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

April 26, 2011 | 2:23 p.m.

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.

xmencharleserik X Men: First Class star: MLK and Malcolm X influenced our story [updated]

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.

xmencomic X Men: First Class star: MLK and Malcolm X influenced our story [updated]

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.

xmensebastianemma X Men: First Class star: MLK and Malcolm X influenced our story [updated]

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)


havok X Men: First Class star: MLK and Malcolm X influenced our story [updated]Bryan Singer gets in-depth about Azazel and Havok

Jackman is ‘really, really pumped’ about ‘Wolverine’

‘X-Men: First Class’: Report from stressed-out set

Patrick Stewart on his biggest  ‘X-Men’ regret

January Jones stressed by sexy Frost suits

Vaughn: Hollywood is killing the hero genre

After ‘Inception,’ Vaughn axes ‘Class’ scene

Director: ‘Capt. America’ is going to surprise people


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

  1. Sophie says:

    Um yeah, okay. Malcolm X and MLK have as much to do with the Xavier-Magneto arc as…a fish has to do with a bicycle. I guess this is one way of establishing some "color" for an otherwise very white movie.

    • imahrtbrkbeat says:

      If you knew your history, you'd understand that the parallel is completely accurate. The Civil Rights Movement is what inspired Lee to create the X-Men. This is why reading is fundamental.

    • Luis says:

      I think MLK and Malcolm X, though not exactly friends, had differing ideologies, MLK was for nonviolent civil disobedience, comparable to Professor X and Malcolm X (at least in the beginning) wanted violent separation from the white majority, comparable to Mangeto.

  2. DesScorp says:

    Uh, Sophie, the MLK-X angle has everything to do with the story. It was heavy on Stan Lee's mind when he was creating the characters, and following writers also leaned heavily on the theme. It's not like the movie is breaking new ground here. Various Marvel writers have spoken at length about the influence of the MLK-X dynamic on the Xavier-Magneto story.

    • Sophie says:

      Well then, the dichotomy is in the white mind of Stan Lee and the very white universe of Marvel. It's understandable. To boil two such real-life epic figures to the whiny argument as presented in the X-Men films and comics is pretty pathetic. White people didn't "approve" of Malcolm until Spike Lee's film broke through some of those mainstream barriers. And there are plenty of those barriers in place, even among so-called liberal whites.

      • mdo says:

        @Soph – and that’s why Magneto was the villain. As well, the irony in the notion of a progressive story being “pathetic” is rich as you you are looking at it a bit out of its true context.

  3. John says:

    its an analogy its not meant to be symmetrical to the story of Malcolm X and MLK.

  4. Lex says:

    The comparison has been made before. That's nothing new. I don't know what this First Class thing is about other than a reimagining where (again) everyone is younger and hipper no doubt. I won't be seeing it. But I'll probably go read some X-Men comics.

  5. Jefferson Pierce says:

    Sorry, folks. Had anyone actually been "influenced" by blacks and other minorities, they might have bothered to included a few.

    • Sophie says:

      Well said. The arrogance of trying base white people plots on the "perceived" "split" in the black civil rights movement is a form of racism itself. In my opinion.

  6. Zak says:

    Yea, Sophie, that's just ignorant. You should really, I don't know, try opening up another tab and googling things before you talk.
    I was going to mention that this article doesn't really talk about how much Stan Lee was influenced by MLK and Malcolm X (MLK preaching about peaceful integration and non-violence while Malcolm X was more about embracing roots and racial superiority). It's part of the reason Malcolm X was always more of an anti-hero than an outright villain… to give Malcolm X's beliefs a fairer shake.

    If you don't think that the X-Men were created as an analogy for Civil Rights then it's a bit silly seeing as it's quite obliquely about racial subjugation (Homo Superior by Homo Sapien).

    • Bundy says:

      Racial superiority?! Are you serious? Maybe you should look more into your history. And then you had the nerve to to say "to give Malcom X's beliefs a fairer shake." Sit down.

  7. Aleric says:

    I think a lot of you need to stop believing everything Stan Lee says and start realizing that he is selling comic books and will do anything to sell more issues. Stan Lee is a great guy but he tends to over state what actually happened. This book was not an Omage to either King or Malcom X it was a hook to get more people to buy his new title.

    Grow up people, just because we read comics doesnt mean we are still in grade school.

  8. justin says:

    mckellan played magneto 3x not four.

  9. Float says:

    Malcolm X didn't support violence in the way Magneto does. People keep ranting on about how he was violent, but you won't be able to find a single example of him having committed a violent act against anyone in his life.
    He was a vigilant man who believed that if a person comes running at you with a machete, you have the right to punch them in the face. He was dangerous because his message of framing the plight of the black man in terms of "human rights" rather than "civil rights" was much more powerful than that of MLK.
    In addition Malcolm X was a thinking man. Throughout his life his experiences caused him to rethink his ideas and philosophy. Like the times when he saw white students helping black people in Africa, and people of all races getting together peacefully in the Islamic pilgrimage.

    • Andrew says:

      Just to play devil's advocate, and not to take away from what you're saying but this:

      "you won't be able to find a single example of him having committed a violent act against anyone in his life."

      …is an exaggeration….In his younger years, before he went to prison he was involved in drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, robbery, and pimping. Violence absolutely would have played a part in this lifestyle….But after leaving prison, I'd agree with you that he gave up that part of his life completely.

    • Sophie says:

      Agreed. The overly simplistic view of Malcolm X in the white mainstream consiousness is utterly ridiculous. Spike Lee made sure to include the transformation that Malcolm X underwent after returning from the Hajj. Yet to claim Magneto is based on Malcolm X is insulting to the extreme.

  10. Ziyad says:

    I’m pretty excited for this movie but i wonder if Xavier will have a big of a role as Magneto because they seem to be pushing his role more prominently than Xavier.

  11. Lizz Brown says:

    It is nice to see the comments about MLK and Malcolm ironical I did not see one person of African descent in the entire trailer—it would have been a larger and more impactful tribute had the casting director and film maker seen fit to include more human beings of color

  12. Nexus06 says:

    For one moment, forget about race and skin color. Now, according to the beliefs of MLK : "If you are struck, turn the other cheek. Malcom X believed, "Strike back". The bottom line is in what they both believed in, Peace or War.

  13. NEXUS06X says:

    Forget race for one minute. The teachings/beliefs of MLK was Peace; while the teachings of Malcom X was War. MLK said, "If you are struck, turn the other cheek". Malcom X would say, "Strike back". That is the comparison. Period.

  14. Thevoiceofreason says:

    For everyone here who says that there was no influence from MLK or Malcolm X, you are ridiculous. The x-men came out in the 1960's; during the civil rights movement. There is a parallel between MLK and Professor X, and Magneto and Malcolm X. One wanted integration/everyone is equal, while the other wanted race supremacy. In the case of the comic book, Professor X wanted everyone to get along and live together as one people whereas Magneto wanted mutants to be the rulers of homo sapiens. The mutants are treated like second class citizens, just like blacks during that time. Think of it as social commentary. This was Stan lee/Jack Kirby's way of bringing up social issues. Sure it's not exactly the same, (IT"S A FRIGGIN' COMIC BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) but that doesn't mean it's not a commentary on the times.

  15. barneszilla says:

    I don't get how people can't seem to understand that you can base a character off of a real person and interpolate different aspects to move the story along. It seems very reasonable to think this has happened with the characters and men involved. But until I hear Stan Lee say it himself, I don't have to believe it. But there are no coincidences. All characters, animated, comical or human are based off of someone or something.

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