PLEASE NOTE: The following piece contains major, and I mean major spoilers for the film X-Men: First Class and several decades worth of storylines from the X-Men comic books. You have been warned.
The ending of X-Men: First Class is essentially perfect, in terms of how it both meets and subverts audience expectations – a textbook example of how to keep an audience riveted by an ending they knew was pre-ordained (it is, after all, a prequel.)
Having used their mutant powers to save the human race from nuclear annihilation, the proto-team of X-Men under the leadership of Charles Xavier and Erik “Magneto” Lensherr learn that – rather than being grateful – the humans they just rescued are so terrified at the sight of the Mutants’ superhuman abilities that they’ve decided to wipe them out with a volley of missiles. Idealistic Charles wants to defuse the tension and work to reassure humanity that they have nothing to fear, but Erik – a Holocaust survivor who’s heard this song before – grimly intones “Never again!” and declares war on humanity. They fight, and the ensuing struggle sets each man firmly on the course to the forms we recall them in from the “future” films: Professor X, the saintly, wheelchair-bound MLK/Ghandi figure of Mutant Rights and leader of the X-Men; and Magneto, the vengeful-yet-sympathetic Mutant Supremacist leader of The Brotherhood.
It’s a great ending not just because of its elegant handling of the obligatory “Oh, that’s how that happened!” reveal, but also in the way it wrings tragedy out of this key event by spending the rest of the film playing the two main characters as deceptively different from how we may have imagined them. Young Xavier… is kind of a huge prick. Until asked to do otherwise by the CIA, he’s mainly using his gifts to impress girls. Oh, he’s “idealistic” about peace and togetherness, sure – but his idealism isn’t yet grounded in anything other than his own naivete and smug presumptions. It’s all-too-easy for him – an independently-wealthy genius whose mutation is invisible to the naked eye – to integrate and “get along” with humanity, so it must be just as simple for all Mutants… even his best friend, blue-skinned Raven (aka “Young Mystique”) – for whom “passing” means constantly walking around disguised as a “normal” person. In a perfectly tragic final touch, he’s oblivious-to-the-point-of-cruelty to Raven no longer being content at being regarded like his flesh-and-blood Imaginary Friend.
Young Magneto, on the other hand, is for all intents and purpose already a full-blown superhero: a Jewish James Bond traveling the world using his powers to hunt down Nazi war-criminals. Like any Movie Badass worth his salt, he’s a reflexive loner wary of team-affiliations and suspicious of everyone’s motives, but unlike Xavier, his assumptions come from experience – he survived a Nazi Concentration Camp. He’s also, in a brilliant twist, the vastly more emotionally attuned of the two men: He tells Raven that she’s beautiful in her natural state, and means it. When the younger recruits cause a ruckus experimenting with their powers and making up codenames, Charles scolds them – Erik clearly gets a kick out of it.
Given this, the finale makes devastating sense: While the ghastly reaction of the humans (“Thanks for saving our lives … but now we’re gonna kill you all because you’re funny-looking and frighten us!”) is the swift kick in the ass that Professor X’s kumbaya worldview desperately needed – if he wants his utopian dream of coexistence, he’s going to have to roll up his sleeves and work for it. But for Magneto … it’s a breaking point. The human militaries’ rash actions have confirmed all his worst fears, paranoia and persecuted self-righteousness. He’s been nudged over the edge, and there’s no coming back. The soft man gets a backbone, the hard man turns to stone.
But … here’s the crazy-geeky-cool part: Not only is it this profoundly affecting interpretation of these characters and their relationship… it also has the effect of (perhaps intentionally?) introducing a paradox into the continuity of the series that appears to delete the two “problematic” (to be charitable) installments of the previous (but later-set) series, X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. How?
See, the finale takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. During the finale, two key things happen: Magneto and Xavier’s alliance ends, and Xavier is crippled – confining him to the iconic wheelchair for the remainder of his life. But in Wolverine we see Xavier up and walking around in 1979 (during the Three Mile Island disaster) and in Last Stand we see him walking around with Magneto still as a colleague in a flashback set “twenty years prior” to the film’s 21st Century present.
Thusly, while First Class does still appear to take place in the same timeline as at least the first two X-Men films; the clashing of those definitively-stated dates (X1 and X2 only give “the near future” as a reference) would seem to suggest that, whatever continuity First Class ultimately belongs to – either its own or connected to the first two – X3 and XO:W can’t be part of it.
What that – potentially – means (wow, did it take longer to get here than I thought…) is that future X-Men sequels may be free to ignore the forms taken by multiple X-characters and story points in these now “retconned” installments; possibly allowing the series to right some past mistakes and engage in some fun angles left previously unexplored. For example:
In First Class, Xavier makes a point of mentioning his paranoid step-father. This is concurrent with the general comic continuity, where Charles’ biological father is dead and he was instead raised by his mother and her second husband Kurt Marko, who had a son named Cain (subtle!) from a previous marriage. Cain was kind of a douche, made worse by the fact that his own father seemed to prefer Charles to him (Kurt Marko was a doctor, Charles was a science-whiz, Cain was more of a jock, do the math) and the two didn’t get along. And, as the big boldface title has already given away, Cain Marko grows up to be the supervillain Juggernaut.
A really, really lame version of Juggernaut appeared as a henchman in The Last Stand, but since that doesn’t exist anymore there’s plenty of room to do him right. He’s probably the iconic X-Men foe other than Magneto, after all, and ginormous ogre-like beasts that need a full team to take them down are perfect foils for a movie like this. Plus, let’s face it – immobilized-genius Xavier having a nigh-unstoppable brute for a brother is just too devilishly ironic to ignore.
There is one glaring problem, though: Juggernaut, traditionally, isn’t a Mutant – his powers are magical. Cain found a giant ruby in a lost temple, and reading its inscription aloud transformed him into “A Human Juggernaut.” Thus far, there’s been no indication that any types of fantasy/sci-fi elements other than extreme mutation exist in the X-Men movies. Also, the ruby is tied to a Marvel Universe demon-god character called Cyttorak (whom Marvel Studios – instead of Fox – probably holds the movie rights to as he’s more closely associated with Doctor Strange.) So… probably for the best if they just make him a mutant again – just not a crappy one like last time.
Once upon a time, having a long-time good guy undergo a severe transformation that ultimately transforms them into a bad guy wasn’t the eye-rolling comic-book cliché that it’s become. During his most-celebrated run as author of the X-Men books, Chris Claremont poured every one of his genre-fiction fixations (love-triangles, fetishism, cosmic space-opera, all-powerful-yet-childlike-goddess-figures, you name it) into an epic four year long story-arc (1976-1980) that turned Jean Grey into an all-powerful super-psychic, then an evil all-powerful super-psychic, then dead (for a little while.) Collectively referred to as “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” it set the standard (some would say unfairly) that all X-Men stories told since are judged against.
In the final moments of X2: X-Men United, the camera pans over the lake wherein the films’ Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) had just drowned while saving the rest of the heroes’ lives. A moment before the screen cuts to black, a faint image can be seen beneath the waves – a glowing mass of energy in the shape of a massive flaming bird. In a way, it was the prototype for the fandom-shoutout “teaser” endings that now form the backbone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe proper – it was impossible for fanboys/girls to not come out of X2 almost shaking with excitement that some version of the Phoenix Saga might rear its head in the next movie. What could possibly go wrong…
It’s probably unnecessary to rehash exactly how awful X-Men 3’s version of Phoenix is; though it’s worth keeping in mind that a “faithful” adaptation would likely never have been possible in the first place. The totality of Claremont’s original story involved a space-alien civil-war, a brainwashing mutant S&M club, trial-by-combat on the Moon, dozens of other Marvel Universe characters and Jean ultimately becoming a genocidal sun-eating space-monster; something that might not have fit with Bryan Singer’s strictly earthbound X-films up to that point.
However! Since X3 probably can’t have happened anymore (Professor X is seen walking and still pals with Magneto during a Phoenix-establishing flashback set in the late-70s/early-80s) the field is wide-open for future X-directors to at least do a better job with the franchises best-remembered event than previously. And heck, maybe all the “space stuff” oughtn’t be as verboten as it once was. After all, audiences seem to be largely receptive to Tony Stark sharing acquaintances with the Viking God of Thunder; so is “Wolverine in Space” really that far off anymore?
And speaking of which…
X-Men Origins: Wolverine was so universally-hated that, despite its tidy box office, everyone from the studio down to the tertiary cast was running to the press to declare their intents to pretend it never happened in any future installments of the franchise within months of its release. And while the most famous X-Man doesn’t play a key role in First Class a perfectly-timed cameo establishes that he’s very much kicking around. Sharp-eared fans will also note that the least sympathetic of FC’s military brass characters is established as the father of Col. William Stryker, the mutant-hating baddie who plays a key role in X2’s explanation of Wolverine’s backstory.
Here’s the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: Having a “repaired” version of you-know-who’s origin folded-in as part of another X-Men prequel could undo the unwanted-scion of Origins and provide yet another crowd-pleasing cameo – how much fun would it be for the super-secret “boss fight” to be Weapon X? “Huh, this guy doesn’t look so tough!” “snikt!” “Oh.”
Making this all much easier, of course, is that Wolverine’s handy immortality means you don’t need to worry about recasting Hugh Jackman, who quite frankly needs this franchise even more than it needs him.
As mentioned above, X-Men Origins: Wolverine was being written out of existence long before it’s goofy upright-walking Professor X cameo made it part of First Class’ continuity sandblasting. But there’s no such thing as scrubbing too hard, especially when it means giving filmmakers a do-over on Deadpool.
I imagine that many (most?) reading this are more aware of Deadpool as a breakout-star character from the newest Marvel vs. Capcom, but he’s been a cult-fave in comics for years. Originally created by the infamous Rob Liefeld as little more than a “Dark Age” knockoff of DC’s Deathstroke The Terminator (“Slade” to you fans of the Teen Titans cartoon); Deadpool’s distinguishing characteristic is that he’s one of a surprisingly small number of comic book characters who is aware that he inhabits a fictional ink-and-paint universe – hence (at least to some degree) his just-in-it-for-laffs nihilism. To my mind, this is exactly what the increasingly overcrowded superhero movie genre needs at this moment: A character who can simultaneously inhabit a big costumed adventure actioner … while also taking the piss out of it.
The Wolverine movie had Ryan Reynolds (great casting!) as the pre-Deadpool Wade Wilson, and served as a parallel origin for Deadpool-proper – but the final product left a lot to be desired. It’s as good a reason as any to take another shot at it – plus, after Green Lantern Reynolds is probably going to need something else on his “I-can-carry-a-movie” resume…
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.