James McAvoy, who plays Charles Xavier in Matthew Vaughn‘s X-Men: First Class, just described the film to the LA Times as ‘kind of a love story,’ and because the love story would be between Xavier and Magneto, I’m afraid that’s going to be a tag that proves irresistible to many people.

But going into more detail, he says the film is like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the seminal George Roy Hill western that was an essential part of the ‘new Hollywood’ of the late ’60s, and a career-making film for Robert Redford. Linking First Class to that film, and by extension to a couple other westerns of the same era, might open a window on the story for those who don’t know the detailed backstory of Xavier and Magneto.

Lets go first to the quote from the LA Times:

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.

I wonder about the relationship between First Class and other westerns as well. Two Sam Peckinpah films, The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, both come to mind. I’d never thought of Xavier and Magneto in terms of Pike and Deke from The Wild Bunch — men who were friends but find themselves on opposite sides of the law, and on opposite sides of a chasm that has opened between the old world and the new — but that comparison quite evidently applies. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid has a similar dynamic, as Garrett is charged with bringing his one-time friend Billy to justice, though the story plays out in slightly different fashion. The setup is a classic western tradition, to be sure, but those three films came out of the same era that produced The X-Men in the first place, so the specific comparison is worth considering.

All of which is a super long-winded road to take back to the idea that the ‘love story’ part of the quote is only part of the story. Those who know the history of the X-Men, even to the point of having seen the other films, know that Xavier and Magneto have always been respectful enemies who teeter on the edge of friendship and alliance. Seeing the specifics of how any storyteller looks at that relationship is what has kept the comics going for years, and what makes Matthew Vaughn’s film worth a look.

Going forward with what the Times offers, a great many interviews have hit Mr. McAvoy and Michael Fassbender with essentially the same question: you’re playing a character defined by Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellen, and how do you deal with that? The answer here is that he looked for the younger version of the character, before Charles Xavier became a sort of “selfless, sexless monk.” So let’s get more on that.

Charles is caught up in himself. He enjoys success and is proud, and he’s not the selfless person that he becomes. You look at the relationship with Raven – who becomes Mystique – and you examine that relationship and the way he treats her like a living experiment. She’s an assistant to him and he cares for her, but there’s his ego and condescending big-brother attitude as well. You see it in the way he treats the others. In the “later” movies, he’s exorcised that from his personality. For me, trying to keep that ego as an underpinning of the character is important.

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