I saw the new mutant film this past Tuesday, and I was highly impressed. First of all, don’t expect a lot of consistency when it comes to X-Men film continuity; Hugh Jackman has a Wolverine cameo that will leave you asking questions, not to mention the obvious timeline of the schism between Magneto and Professor X (if they separated in the early 60s, how does that explain “The Last Stand’s” scene with a much older Magneto and Xavier visiting young Jean Grey?). But don’t let this detract from a superb story. And just what makes it superb?
The fact that I couldn’t decide who had the better argument — Magneto or Xavier.
Spoilers ahead! Continue at your own risk!
The film rehashes the first X-Men film’s opening sequence where a young Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) is forcibly separated from his parents in a Nazi death camp. We see a distraught Erik first manifesting his powers, whereupon he is then sent to Nazi doctor “Mr. Schmidt” — Kevin Bacon — who is at this time unrevealed to be a mutant himself. Schmidt demands the young Erik use his powers to move a coin … or he will shoot his mother right in front of him. When Erik fails to move the coin, Schmidt does just as he promised. A livid Erik then uses his powers to wreck the entire room, but Schmidt is not affected (we don’t know if this was on purpose or due to Schmidt’s as-yet unrevealed powers). He laughs the whole time, basking in the wonderment of the young mutant’s powers. He then gives Erik the coin that he could not move as a token of his … well, whatever it is.
Years later, in 1962, Lehnsherr is now a Nazi hunter, determined to track down and kill Schmidt. Michael Fassbender is simply outstanding as the young adult Lehnsherr. The way he projects the torment of his youth and the absolute hatred of the Nazis is spellbinding. And, of course, it is this very torment that shapes his attitudes towards homo sapiens in the “battle” between humans and mutants. And y’know what? It’s very hard to disagree with him. Lehnsherr is maniacally devoted to offing any Nazi he comes across, leading up to Schmidt. He at one point heads to Argentina on a lead, and deliciously dispatches of a trio of former Nazis with barely contained satisfaction. The only problem is that Schmidt is not there!
It’s later revealed that Schmidt is Sebastian Shaw, who, in the comics, is a wealthy industrialist and secret inner circle member of the famed Hellfire Club. Shaw’s mutant power is that he’s able to absorb massive quantities of energy and use it against others (or things) — which makes him one very tough person to kill. And this Lehnsherr learns to his regret: The first time he encounters Shaw, Shaw easily disposes of him — flicking him into the sea just as he needs to make a hasty retreat from the Coast Guard.
Eventually Charles Xavier meets up with Erik and the duo begin to track down other mutants via the fledgling Cerebro — which was created by Hank McCoy aka the Beast. (This makes perfect sense as McCoy in the comics was a genius.) Among those who join the pair are Banshee and Havok. Xavier begins a rigid training regimen for his new team, for it’s discovered that Shaw has been working with the Russians in order to start a third — nuclear — world war so that mutants can prosper and become the dominant race on the planet. During this training, it is Xavier who shows Lehnsherr — now “officially” Magneto — how to maximize his powers by “finding the place between serenity and anger.” This is an example of why Magneto, despite his big philosophical differences, feels much affection for Xavier in the first three films.
This is as far as I’ll go in describing much else in the film except for the moment you knew would eventually happen: Magneto finally executing Shaw. Shaw has donned a helmet which prevents any mental tampering (hence, Xavier cannot affect him), and Magneto’s powers are insufficient to stop Shaw as he’s just absorbed the power of a submarine’s nuclear reactor. But as Shaw is crushing the life out of Lehnsherr, Erik manages to use his power to bring forth a metal cable to remove Shaw’s helmet! This immediately allows Xavier to enter Shaw’s mind to paralyze him. And, Magneto takes advantage: He takes out the coin that Shaw/Schmidt gave him right after the Nazi killed his mother … and slowly, and inexorably, drives it through Shaw’s skull.
Personally, I was virtually yelling “YES!” out loud in the theatre. After all, Nazis do make the ultimate bad guys, so killing them rarely invokes feelings of sympathy. Which brings us to the discussion I believe director Bryan Singer wants people to have after seeing the film: Who was right — Magneto or Xavier? (Singer himself is a Jew and is openly gay, both of which are quite relevant backgrounds for anything to do with the X-Men.) In a post-film discussion with my fellow comics-loving pal Brent, I said that ultimately I would side with Xavier because I could not bring myself to kill innocent people on the premise that they might hate and/or kill me. Magneto’s anger with humanity at the end of “First Class” is at least justified because they flat-out betray the mutants after the team had just prevented World War III. Diverting all of the flotilla’s missiles was a legitimate response, in my view, although personally I would have settled on just a demonstration. Nevertheless, I’d warn humanity to leave me alone with the caveat that if you f*** with me, I’ll f*** with you.
I am sure that there were many Jews like Lehnsherr, who faced similar circumstances and would go through hell and high water to seek revenge on Nazi death camp butchers. Many of these folks ended up in Israel. Yet, Israel, for the most part, has adopted my view of the film’s argument. Officially, it tracked down Nazis who had fled justice, captured them, but gave them a full and fair trial for their crimes. But the country soon faced a Nazi-like menace — way too soon after the horror of the Holocaust: Islamist fundamentalism, utilized by the Palestinian Arabs and the adjacent countries of nascent Israel, all seeking to annihilate the Jews. Then, in 1948, and again in 1967 (the Six Day War) and 1973 (the Yom Kippur War), not to mention myriad smaller “skirmishes” in between and after, the Jewish state responded with the aforementioned “You f*** with me, I’ll f*** with you” attitude. The killers of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics felt the wrath of this attitude, and very rightly so.
If the Jewish state had 100% adopted Professor Xavier’s philosophy, it is arguable that Israel might not exist today. If it had 100% adopted Lehnsherr’s (Magneto’s) philosophy, Israel’s territory might be 100 times what it is now, but it would be a pariah state for its actions in so doing. I suppose my point is, Israel, having been founded largely as a result of the butchery of the Holocaust (and with it obviously still fresh in its collective mind), has shown utterly remarkable restraint since its genesis against those who would continue where the Nazis left off. For all the times they’ve been attacked, for how they’re portrayed in the Islamic world, what exactly have they done that even today generates so much outright hatred towards them? Kept some of the land that used to belong to some of its attackers? That’s it!! From where I sit, I wouldn’t fault Israel if it had adopted a much more Lehnsherr-ian line against those who would see her destroyed. Yet, that is the very essence of humanity — of compassion — we see each and every day exhibited by Jewish state: After what they endured as a people throughout the 30s and early 40s, and continued to endure after they established their homeland, they, again, demonstrate the very definition of “humanity.” They could have, many times, utterly vanquished their would-be killers. They did not. They have vigorous debates each and every day about the rightness of their actions with regards to the Palestinians and other Arabs, trying to track down that virtually impossible-to-find balance between freedom and security in such a situation. How many other nations must so endure?
Would that we all could match the humanity of Israel and the Jewish people.
(Cross-posted at The Colossus of Rhodey.)