So last night I went and saw X-men First Class, which, may I just take a moment to say, was Awesomesauce.
AWESOMESAUCE – adj. 1.) The state of being so awesome you make your own gravy. 2) The preferred topping on an awesomesundae.
A big reason First Class works is Michael Fassbender, who despite having an accent that wandered more than the Littlest Hobo, was fantastic, believable and yes even sympathetic as Magneto. It was a fall from grace super villain origin that worked on just about every level, and it made me think of a very similar fall from grace in a prequel that really didn’t. I refer of course to “Bring It On 4: The Bringitonenning”. But it also reminded me of Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side in the Star Wars prequels. Here we have two classic mega villains who are universally loved and embraced by the geek community, who hit a LOT of the same touchstones on their way to villainhood, but one worked and one makes us cringe and whine and bitch on the internet. Why is that? Well, I’ll tell you…
BE WARNED: I’ll be talking about plot details in First Class quite a lot, so if you haven’t seen First Class yet, a) Go already, what the hell is wrong with you? and b) there will be spoilers here.
1) Mommy Dearest.
In both cases, the young budding villains lose their respective mothers, which causes them to lose their shit. Anakin cuts down an entire colony of Sandpeople, Erik crushes Nazi helmets with Nazi skulls still in them, and mentally rearranges a torture room to more accurately reflect his state of mind.
The difference is in context. Anakin has a vague feeling that something is wrong. He goes back to Tatooine, finds his already dying mother and takes out a bunch of sandpeople we never knew or cared about. Why do sandpeople capture and torture humans? How can that possibly help them survive in the harsh desert of Tatooine? There is no motive, they pop in to serve the story, and leave it just as quickly. We don’t care that he killed them all anymore than we care about the stormtroopers that die. It has no emotional weight. We shrug it off the same way Padme does.
Erik was THERE. He saw it happen. It was cold, calculated and cruel, and his rage is justifiable. Already there are stakes, and it serves not only to get a greater understanding of where Magneto is coming from…but what makes Shaw tick as well. Even though he is just a young boy, we can already see hints of what he will eventually become. Anakin?
Not so much.
And when Erik crushes a room with his mind, we feel the anguish, and the devastation. He just lost his whole world in an instant because he couldn’t move a coin. Do we get that when Vader decides to crush a room with his mind? Let’s ask the man himself.
Hey Darth, does this scene have any emotional depth at all?
Is it any way believable?
Is there any way a Star Wars fan won’t be horribly embarrassed by this scene?
Is George Lucas going to give me my money back?
I didn’t think so.
2. The Mentor Tormentor
In both instances, our heroes have good in them (That others can sense, conveniently enough, Thanks Charles and Luke) but are ultimately corrupted by an Evil Mentor. As Erik so aptly put it “I’m Frankenstein’s Monster… and I’m looking for my creator.” First Class starts this corruption from Erik’s childhood, with Shaw teaching him the hard way that rage and pain and anger will make him powerful. The Emperor essentially teaches Vader the same thing but in a more offhand way. He mentions the death of his mother, but he didn’t actually kill her. He implies that he MIGHT be able to save Padme (From what? a bad dream that Anakin is having?) Apparently that is enough. Up to this point, Anakin is essentially good. He’s petulant…a little arrogant…but nothing to suggest he’s ready to full on embrace evil. Then, he makes a snap decision. Mace Windu dies, and Anakin, this good person, is suddenly ready to murder a bunch of children, no questions asked.
Erik is corrupted by hate from the very beginning. It’s what sustains him. Even when working with Charles it consumes him. He knows deep inside that the man who he hates so much has made him into what he is today, and by the end, he accepts that, and becomes Magneto. He isn’t even at odds with Shaw philosophically…and he takes up his mantle (and his helmet)…but he is the master now, and it won’t do to have the man who killed his mother alive. The tragedy here is the friendship that he sacrifices (His ONLY close friend, really) for his cause… to ensure freedom and prosperity for his kind. The very best villains are the ones with understandable motivations, ones who THINK they are doing the right thing… and in Magneto’s place I’m not sure I wouldn’t do the same.
this is a cardboard cut out. Or is it?
Let’s be fair and say that George Lucas dialog is a tough thing to do believably…it takes a special kind of talent to get a mouthful of cheese out without looking like a complete ass. But that said…you could have kept looking, George. You settled…and in settling helped permanently damage one of the great iconic movie villains of our time. Hayden Christianson’s eyes look dead bored, he mumbles and whines, and he does little to make us feel anything.
Fassbender on the other hand, maintains his Connery cool while still letting us see why he is the way he is. The scene where Charles taps into his memories to find a happy one, to give him the serenity he needs to control his power is simple and beautiful. The camera stays on Fassbenders face, a memory of lighting candles with his mother imposed over it and a single tear rolls down. Then Charles, having shared the memory, wipes one away himself. It’s beautifully acted, simple and moving.
Anakin has a temper tantrum about how Obi Wan is holding him back.
4) Fulfilling Destiny
Although ideally we should feel for the fallen hero…some part of us is excited that he has become the villain we all love to hate. One of the first acts our new villain does is bust a telepath out of jail to replace the one he had. It’s smart, dramatic and there is no question that Erik is gone and Magneto is here to stay. And he rocks the helmet.
To paraphrase Patton Oswalt…“Yeah at the end, Darth Vader’s just kinda looking at the Death Star and he’s all sad.” Is that any way to give birth to the greatest screen villain of our time?
So there you have it. They both lost their moms, crush rooms with their minds, turn their back on their friends and wear goofy helmets… but that is definitely where the similarities end.
So do yourself a favour go see X-men First Class, which is, I think the best X-men movie yet. Or at the very least…read this again.
Stay tuned next week for the Beast versus Ewok Smackdown.