Opinion: Finding balance – Ashley digs deeper into ‘X-Men: First Class’

The Story Geeks blogger Ashley Pauls responds with an additional perspective to the same topic discussed in this week’s podcast – “X-Men: First Class.” Want to share your own take? Join the conversation in The Story Geeks Facebook group!

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Generally in fiction, there are two types of villains. First, you’ve got the kind that are most definitely bad, like Emperor Palpatine.

He’s the type of villain who enjoys being bad just for the sake of being bad, and he doesn’t apologize for it. He doesn’t really have any redeeming virtues, and we’re not sad when his pride leads to his downfall.

But then you’ve got more nuanced villains, like Darth Vader. He’s definitely not blameless, but the more you learn about his backstory, the more pity you feel for him. He struggles with the dark and the light warring inside himself, and by the end of the original Star Wars trilogy, we’re rooting for him to reject evil and become a hero.

I tend to prefer the second category of villains, and one of the best characters who falls into this archetype is Magneto. In fact, this character’s story and actor Michael Fassbender’s portrayal is the reason why “X-Men: First Class” is my favorite film in the entire X-Men franchise. In the end, Magneto makes the wrong choices, but we can empathize with him and see how he arrived at that point.

While the X-Men franchise has had its ups and downs over the years, casting James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender to play the young Professor X and Magneto were one of its best decisions. Their friendship, falling out, and (tentative?) reconciliation at the very end of “Dark Phoenix” form the heart of the X-Men prequel/reboot movies.

McAvoy’s Professor X is a hero who makes some serious mistakes, and Magneto is a villain who is not necessarily wrong about everything he says. The push and pull between these two characters — and their opposing philosophies — is a major part of why “First Class” is such a deeply fascinating superhero film.

Even though there aren’t really super-powered mutants in our world, some of the ideas and themes presented in this film are certainly applicable to issues we struggle with today.

Heroes and villains

Charles and Erik have very different upbringings. Charles comes more from a place of privilege, while Erik grows up in the midst of one of the most terrible periods in our history, World War II and the Holocaust.

Erik must watch as his people are dragged into concentration camps, and his mother is murdered in front of him. The film’s primary villain, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), cruelly tries to take advantage of Erik’s mutant powers.

Based on these experiences, it is difficult to blame Erik for feeling angry and wanting to seek revenge. He knows what it is like to be persecuted based on both his heritage and his mutant powers. The violent expression of his powers becomes a weapon that he can use to protect himself and the people he loves.

Although Charles cares deeply about his friend, he underestimates the impact Erik’s past trauma has on his present-day decision making. When Erik turns to the dark side, Charles is unable to pull him back to the light (at least at this time). Magneto has to go on his own journey and decide for himself whether he wants to be a hero or a villain.

Mutant and proud

Magneto is concerned that people will persecute mutants because they fear that which is different, and he isn’t wrong. Mutants are mistreated, simply based on the fact that they aren’t like “normal humans.”

In this film, one of the mutants who struggles most with their identity is Raven/Mystique. Her natural skin is a vivid blue color, but the shapeshifter often dons a human appearance so that people do not gawk at her.

Even though he’s a villain, Magneto is one of the few people to accept her as she truly is, encouraging her to embrace her mutant identity — to be “mutant and proud.”

As someone who has struggled with negative self-image and a lack of self-confidence, this part of the film really resonated with me, because in the past I also longed to change what I looked like/who I was. It’s been a long journey to look at myself in the mirror and value the person staring back at me. But I eventually learned to love myself, just the way I am.

“Mutant and proud” is not a bad rallying cry for the heroes in this film; we shouldn’t be ashamed of that which makes us unique or special. “Mutant and proud” only becomes a negative mantra when it attempts to justify the use of mutant powers to harm others.

What Charles tries to get Erik to understand is that even if regular humans treat mutants poorly, that does not justify violence and hatred. While Erik seeks revenge, Charles seeks reconciliation.

Rage and serenity

Although Erik doesn’t fully learn this important lesson, one of my favorite scenes in “First Class” is Charles and Erik’s conversation about finding the balance between rage and serenity. Charles encourages Erik to calm his mind and then use his powers to turn a giant satellite dish. He urges Erik to summon his powers not from a place of pain, but of peace. Erik needs to master himself before he can truly master his abilities.

This scene reminds me a bit of themes we’ve seen pop up in Star Wars (I really thought I could get through this blog post without making another Star Wars reference, but well, here I am doing it anyway).

In some ways, Erik’s inner struggle mirrors the struggle going on inside Darth Vader/Anakin. When Anakin uses the dark side, he does become more powerful, but he also becomes more destructive. And in the end, all that power corrupts him and ruins his life. He loses the control he so desperately keeps trying to grasp.

While anger seems to boost Erik’s powers, Charles wants to show him that he is most powerful — and most in control — when he is calm and thoughtful.

It’s a good exercise for any of us, really. When we are angry or reactionary, we are not our best selves. It’s wise to take a moment, calm our minds, and breathe deeply, before responding or reacting.

This isn’t to say that we should seek serenity so much that we become unobservant to problems around us. And having a strong negative emotional reaction to injustice isn’t a bad thing. But if we let our rage take over and control us, everybody loses — including ourselves.