Monday, June 6, 2011

X-Men: First Class -- Choices and Differences

Director: Matthew Vaughn, 2011. (PG-13)

In the alternate world imagined by Stan Lee and the Marvel comic-book writers, mutants are all around us. But in the early 1960s era of the civil rights movement, the mutants relied on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy later made famous by the military’s approach to gay rights. They simply remained hidden, believing themselves alone and different. This atmosphere sets the scene for the bulk of this prequel.

It actually starts two decades earlier. In the prolog we see the origins of the two heroes, Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds), who will become Magneto, and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Atonement), who will become Professor X. Their origins are as different as their characters’ personalities.

Revisiting footage from an earlier X-Men film, Erik is ripped from his mother’s embrace as Nazis push his parents towards the concentration camps, while he is destined for experimentation. In the lab, he meets a scientist who would become the powerful super-villain in the heart of this film: Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). It is the German Shaw who shows Erik how to harness his metal-manipulating magnetic powers: through his anger. But the first lesson comes at a painful cost, one that defines Erik forever.

Charles Xavier, on the other hand, grows up in a mansion in New York despite being British. It is here that he meets Raven, a young shape-shifting mutant who would become Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone). Meeting her provides both with the surprising news that there are other mutants. They are not alone, after all. She becomes a surrogate sister, though she has desires on him.

Ten years ago Bryan Singer rebooted the super-hero genre with the original X-Men film. Here, he produces this terrific prequel from a script he co-wrote. Working with a strong cast, director Vaughn creates a James Bond-like movie, with intricate gadgets and toys (a submarine inside a luxury liner) and lingerie-clad girls, a film that satisfies with its action sequences and yet is built on the character development between the leads. McAvoy infuses Xavier with the right level of youthful charm and innocence to counter Erik’s cynicism and violence. Their chemistry gives the film its depth. And Kevin Bacon’s delicious world-ruling hunger makes him a perfect arch-villain.

The grown Xavier runs into CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne, 28 Weeks Later) when she is after an expert on mutations. As a telepath, he knows she has seen others like him and Raven, and is ready to join her. She is after Shaw, who is using his own telepath Emma Frost (January Jones) to put the weapons in place to create the Cuban Missile crisis. Meanwhile, Erik is on a personal mission of vengeance against the Nazis and looking specifically for Shaw.

We see Erik hunting and killing the Germans who routinely murdered Jews during the war. He is an avenging angel of destruction. But we see, too, the impact of the atrocities of that war on his psyche. He has become a relentless killing machine, thriving on it, even enjoying it.

Vengeance does this. It carves away at our character until any love or mercy we might have experienced is gone, killed off by this cancer. It is not surprising that the apostle Paul derided this, quoting the Mosaic Law (Deut. 32:35), “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). Vengeance belongs to God, not to man.

When Xavier meets Erik while both are hunting for Shaw, he recruits him. Together, they go in search of other mutants, enlisting them in their new “school” for mutants, courtesy of the CIA. In one poignant scene, a handful of these mutants, who have given themselves new names based on their powers, are observed by regular CIA agents who comment that the circus is in town. Here is the heart of the X-Men stories. They are different and hence mocked, scorned or feared.

For millennia, people groups have found themselves to be different from those around them. Separated by language at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11), they have formed their own cultures and subcultures. For example, the Israelites were a nation apart from the Philistines and Egyptians. In the 20th century, Jews were targeted by the Nazis, labeled as sub-human. When people feel different, they naturally gather in like-communities, thereby separating themselves from the world. This natural cycle reinforces what the external world thinks of them, and often exacerbates the world’s fear.

Even Christian communities have been like this. The first monasteries were formed by Christians who wanted to separate themselves from the world. But Christians are called to be in the world, even while we are not a part of the world (Jn. 17:15-18). If we separate from those who do not know Jesus, how will they ever hear the liberating message of the gospel (Rom. 10:14)? We must unite with our fellow followers of Jesus, regardless of color or race, and together live out the gospel message before a world that might choose to persecute us.

The middle portion of the film focuses on Xavier’s teaching his small team how to control their powers. He realizes this is war between two different groups of mutants with the world of humans in the balance. Shaw and his murderous team want to destroy the world and reclaim it for the more powerful mutantkind. He is willing to stop at nothing, killing anyone in his way, to accomplish this goal. He would prefer, however, that the other mutants would join him and his “super-race”. (Does this sound like Hitler and his Aryan ideals?) Xavier, on the other hand, feels a sense of responsibility for humanity. He realizes he is still human, though mutated to be more powerful than most.

Xavier stands in contrast to both Shaw and Erik. His upbringing as a rich kid left him with a powerful sense of obligation. He understood that privilege brings responsibility. He is willing to selflessly commit himself to help mankind, even if that very same group turns against him as being different, a freak. He sees beyond their short-sightedness. Shaw is selfish and evil, wanting to rule with an iron-fist. His philosophy is the survival of the fittest and the elimination of those weaker than him. Erik can only feel the pain inflicted by the Nazis and is determined to payback that pain with interest. He lives a self-centered life. Even while he is part of Xavier’s team, he is focused on his mission to kill Shaw. He realizes that the world will not thank them for saving them from Shaw. Rather, they will turn on the mutants like dogs. He is ready to wage war against humanity rather than turning the other cheek.

This reminds us that Jesus came preaching a message of peace (Acts 10:36), of turning the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), going the extra mile (Matt. 5:41). But he also came as savior of the world (1 Jn. 4:14). But the world did not want to hear this. Instead, it turned on him and killed him. He lived an unselfish life, caring for those who were the outcasts of society, not seeking, at that time, a kingdom that was rightfully his. Meekness and mercy are often better than power and politics.

In the third act, with the missile crisis at its peak, the two teams of mutants enter into a thrilling battle above the battle-cruisers from America and Russia below. Clad in yellow and black flight-suits, Xavier’s team look united against Shaw’s villainous forces. But in the end, Erik, now called Magneto challenges Xavier’s philosophy, pitting friend against friend. Blood brothers turn into arch-enemies.

Once more this brings our thoughts back to Jesus. He was surrounded by 12 friends closer than brothers, his band of disciples. Yet one of them out of greed (Jn. 12:4) ultimately disagreed with his philosophy and turned against him, becoming his enemy. Judas entered history as the betrayer, the former blood-brother turned enemy of Jesus (Mk. 14:10).

Twice, once in the middle and then again at the end, the theme of choice emerges. The young mutants in the CIA base are offered the choice by Shaw of joining him in his war against humanity. Some do, some don’t. At the end, Magneto offers the same choice to all the mutants.

We are offered this same choice, not once or twice, in the middle or end of our lives, but many times. Will we choose to remain in darkness, essentially on the side of Satan and the world of fallen humanity (Jn. 12:31)? Or will we choose to join Jesus, our leader of light (Jn. 8:12), who will be the ultimate victor (Gen. 3:15)? He stands, like Magneto, hand open, arm outstretched (Rev. 3:20), waiting for us to join him in his mission of bringing salvation to the world. Like in the X-Men world of Professor X and Magneto, we know the end of the real story. Jesus wins. . . whether we join him or not.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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