By Heather Zeiger
For my inaugural post, I might as well come clean that I am a nerd. Part of my nerd-background is that I am a comic book fan, and am especially fond of Marvel’s X-Men. Therefore, I was pleased to watch X-Men: First Class, but don’t worry, I didn’t don the yellow and black uniform to the theaters. I did, however, walk away from this movie thinking on the two views of human nature represented in the main characters, Eric and Charles.
One of the elements that attracts me to the X-Men series is the complexity of the characters. Often the comic books would portray the mutants as dynamic, tortured, and complex. Much like fantasy/science fiction book genres, the mutants in X-Men live in a different world than our own, but one that we can certainly relate to. In this world, some people have a mutation that gives him or her special abilities, however the mutation usually has a cost. Perhaps that price is an odd appearance, as was the case with Hank (Beast) and Raven (Mystique), or unwieldy energetic powers, or in some of the cases in the comic books, inability to have physical contact. In the comic book world, the mutants would keep themselves in hiding because they feared being ostracized from society. Some mutants felt ashamed, some of them dealt with shame from their families. Some were bullied. Some were abandoned. Some ran away. The movie dealt with the hiding for fear of being ostracized. The two mutants with the most drastic physical features discussed wanting to be “normal” and what it means to be ashamed of their appearances.
Here people do not have mutant super powers, but, certainly, we have a concept of normal. And, as is often the case in sci-fi/fantasy, by putting the reader (or viewer) in a different world, we are able to evaluate ourselves. The mutants in X-men are gifted, but their gifts come at a price. I was always intrigued by the storylines in which the characters wrestled with their flaws including other people’s response to their “abnormality.”
X-Men: First Class dealt with this head on in Eric’s background as a persecuted Jew in a WWII concentration camp. In probably the darkest scenes of the movie, Eric, as a child, is torn from his mother and father as they are lead to separate areas of a concentration camp. When a scientist, later revealed as Sebastian Shaw, sees that Eric can move metal, he brings him in for questioning. Shaw has a line that should send chills down anyone’s spine who has read about eugenics and Nazi Germany: “The Nazi’s methods certainly do work.” If you see the movie, the context of this line, makes it all the darker. But it is true; the Nazi’s methods of de-humanization and blatant disregard for human life certainly did “work.”
Eric (Magneto) and Charles (Professor X) always had a complex relationship in the comic books. They are archenemies, and yet formerly friends. Both wanted to help mutants accept themselves and use their powers, but they eventually parted ways because Eric wanted to overpower humans while Charles wanted to work with them. The movie did not disappoint in developing these complex characters and their entangled relationship. Eric and Charles are two sides of the same coin; they are two different responses to human nature, each of their response based on their backgrounds: Eric as a Nazi science experiment and Charles as an aristocratic academic in England. Eric ends up becoming Magneto, a complex and perhaps sympathetic villain. Charles becomes Professor X who leads our heroes, the X-men. Eric’s past plays into his low view of human nature and certainty that society will de-humanize mutants, using them as instruments for personal gain. Charles, on the other hand, has a more positive view of human nature. He tends to see the good in people and the possibilities. As a point, Charles is a telepath while Eric can manipulate metal.
Throughout the movie, we get a much more obvious parallel between eugenics, Nazi Germany, and how mutants may be received in the real world. We see a range of responses to the mutants, but most importantly we also see how some would consider them less-than-human. And in case the normal movie-goer doesn’t get it, Eric’s character reminds us that these were the same kinds of sentiments said by the Nazis in regards to the Jews.
Fiction serves to hold a mirror up and show us ourselves and it serves to help us imagine an experience without having to live it. As a viewer, you root for the mutants and you hate those that would de-humanize them. And yet, how would we respond to the freakish, the abnormal, or even the less-than-beautiful?