Twentieth Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox
If the subtextual homoerotic love affair between Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor X (James McAvoy) in the X-Men saga wasn't established canon before X-Men: First Class, well...it is now.
For anyone remotely paying attention, it's pretty clear that the primary story arc of the summer blockbuster is how much Erik and Charles are madly in love, and how it all goes horribly wrong due to a combination of external forces and internal character flaws.
Our own E! Online reviewer appeared to have no idea this all went down, so are we just seeing things because we want to? And what does this turn of romantic events mean for the future of the franchise? Let's discuss:
Xavier's X-Men and Magneto's Brotherhood of Mutants have long represented conflicting approaches to race relations in America, with Xavier standing for a conciliatory integrationist Martin Luther King Jr. approach, and Magneto taking a more militant or separatist Malcolm X approach.
But circa 2011, cultural divisions over race have been supplanted in the popular American consciousness by a debate over gay rights, and the latest X-Men film has updated Professor X and Magneto's adversarial relationship thusly. Sure, a lot of stuff blows up, so it's partly just a summer popcorn movie. But the film can also be easily read as a gay pride allegory, as well as a story of true love gone horribly wrong. (Among other things, by the end of First Class, Professor X affirmatively chooses to stay in the closet and not frighten the straights, while "mutant and proud" Magneto embraces the "drag" of a flamboyant costume.)
Now, about that sexual business in the storyline of the film. Don't fight it, folks. It's there, and it's real, and even James McAvoy is in on it. He told the Daily Telegraph, "It is a little bit of a mini-tragedy that him and Magneto don't, you know, have sex and become married and become best friends."
To double-check our level of crazy fangirling on this topic, we turned to William Earnest, an assistant professor of communication at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas, who contributed a chapter called "Making Gay Sense of the X-Men" to the textbook Uncovering Hidden Rhetorics: Social Issues in Disguise edited by Barry S. Brummett. He says, "I think the movie would be less interesting, and much less fun, without [the romantic throughline]. I'm not sure, however, that the majority of moviegoers necessarily recognize the gay love affair, coded as it is, but I do think they'd notice its absence. The late, great Vito Russo (The Celluloid Closet) would probably agree with this assertion, seeing as he found these kinds of coded gay relationships informing so many mainstream films over the decades."
So, if you are inclined to read the film this way (and we so are), what is there to see?
The two leads of X-Men: First Class meet cute when Charles Xavier saves Erik Lehnsherr from drowning during a revengey assault on a evil overlord's yacht, and in their first exchange Erik confesses, "I thought I was alone," while Charles reassures, "No, you're not…I'm like you." Sure, they're officially talking about the whole mutant thing, but the language also transfers perfectly to what two closeted males in the 1960s might say to each other as they experienced the gaydar ping of their lives.
Shortly thereafter, Erik and Charles set off to adopt a brood of X-babies they can raise at Xavier's mansion, during which Hugh Jackman's Wolverine makes a brief cameo appearance and encourages the future superhero and supervillain to "go f--k yourselves." Sure, you could say that the line is simply Wolverine being his usual bitchy self, but we say the line was planted to hint that Charles and Erik then quite literally go f--k each other.
Throughout the second act of the film, not only do the two share a bed in a strip club, share a mind meld so powerful they're both brought to tears, and co-parent the X-babies in preparation for the battle against Shaw (Kevin Bacon), they somehow find time to loll around together on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial while "playing chess" and gazing at the oh-so-phallic Washington Monument. No, seriously, "playing chess" is obviously PG-13 movie code for "And then Magneto and Professor X did it...again."
Professor Earnest also notes, "With this not-always-subtle subtext established, finding ways to play with it is easy—a task made even easier by the fact that it's homoerotic, not homosexual in the literal sense, so it's about desire, tension, and, above all, unrequited love. No clothes have to come off, and so far as we know, they don't. But there are looks, body language, conversations, and above all, intimacy...The chess scene aside, from the standpoint of sexual imagery, I think the 'satellite dish' [scene] is the film's richest. Charles even asks Erik's permission to penetrate him! So polite. And then they meld each other's brains out."
Of course, in the tradition of all the best romantic tragedies, by the third act our heroes end up facing off in the climactic final battle, and their fundamental divisions ruin the whole beautiful thing. Bullets are taken, brain-slicings are suffered, and hearts are broken all over the place.
Say that it's mere "brotherhood" or "friendship" if you will. But when the Bad Thing (sob) happens at the end of X-Men: First Class, Erik doesn't respond exactly like a buddy. He passionately drops 500 missiles, clutches Charles to his chest, homicidally freaks out at everyone else on the beach and then basically proposes marriage ("I want you by my side")—all while looking like he wants to kill himself.
They are in love, and that's that.
They should be married and living happily ever after, but Erik's rage issues make him an unsuitable daddy for the X-babies, so Charles divorces him on the beach, and they'll spend the rest of their lives in miserable devotion to each other, facing each other from across the line, instead of living together in Westchester mansion splendor, "playing chess" until they too old and creaky to "move the pieces."
In the end, adding the romantic throughline to the film is a masterstroke. The "X-Men: First Love" approach elevates the otherwise absurd comic-book goings-on. And the narrative heft of the storied mutant war to come elevates the potentially trite romantic arc.
For that matter, the romance somewhat rationalizes the random insertion of the Cuban Missile Crisis plotline. Professor Earnest observes, "It's the decade of the Civil Rights Movement and Stonewall, so the cultural backdrop is custom-ordered to support a burgeoning, forbidden love affair. And certainly their relationship mirrors these struggles.
"The ‘60s were also the height of the Cold War, which of course provides the historical template for the storyline. In addition, the Cold War gives us an additional metaphor for star-crossed love. Here are two men who have much in common and, deep down, rather fancy one another. You'd think they'd hit it off famously—and for awhile they do. But eventually political differences drive them apart. Not entirely unlike the United States and the Soviet Union."
Fassbender, McAvoy and Vaughn all deserve special credit for their individual collective contributions to the achievement that is this film. Vaughn deftly centers the story on Erik and Charles' relationship while making sure the fanboys also have plenty to play with. Fassbender absolutely kills it as an emotionally wrecked abuse survivor whose romantic principles are something like "Cruel to be kind, means that I love you." McAvoy, meanwhile, deftly keeps Charles' fluttering (and later broken) heart in his eyes, as the future superhero follows that well-trodden path of falling for a hot bad boy whose powers and flaws are both terribly grand and terribly dangerous.
The smouldering "bromance" in X-Men: First Class is wall-to-wall coded passion—and sometimes not so coded—and if you think they're not having sweaty mutant sex during the entire movie, you just weren't paying attention. To clear up any confusion, we recommend you go see it again...and again...and again, just to catch the finer points. (Not least because higher box-office returns mean increased chances of a sequel.)
So…your thoughts on Charles-Erik? Are we crazy or is this canon now? Hit us back in the comments.