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April 26, 2011

‘X-Men: First Class’ star: MLK and Malcolm X influenced our story [updated]

Posted in: Movies

Here’s an early look at my “X-Men: First Class” preview in the Summer Sneaks issue in the upcoming Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar issue.

James McAvoy, left, plays Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender is Erik Lehnsherr, the future Magneto, in "X-Men: First Class." (Marvel Studios)

How’s this for unexpected territory in a superhero film: “X-Men: First Class” not only uses the Kennedy years, the Civil Rights movement and the Cuban Missile Crisis as a backdrop for its retro tale, the movie’s story of two massively powerful mutants who struggle against bitter prejudice was directly informed by the complicated lives of Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“It came up early on in the rehearsal period and that was the path we took,” says Michael Fassbender, who stars as the emotionally scarred Erik Lehnsherr, who will become the militant mutant known as Magneto. “These two brilliant minds coming together and their views aren’t that different on some key things. As you watch them you know that if their understanding, ability and intelligence could somehow come together it would be really special. But the split is what makes them even more interesting and tragic.”

The other half of the film’s “frenemy” pair is Charles Xavier, a.k.a. Professor X, who is portrayed by James McAvoy (“Atonement,” “Last King of Scotland”) who in this film steps into a younger version of the role made famous by Patrick Stewart in four “X-Men” films (and step is the right word since in this prequel the brilliant leader of the outcast super-hero team has yet to suffer the injuries that will lead to his use of a wheelchair).

The movie has a challenge with its throwback conceits and all the new faces (and the absence, in the credits at least, of Hugh Jackman, the most bankable mutant star). Still, the four mutant-hero movies to date have pulled in $1.53 billion in worldwide box office, and even when devoted fans grumbled about the story quality (as they did with Brett Ratner’s 2006 installment “X-Men: The Last Stand”) they still bought tickets and joined the Internet debates. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s apathy — and to date there has been no apathy when it comes to the X-Men characters, which created a publishing bonanza for Marvel in the 1980s and ’90s.

X-Men: First Class Vol. 2 No. 15 (Marvel Comics)

The new film also marks the return of Bryan Singer to the franchise. The director of the first two “X-Men” movies (which many observers credit with ushering in a new era of ambition for Hollywood super-hero films) left for the third installment and the 2009 spin-off “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” but he’s back, this time as producer. Matthew Vaughn, the firebrand filmmaker behind “Kick-Ass,” is in the director’s chair and has inspired plenty of studio angst with his public candor about the rushed production. “I feel like a boxer against the ropes,” the Brit told The Times in January. “I’m just throwing punches and taking them as they come and making sure I don’t hit the canvas.”

Less stressed-out were Fassbender and McAvoy, two rising stars who have plenty of special-effects film credits between them (the first “Chronicles of Narnia” film, “300,” “Wanted,” “Jonah Hex,” etc.) and a measured confidence as they inherit roles from fanboy-world icons Ian McKellen, who played Magneto in three films, and Stewart. Fassbender showed up one day on the set to find that the prankster McAvoy had replaced their cast chairs with ones emblazoned with the names of those knighted elder actors. [FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this post stated that Ian McKellen portrayed Magneto in four films, but there have been only three to date.]

In the end, though, Fassbender said that going to the untapped past of the characters relieved some of the pressure.

“At one point I thought, should I study Ian McKellen as a young man, should I take that approach? Matthew wasn’t so keen on it and after discussing it we decided it might lead off away from the real priorities. Just returning to the comic books you find that Erik can — in terms of taking on a voice — Erik can be anything when we meet him. He speaks German, he goes to a concentration camp in Poland, ends up in Eastern Europe with Magda, has a child there and then sort of goes off to Israel. There’s so much there and I tried to approach it freshly from that source material and see what I could come up with independently. There is, of course, the hint of what Ian McKellen has done in the movies is there as well.”

McAvoy, for his part, said he was glad to go back to a version of younger Professor X that wasn’t the “selfless, sexless monk” of the previous movies.

Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw and January Jones as Emma Frost (Marvel Studios)

The 1960s setting for this film, meanwhile, not only allows for some “Mad Men” fashion options (and January Jones from that acclaimed AMC series is one of the costars)  but it makes this the first Marvel Comics adaptation that is fully set in the decade when the creations of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others made that company’s name a true pop-culture brand. “There’s something special about connecting with that history and that heritage,” Singer said.  As far as costars, newly minted Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence will play a younger version of Mystique and Nicholas Hoult jumps into the role of Beast, but there are plenty of new names pulled from the comics, among them Emma Frost (Jones), Azazel (Jason Flemyng), Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and Havok (Lucas Till).

Still, at the heart of it all, McAvoy says, are Charles and Erik and the magnetic hold they have on each other.

“It’s kind of a love story, like ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ which, really, was a love story between two men. This is the first time in their lives they’ve met someone who is an equal of sorts, someone who understands them and can connect and push them too. Especially Charles, he’s fascinated with Erik and his potential. For Erik, Charles is the first person he’s trusted to really tell about his past and the first person to understand the horrible things he’s been through.”

– Geoff Boucher (Follow me on Twitter @LATherocomplex)

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