X-Men: First Class: Rise of the Anti-Hero

Forget everything you thought you knew about the X-Men and superhero movies. X-Men: First Class has redefined the Superhero Genre, rewriting all the rules and doing it in style.

Warning: The following review contains spoilers. Read at your own risk if you have not already seen X-Men: First Class.
First Class is not a typical Superhero Film by any means. In part, this is due to the fact that it is about a team of heroes instead of a singular Hero. There isn’t one character who stands out as the main Hero, making it difficult to assign other roles as well. Because of this, it quickly becomes hard to classify the film within the Superhero Genre. With some teasing and tweaking, one can fit the film’s plot into the schema of origin films I laid out before. But there is so much more going on in the film. My impression was that director Matthew Vaughn was essentially including these familiar elements that we’ve come to expect exactly because we’ve come to expect them. It is obvious from Kick-Ass that Vaughn knows his way around the superhero tropes. But right off the bat, he throws out the book and does the one thing no one has done before in a Superhero Film: he makes it all about the Villain.

Some people have forgotten that X-Men: First Class actually began life as X-Men Origins: Magneto, a film centered around the X-Men’s most fearsome Villain. Somewhere in the development process it was decided that it would be better to focus on the early days of all the X-Men and the Magneto film was scrapped. However, Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) still managed to be the central character of X-Men: First Class.
And so, First Class becomes something of a Super Anti-Hero Film, with Magneto as the main Anti-Hero, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) as the Anti-Damsel, and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) as the Anti-Mentor. Magneto has a more violent agenda than most Heroes, and he is permitted to cross the line of killing. His journey to ultimately become a Villain is the one that we become more invested in.
One of the reasons that Magneto becomes the lead character is that he is fueled by passion and emotion, while Xavier is portrayed as much more cold and calculating. Xavier sees much of what happens in the film from a scientist’s perspective, and ultimately that becomes his main motivation. He wants to know whether Banshee can achieve supersonic flight or if Havok is capable of focusing his energy blasts and treats the characters like test subjects in an experiment. This comes to a head (quite literally) in the scene where Erik asks Xavier to shoot him as a way of testing his powers. However, Xavier already knows Erik can stop the bullet, so the experiment is worthless. But challenging Erik to move the satellite dish is much more interesting than him. And yet, that same scene seems to suggest that Xavier feels emotions best when he is taking them from other people’s minds.
Logic vs. Passion

Logic vs. Passion

On the other hand, Magneto approaches everything without thinking, rushing into situations where he is out of his depth and trusting that his emotions will make him strong enough to survive. His powers become bound to his emotions, forcing him to always be bubbling at the surface. His murder of Shaw is the final demonstration that he will always favor emotions over logic; while he agrees with Shaw’s ideas, the fact that Shaw killed Erik’s mother will always be the most important thing to Erik. In a typical Superhero Film, the Hero is the passionate character while the Villain is more logically minded. This reversal solidifies Magneto’s status as the central character; the audience will always root for passion over logic.

Mystique’s character becomes more complicated in this film than perhaps any other iteration of the character. She starts off being ashamed of her natural appearance and abilities, but we soon realize that it is Charles, her “brother”, who is ashamed. Her journey consists of moving from self-loathing to self-loving. At the same time, it provides an insight into Xavier’s mind: does he look down on physical mutations? Is he even more of an elitist as Magneto? Forcing Mystique to hide her form is the reason Charles loses her to Magneto in the end, and we see that Magneto is the one who is truly more accepting. This is yet another moment that endears Magneto to the audience and turns him into the Anti-Hero of the piece.
In her role as the Damsel (or Anti-Damsel), Mystique acts as a link to the rest of mutant-kind. She reminds both Erik and Charles of the other mutants in the world who are ashamed of their powers, reminding them that they are fighting for the rights of those mutants. For Charles, she represents the mutants who need help, the ones who he will seek out and merge into society. To Magneto, she represents the truth that humans will never accept mutants, for if even Xavier cannot accept the blue monster that is Mystique, then what hope is there that humanity will? Her inclusion in the film is essential so that both of these views can be portrayed.
By choosing to focus on the Villain instead of the Hero, X-Men: First Class provides a unique twist on the characters of Superhero Genre. With last month’s Thor successfully playing with plot conventions, it seems that Marvel may be attempting to push through a new generation of Superhero Films to usher in the new decade. Whether or not this is true remains to be seen, but one can always hope.

About the author

David Molofsky

David is the Founder & Editor-in-Cape of AP2HYC.