuse little kids. From the very beginning, Charles Xavier and his cohorts have been used by their creators to grapple with heavy-duty themes like discrimination, alienation, freedom and duplicity. And X-Men: First Class jumps into several of those categories with both mutant feet.
Charles, naturally, is the film's primary hero. Young and able-bodied, the future professor works tirelessly to gather "differently abled" youngsters into his fold, to both hone as a team and mold as a family. He knows that lots of these kids have been hiding their mutations all their lives, and they need more than training: They need some love and support. He encourages Erik to lose his anger and hatred, to try to mesh with this fledgling community and fight for the common good. "Here you have a chance to be part of something much bigger than yourself," Charles says.
For Erik, though, Charles' vision of a harmonious, accepting world feels a little naive. And while he may have a point (there's little in the movie that would suggest mutants have anything but a long, hard struggle for acceptance in front of them), his cynicism sets him on a path that'll turn him into Magneto, the franchise's primary villainous foil.
But even while we see ample evidence of Erik's evil future here, we also see how, at least in part, he gets there. Consciously mirroring real-world historical figures involved in the struggle for racial equality (in the U.S.), Charles encourages mutants to blend in with humankind while Erik preaches mutant pride. He tells Raven, a shape-shifter who's naturally blue, that she should be proud of her true form. This is a message that, depending on its extrapolated context, is a very positive one. After all, we teach our children that it's our differences that make us special—even as we, like Charles, suggest that not all societal norms are negative.
Through it all, several mutants risk life and limb to save one another and, at times, us unappreciative non-mutants.
Erik is Jewish, and we see in flashback a touching scene in which he and his family gather around a menorah. Other mutants belong to something called the Hellfire Club, which has ambitions of creating a global cataclysm. One of them, a teleporter known as Azazel, looks like a classic demon complete with red skin, pointed tail and goatee. Another mutant with wings calls herself Angel. A third goes by the name "Banshee," taken from the Irish legend of a keening ghost or spirit.
Mutation is a key component to Darwin's theory of evolution, with billions of years worth of significant change making us into the people we are today. The theory is referenced several times here (one minor character is nicknamed Darwin), and some believe that the mutants mark humanity's next evolutionary step.
Facing a potentially disastrous showdown with Soviet forces involving a line in the metaphorical sand, a naval officer says, "God help them if they cross it." "God help us all," says another.
The most obvious comparison point for these characters' struggle with inequality and prejudice is, as referenced above, race. But the film's creators also seem to be drawing a line connecting the mutants' desire for acceptance with the current gay rights battle being waged in our culture. For example, when a government agent expresses incredulity that a mutant had worked for him for quite a while without telling anyone about his true nature, the mutant says, "You didn't ask, so I didn't tell."
Raven (Mystique) sometimes wanders about completely naked in all her buxom, blue beauty. (The first time we see her like this she is a young girl just shy of puberty.) The CGI effects make her look like an anatomically suggestive but not perfectly correct blue Barbie doll. She's far from asexual, though. And she tries to seduce several mutants, going so far as to slide her naked self into Erik's bed. She's disguised as a white-skinned girl at this point, and Erik is not interested in her until she sheds her "human" appearance and turns her native blue.
The effects artists do something similar with Emma Frost, a mutant who can transform into a living diamond of sorts. When she morphs into a human she presents herself in an extraordinarily sultry way most of the time, dressing in a variety of tight, cleavage-revealing, midriff-baring outfits (including lingerie). She takes off her dress for a Soviet general and then makes him think he's making out with her.
Several women (including an FBI agent trying to blend in) attend a Las Vegas party wearing nothing but their skivvies. Charles and Erik go to a strip club to recruit their first mutant: She's dressed provocatively and willing to give them a private dance. "We'll show us ours if you show us yours," Charles tells her, meaning mutant powers. When she reveals her wings, they ask her if she'd like a job "where you could keep your clothes on." She takes them up on that, but later says she'd rather men stare at her becasue she didn't have clothes on than because she has wings.
A crass sexual joke gets screen time. We see mutants and humans smooch. Charles tries to seduce women at various social gatherings. Catcalls and whistles are directed toward women.
The violence in X-Men: First Class sometimes crosses over from action fodder into low-grade horror territory. Erik's story arc is particularly brutal. As a boy, he sees his mother's murder. The tragedy triggers his abilities, and all the metal around him begins collapsing like crushed soda cans—including the helmets being worn by two soldiers. They crumple to the ground in agony, dying.
The doctor, now understanding that pain sparks Erik's gift, tells him, "We're going to have a lot of fun together." And a quick series of flashbacks shows Erik being tortured by the man.
In retaliation, Erik assails any Nazi or Nazi sympathizer he meets. He forcibly extracts a tooth from a banker ... by way of its metal filling. (We get a view from inside the man's mouth.) He kills a trio of Nazis in Argentina after brutally stabbing one of them twice in the hand. [Spoiler Warning] Against Charles' wishes, Erik exacts revenge upon his childhood tormentor, mentally ramming a coin into the man's forehead (we see the bloody gash) and sending it out the back of his head, the coin now covered in blood. The sequence happens in painfully graphic slow motion.
Explosions are plentiful, including several that consume people. Erik cuts a yacht in half with an anchor chain. One evil mutant redirects energy—gunfire, explosions—against his enemies, and thus encapsulates a massive explosion into a tiny ball and makes a good mutant swallow it. (We see the results.) People are dropped from incredible heights, falling to their deaths. Others are skewered by pointy tails. Someone's hit in the head with a gun butt. Soldiers are wrapped in barbed wire. A mutant is nearly strangled by a brass bed. Another is crippled by a wayward bullet. Erik dares Charles to shoot him at point-blank range to test his ability to deflect the bullet. (We see the gun being put to his head.)
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word. We also hear smatterings of "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "b‑‑tard," "h‑‑‑" and "bloody." God's name is misused about 10 times, including at least twice with "d‑‑n." Jesus' name is abused three or four times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Mutants and humans alike drink quite a bit—everything from champagne and beer to martinis and mixed drinks, sometimes to excess. Charles, for his part, guzzles from a huge beer bong in front of an approving crowd after he receives his doctorate.
There's a joke about smoking weed. And we see folks puff on cigars. One mutant develops a vaccine to "cure" his mutated feet. But when he injects a syringe full of the serum into them, it starts to forcefully alter his whole body.
Other Negative Elements
Young mutants at the CIA's special facility trash the place while showing off their superpowers. (Charles expresses his profound disappointment regarding their behavior.) Characters sometimes lie and steal.
When Erik tells Charles that he plans to kill his old adversary and hints that mutantkind and humankind will never get along, Charles begs him to leave his chosen path of xenophobic-fueled violence and hatred. Charles insists that even if humanity does fear mutants and may in the short run persecute them, war against them is not the answer.
"We have it within us to be the better men," Charles tells him.
"We already are," says Erik.
It's a frightening statement, one that explicitly points to Erik's transformation into a complex but thoroughly bad man in the decades to come.
Like these primary characters, X-Men: First Class embodies both fierce positivity and rancid negativity. It's a new story loaded with the sorts of themes and ambiguity that made the first X-Men narratives interesting. And it tells us, rightly so, that being good is hard work. All of us, be we mutant or human, must always strive to suppress our baser, more animalistic tendencies and give voice to the better angels of our beings: Charles and the X-Men represent those better angels. Erik and his crew come to represent an embrace of our "true" natures, even though those natures are often quite nasty.
There's plenty of scriptural precedent for such a struggle. And there's a pretty large part of me that welcomes the spiritual discussion it naturally prompts. But while X-Men: First Class lauds many of the right things, it dabbles in a host of wrong ones. And while trying to exhort us all to be "better men," it gives us what makes us worse. It wants it both ways. And I'm not so sure Charles would appreciate the sentiment.