Comics to Screen – a look at X-Men: First Class

by Matthew Turner

Warning: This post contains SPOILERS for X-Men: First Class and is intended to be read after you’ve seen the film.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece for this blog about the juggling act faced by film-makers when making superhero movies, namely, playing to their built-in audience on the one hand (by referencing the comics, lifting famous plots, making in-jokes and so on) and making the film broadly accessible to newcomers on the other. This article is intended as a follow-up to that piece, exploring how the same ideas apply to X-Men: First Class but also looking at the various ways in which the film both sticks to and differs from the comics. It’s also intended to serve as a handy bluffer’s guide to the various characters in the film.

The original X-Men were created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, making their debut in “The X-Men” #1 in September 1963 (about a year after the debuts of Hulk, Spider-Man and Thor and six months after Iron Man), where they fought Magneto (see cover above), who also appeared for the first time. At that time, the X-Men consisted of telepath Professor X (Charles Xavier), eyebeam-shooting Cyclops (Scott Summers), telekinetic Marvel Girl (Jean Grey), athletic, not yet blue-skinned science whizz Beast (Hank McCoy), ice-producer-slash-manipulator Iceman (Bobby Drake) and angel-winged Angel (Warren Worthington III). It is not my intention to go into detail on the subsequent sprawling, hideously complicated X-universe here (after all, that’s what Wikipedia is for) but suffice it to say that by the late 1960s, the title wasn’t doing so well and so Marvel revamped them in 1975 (in “Giant Size X-Men” #1 – see cover below), introducing a new team of X-Men that included weather-manipulator Storm (Ororo Munroe), demonic-looking teleporter Nightcrawler, can-turn-into-metal powerhouse Colossus (Piotr Rasputin) and adamantium-skeletoned, metal-claw wielding Wolverine (Logan). Notable future additions were power-absorbing Rogue (first appearance: 1981) and can-phase-through-objects Kitty Pryde (first appearance: 1980). These characters are generally thought of as the classic era X-Men and indeed, all the above characters duly made appearances in the previous three X-Men films, even if the chronology was tweaked a little along the way (e.g. Rogue meeting the X-Men through Wolverine, rather than starting out as one of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants; Beast and Angel not being part of the original team but both showing up for the third film; Storm being presented as one of the founder members).

As I mentioned in the Thor piece, origin stories are usually the default story option for the first film about a particular superhero, because it’s the obvious way to introduce a new audience to the character. With a large group like the X-Men, that becomes rather more difficult because there are so many characters, plus the characters are all mutants anyway, so they were all born with their powers, rather than getting caught in a gamma bomb explosion, being bitten by a radioactive spider or inventing an iron suit to get out of a cave. The first X-Men film (back in 2000) got round the too-many-characters problem by concentrating on Rogue and Iceman discovering their powers and then introducing the audience to Professor X and the other X-Men (as well as Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants) through their eyes. X-Men: First Class is intended as a prequel that concentrates on the “origins” of Professor X (played by James McAvoy) and Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender), but, paradoxically, it’s not weighed down with the pressure of introducing the main players, since most people seeing X-Men: First Class will be familiar with the characters as portrayed by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. What’s really interesting is that X-Men: First Class has multiple options available when it comes to making in-jokes and references and it cleverly chooses to cover both bases, with both crowd-pleasing cameos from the first three films (I’m not spoiling them, but they’re both brilliant) and various references to the comics, as we’ll see below.

For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to briefly look at each of the main characters and attempt to place them within X-Men mythology while looking at how their characters have been adapted to fit the film.

Professor X (James McAvoy)

The first things you’ll notice about James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier are that a) he can walk and b) he has hair. Now, while the comics incarnation has been in and out of that wheelchair a number of times over the years (not to mention being occasionally dead or in space), a Charles Xavier with hair represents something of a radical departure from the comics, as he has rarely, if ever, been portrayed with a full set of follicles, even in flashback stories (the comics have his hair disappearing around the time that his powers develop properly, in high school). This allows for several good jokes and teases about losing his hair within the film, not least the moment when he first uses mind-enhancing, mutant-locating computer Cerebro. Obviously, the film has to address the wheelchair issue at some point, so his accident occurs as part of the film’s emotional climax, which has the added effect of tying it to Magneto, rather than opting for the rather less exciting comics version, in which Xavier was crippled by an alien named Lucifer. Other than that, the plot of X-Men: First Class is basically Xavier and Magneto recruiting the first X-Men, but with Beast as the only character in the First Class line-up that corresponds to comics history and even he has been tweaked a bit. Xavier’s relationship with Mystique is significantly different from the comics version but I’ll discuss that below. The film also features Rose Byrne as Moria Mactaggart (played by Olivia Williams in the post-credits scene in X-Men: The Last Stand), who was Xavier’s ex-fiancee in the comics, so she may well become a love interest in the sequels. She doesn’t seem to be Scottish anymore though.

Magneto (Michael Fassbender)

The version of Magneto that we see in X-Men: First Class owes as much to the previous films as it does to the comics, with the movie explicitly recreating the concentration camp flashback scene that opened 2000’s X-Men. In the 1960s comics, Magneto was a straight-up megalomaniac and was rarely, if ever, seen without his helmet, though it’s worth noting that Stan Lee revealed in a 2008 interview that he had originally planned for Xavier and Magneto to be brothers. At any rate, it wasn’t until the 1980s, when long-standing writer Chris Claremont began exploring Magneto’s background, that the character developed into the complex figure he is now. The film is consistent with the basic facts of Magneto and Xavier’s subsequently retconned relationship (i.e. ideologically opposed friends and allies at first, then enemies), but their split occurs in the comics many years before the X-Men are formed. Interestingly, in his first ever battle with the X-Men, Magneto attacks a missile base, which is sort of what happens at the climax of First Class. Similarly, one of the film’s key set-pieces involves Magneto trying to lift a submarine with his powers, something that’s often referred to in the comics as one of his greatest hits, so to speak. The film also has him “inheriting” his Xavier-repelling helmet from Sebastian Shaw, though that’s a handy bit of symbolic visual invention for the movie rather than something from the comics.

Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence)

If die-hard X-Men fans are going to be angry about anything in X-Men: First Class, they’re probably going to be angry about the changes they’ve made to Mystique. In the comics (as in the previous films), she’s primarily a shape-shifting supervillain and a cold-blooded killer and has no connection to the X-Men prior to their first clash in the late 1970s, when she’s a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. The film, by contrast, has her growing up as Xavier’s adopted sister (though it’s clear she has deeper feelings for him too) and considerably softens her character; at the end she sides with Magneto because of how she fears she’ll be treated by mankind once they cotton on to the existence of mutants. The film makes an explicit link to the Mystique of the previous films so you know that the story of First Class is also going to somehow involve her turning to the dark side, so to speak. However, there are two intriguing Mystique facts from the comics that are worth mentioning here. The first is that she’s meant to be Rogue’s adoptive mother, though this is unlikely to happen in the film universe, because of the way Rogue was introduced in the first film (played by Anna Paquin). The second is that she’s Nightcrawler’s birth mother and the fact that Nightcrawler’s father, demonic teleporter Azazel (played by Jason Flemyng, though he doesn’t get any dialogue), also appears in the film (with special effects that deliberately evoke Nightcrawler’s powers as seen in X2 and X3) indicates a potential plot set-up for the sequels, while subtly acknowledging the connection (Azazel is red, Mystique is blue, Nightcrawler is a mixture of both). It’s also worth pointing out that subsequently, in the comics, Mystique has indeed joined the X-Men, because all the coolest villains seem to do that at some point.

Beast (Nicolas Hoult)

As mentioned above, Beast was one of the original X-Men, though he remained in human form (with deformed feet, as in X-Men: First Class) throughout the 1960s run. It wasn’t until after he’d officially left the X-Men that he experimented with serum (in issue #11 of Amazing Adventures in 1972) and mutated into the initially grey but later blue-skinned creature that’s still a staple of the comics today (although he now looks more like a cat, so God knows what that’s all about). In the film he has an attraction to Mystique (a definite departure from the comics) and a similar fear of being denounced as a freak by mankind; his experiment here is intended to cure his deformed feet rather than the fairly lame espionage plot that led to his transformation in 1972. Interestingly, Beast is one of the few mutants to move out of X-titles – he was a member of The Avengers for many years and it’ll be interesting to see if future Avengers movies bear that in mind (there is, as yet, no official crossover between the X-Men film universe and the Avengers film universe that comprises the Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Hulk movies).

Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon)

Bacon is the first to admit that his incarnation of supervillain Sebastian Shaw doesn’t correspond, physically, to the version in the comics. At a recent London press conference, he said, ‘I hope that [fans of the comic book] won’t be too much disappointed with the fact that I don’t look anything like Sebastian Shaw. When I first read the script, I went online and googled him and I saw this massive, Lou Ferrigno kind of guy with a ponytail, dressed like George Washington and I thought: ‘I just don’t know how I’m going to do that!’ But that’s not the look that Matthew [Vaughn] wanted to go with.’ The film also makes Shaw an immortal who was a Nazi during WWII, where he attempted to harness young Magneto’s powers after murdering his mother (there’s no significant connection between Shaw and Magneto in the comics). Other than being an immortal Nazi, Shaw’s powers are basically the same as in the comics (he can absorb and fire back any kinetic energy that’s directed at him), as is his relationship with Emma Frost, although she’s portrayed as less of an equal and more of an evil assistant in the film.

Emma Frost (January Jones)

Mutant telepath Emma Frost made her first appearance in 1980, starting out as the White Queen of the Hellfire Club (which also appears in First Class, only with more of a Vegas-style twist). She was often partnered with Sebastian Shaw and had several run-ins with the X-Men, but, like both Mystique and Rogue, eventually switched sides and became one of the good guys. Currently, she’s one of the leaders of the X-Men and has been Cyclops’ lover for the past decade or so. In the film, she can change into diamond form, but this is a relatively recent development in the comics; the film also loses Emma’s characteristic dry wit, though thankfully it keeps the other thing she’s primarily known for,  her skimpy costumes. Incidentally, a version of Emma Frost (played by Tahyna Tozzi) appeared in X-Men Origins: Wolverine but, really, the less said about X-Men Origins: Wolverine the better.

The new mutants – Havok, Banshee, Angel and Darwin

Not to be confused with The New Mutants. Confusingly, the yellow and black superhero costumes worn by the X-Men of First Class (see picture above) are extremely similar to those worn by The New Mutants, but let’s not go there right now. The “new” (as in not previously seen in an X-Men film, so excluding Beast and Mystique) mutants are a fan-pleasing mixture of classic era X-Men (Havok and Banshee, both of whom had appeared before the 1975 revamp) and relatively recent characters – insect-winged Angel Salvadore (played by Zoe Kravitz) made her first appearance in 2001 (and was never a stripper or an Evil Mutant), while super-adaptable Darwin (played by Edi Gathegi) only appeared as recently as 2006, although – and pay attention at the back there, because this gets rather complicated – he was retconned into a “missing” interim team that failed to complete the save-the-original-X-Men mission that the new X-Men completed in “Giant Size X-Men” #1 in 1975. I won’t spoil Darwin’s fate in First Class but you could be forgiven for thinking that he was created especially for the movie. As for plasma bolt-firing Havok (played by Lucas Till), the film-makers have more or less reinvented his character for the film – Magneto and Xavier find him in jail – and there’s no mention of Cyclops (he is Cyclops’ brother in the comics) beyond the fact that he has the same surname. By contrast, sonic screamer Banshee (played by Caleb Landry Jones) is more or less the same here as he is in the comics and the film shows him getting his glider-winged costume and learning how to fly, though it also strips him of the distinctive Irish brogue that was a large part of his character.

That’s probably enough X-Facts for now. Suffice it to say that there’s plenty of prequel sequel potential and a number of different directions that future films could go in, depending on which cast members are contracted to return. Personally, I’d like the next X-Men film to feature The Sentinels (giant mutant-killing robots) and I’m also secretly hoping that Ellen Page will get to play Kitty Pryde again at some point. But maybe that’s just me.

This blog post would not have been possible without invaluable assistance from Kim Newman and James Moar.

Matthew Turner (@FilmFan1971 on Twitter) is the film reviewer for ViewLondon and has been known to read a Marvel comic or two in his time.

About Matthew Turner

Matthew Turner (@FilmFan1971 on Twitter) is a freelance film journalist. His favourite film is Vertigo and he hasn't missed an episode of EastEnders since 1998.

6 thoughts on “Comics to Screen – a look at X-Men: First Class

      1. In which case, I call into question Turner’s authority in this piece. It’s a tower of lies, built on a tissue of untruths and caught in a web of bollocks.

        Or, you know, it’s been ten years since he watched X Men 1: No Subtitle.

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