I don’t know about any of you, but I’m pretty damn excited for X-Men: First Class. I think it has the potential to be the best Marvel movie of the summer. Between the ridiculous amount of characters and the lackluster early posters, most people lost hope in the film. Then, the second trailer came out and the buzz started picking up again. But, I kept my faith in this film throughout, because my favorite character relationship/dynamic in comics has always been the one between Professor X and Magneto (and because Matt Vaughn was directing). And, if I’m going to get even more specific than that, the fact that they’re allegories for Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It truly is one of the most complex and interesting character relationships around.
It’s no secret that telling stories about politically or socially charged events is a very difficult thing to do. One way around this problem is to tell these kinds of stories in a different world. Now, I’m not saying that the X-Men were created solely out of a desire to tell a story about the civil rights movement, but the parallels are pretty obvious. Here’s a quote from Chris Claremont, writer on Uncanny X-Men:
The X-Men are hated, feared and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry and prejudice.
I grew up with the X-Men cartoon in the 90s and read some comic books here and there. So, I’m by no means an expert, but I think that goes to show just how amazing these two characters are; that even a more casual fan can truly appreciate their complexities. Their relationship and clash of ideology is at the very heart of the X-Men universe and gives rise to some amazing conflict.
Charles Xavier has long sought mutant rights through more peaceful methods. He truly believes that humans and mutants can live and function together in society. His philosophy falls in line with the same kind of stance Martin Luther King, Jr. took during the civil rights movement that started during the 50s; that a peaceful co-existence where everyone is treated as an equal was possible. Dr. King’s most famous works came during his “I Have a Dream” speech given in front of the Lincoln Memorial during a march on Washington. Often times, the X-Men’s major goal has been referred to as “Xavier’s Dream.” That’s definitely not mere coincidence. Xavier strives for a peace that he believes can only be reached by having mutants show their normal human counterparts that they are really one in the same, even if they might look different or have extraordinary gifts. To him, violence only serves to further divide humans and mutants and drive the fear that brings about his brethren's persecution. That’s not to say he doesn’t believe in violence, but only when necessary and usually in the form of protecting humanity from other mutants seeking to harm it.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of Xavier and Magneto’s differing ideals is that they both have a very similar end in mind; a world where mutants can live without fear. They’re just at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to getting to that place. The same can be argued for both Dr. King and Malcolm X. But while Xavier was modeled after MLK, Jr., Magneto took after the more militant Malcolm X. He believed in taking on human aggressors head-on with shows of force. Here's a couple Malcolm X quotes before I continue:
I don't even call it violence when it's in self-defense; I call it intelligence.
Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.
Those quotes certainly feel like something Magneto, especially in his earlier years, could have said. Now, as many of you know, Magneto was born into a German-Jewish family and experienced the brunt of Nazi aggression during World War 2. He was sent off to the Warsaw Ghetto and eventually found himself in Auschwitz after his family was executed. His characteristics and world views can be directly traced back to the psychological trauma he underwent as a child. From his perspective, he’s just trying to prevent these atrocities from happening again to his fellow mutants. He’s seen the dark side of human nature and now has the power to stop these horrible abuses, so why not use it? He doesn’t view humans as equals to mutants, he sees them as a lesser and weaker species.
Like Malcolm X and MLK, Jr., both Magneto and Professor X have on occasion seen some benefits in each other’s philosophy, even if they would never admit as much. Both men have a mutual respect for each other, even if their ideologies fall in complete opposition with the other's. What they both realize, however, is that a great conflict is on the horizon. Xavier believes he can prevent it, Magneto believes it to be inevitable. What results is a pretty amazing struggle between two men that, under different circumstances, could have remained the best of friends and perhaps the most powerful of allies. And, along this path, both men end up diverging from their initial stances every once in a while. On occasion, Xavier has abused his own powers and Magneto has given “peace” a shot. In the end, they always seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum and it leaves you wondering just how much good these two might have accomplished together.
Based on the most recent trailer, the films looks to really focus on the relationship and conflicting views of a young Magneto and Charles Xavier. I was really digging the conversation between both men that was intercut throughout the trailer. The setting also adds to the tension, since this very dynamic takes place right in the middle of the Cold War and Civil Rights movement. I'm really happy that such complexities and allegories can be weaved into a summer blockbuster. I'm all for dumb fun, but when you can tell a story like this, you've got something really special. I’ll wrap this up by leaving you with a quote from Michael Fassbender on the characters of Magneto and Xavier being directly influenced by Dr. King and Malcolm X:
It came up early on in the rehearsal period and that was the path we took. These two brilliant minds coming together and their views aren't that different on some key things. As you watch them you know that if their understanding, ability and intelligence could somehow come together it would be really special. But the split is what makes them even more interesting and tragic.