One of my favorite examples of deep subtext in First Class is the opening sequences of Erik, Charles, and Raven as children. There are several layers in these scenes, and I’ll try my best to work through them as clearly as possible.
What you need to know first is the opening scenes in X-Men First Class are completely centered on Erik and Charles, and in fact stay this way until the two of them meet the night Charles saves Erik from drowning. Their individual stories are so similar in so many ways, yet so different, and this sets up nicely the reason why Erik and Charles have an *instant* connection when they finally come together, and why they split later on.
Interspersed with those scenes is also the story of how Charles meets Raven. And if you pay very close attention, you’ll see that her experience with Charles is not only *very* similar to Erik’s, it also gives us an idea of what private life with Charles would’ve been like for him and Erik in the early days of their relationship. Also in there is the story of how Erik meets Shaw, and once again, if you look, you’ll see there are several similarities between Shaw and Charles, and Shaw and Erik.
All these characters are deeply connected.
I’ll just go over these opening scenes here, and save the rest for the post I’m still working on explaining why Raven and Hank are the subtext characters for the romance between Charles and Erik. This post will give you an idea of where I’ll be going with that.
First Class opens with the young Erik and his parents filing into Auschwitz.
They are forcibly separated by the Nazi guards in a gut wrenching scene, causing Erik’s panic and rage to manifest in his metal bending as he bends the gate separating him from his parents.
This immediately tells us something very important about Erik: he is very close to his family and they mean everything to him. Especially his mother. And his mother is devoted to him.
(Note the X on the gate.)
In order to stop Erik from continuing to bend the gate, one of the guards hits him in the face with the stock of his rifle, knocking Erik out flat.
This entire scene is watched over by Shaw as he looks down from his office window. Here, Charles is first equated with Shaw, so this scene has another layer of meaning. (I detail this in The “Cure.”) Note that it’s raining, and Erik is soaked. Shaw saves Erik from the gas chambers after seeing his powers. When Charles saves Erik, water is again involved, and he saves him from drowning after seeing Erik’s powers in action.
Erik squirms on the ground, as though he’s trying to regain consciousness.
This transitions to the exterior of the Xavier mansion, and to Charles asleep in bed. His eyes open. He knows someone is in the house.
Erik’s closed eyes transition to Charles opening his. This is entirely symbolic, and it’s meant to draw a clear connection from Erik to Charles, and then from Erik to Raven, whom Charles telepathically senses in the mansion’s kitchen. When he heads down to find the intruder, however, he’s greeted by his mother instead.
(“There’s someone else out there.”)
But it’s not his mother. And Charles knows that because he’s a telepath, but also because his “mother” offers to make him a hot chocolate.
“My mother has never set foot in this kitchen in her life, and she certainly never made me a hot chocolate unless you count ordering the maid to do it.”
So, we learn right away that Charles doesn’t have a close relationship with his mother- she is distant and rather unloving.
This is in direct contrast to Erik.
After Charles confronts the fake mother, she turns into Raven.
She is the first mutant outside of himself Charles has ever met. This is far from canon- the writers invented this. Charles and Raven never met as children. In the comics, ERIK is the first mutant Charles meets, and they meet as adults.
(The writers frequently swap and substitute canon stories from the comics to use them for Erik and Charles. Whenever they do this, pay attention– they’re doing it for a reason. A previous example I used is the canon story of how Magneto meets his love interest Lee Forrester being used as the template for how Erik meets Charles in FC.)
From Uncanny X-Men, Professor X at dinner talking with another mutant about meeting Erik Lehnsherr:
“I don’t know about you, but the first time I met another adult mutant was like being hit by a thunderbolt. Far, far more powerful than being in love and our human wives knew it. Our eyes were brighter. Our minds were faster. Sometimes we could spend seventy-two straight hours on the telephone just talking about our ideas for the world.”
This is significant- it shows intent on the part of the writers to connect Raven to Erik. And how Charles treats Raven as a child versus how he treats her as an adult is *identical* to how Charles treats Erik in the early days of their relationship versus later on.
Why does he treat them both differently later on? He wants to hide them under the guise of protecting them- Charles doesn’t like freakish mutations. Raven’s blue skin and Erik’s sexual identity are kept hidden under “normal” facades. Charles doesn’t want to face Raven’s attraction to him, nor Erik’s EXCEPT in this case Charles feels the same towards him. He goes from the carefree acceptance of childhood to the fears, denial, and conformity of adulthood, and that eventually pushes them away.
Erik=Raven. It’s so beautiful. (I’ll go way into this in my Hank=Charles/Erik=Raven post I’m currently writing.)
“You’re not scared of me?” (“I thought I was alone.”)
“I always knew I couldn’t be the only one in the world. And here you are.”
(“You have your tricks, I have mine, I’m like you…You’re not alone. Erik? You’re not alone.”)
Raven, shown as transitioning from Charles’ mother into herself is symbolic of her filling the void that Charles has in his life– a lack of real family. And the connection to Erik that I mentioned earlier is made here for a reason: Erik also fills a similar void for Charles when they meet– a lack of real intimacy with anyone.
Charles says to Raven: “You’re hungry, and alone. Take whatever you want, we’ve got lots of food. You don’t have to steal. In fact, you never have to steal again.”
These words are very, very important. Not only do they show how Charles lovingly treats the first mutant he meets, they transition *immediately* to Shaw’s office in Auschwitz where he is putting on the record of Edith Piaf’s famous love song La Vie En Rose.
These scene transitions are structured specifically by the screenwriters and the director to show the connection between Raven and Erik- because the love song plays right after she is accepted by Charles (and is also symbolic of her unrequited crush on Charles from here on out) and to Charles and Erik because the scene transitions from Charles’ face right to this record player. (I did a previous post on the love songs used in FC and DoFP entitled The Love Songs.. that details the meaning of this. The songs used in FC and DoFP are about Erik and Charles. This transition solidifies this.)
Erik is in Shaw’s office, listening to Shaw tell him he’s not really a Nazi, he doesn’t believe in their ridiculous blonde hair, blue eyed ideal of humanity. No, he’s interested in evolution, genetics, in mutant superiority, and that means he’s interested in Erik.
“I want to see my mother.” (“I accessed the brightest corner of your memory system. It’s a very beautiful memory, Erik, thank you.”)
Shaw tries to goad him into a demonstration by offering him chocolate, which he eats greedily in front of a starving Erik.
“It’s chocolate. It’s good.” (“We’ve got lots of food…”)
(“You’re hungry, and alone…)
When that doesn’t work, Shaw offers him money. If Erik can use his power to get the coin, he can keep it. That still doesn’t work, and poor, sweet Erik is almost apologetic over it. Shaw decides to use “Nazi tactics” and brings Erik’s mother into the room. He takes out a gun and points it at her.
(Note the torture room. In a way, it sort of resembles an old fashioned kitchen where all the cutlery is hung on the walls.)
Even under duress, Erik cannot move the coin. One..two..three. And his mother is dead. And this- right here- this immediate loss of love, and the subsequent rage, is what unlocks Erik’s mutation. This is the loss of Erik’s innocence, and this is how he’ll look at love from here on out: a weakness that people can and will exploit for their own purposes and a path that only leads to heartbreak. He’ll never be the same.
He loses control, kills the guards, and wrecks the torture room. (That’s foreshadowing because Erik endures a long time of physical torture at the hands of Shaw after this.)
(Take note of Shaw’s office in the background. It resembles Charles’ studies in Oxford and in New York.)
Shaw is overjoyed. (“You’re not scared of me?”)
“So we unlock your power through anger.”
And, in reward, he gives Erik the coin as payment. On one side is the Nazi swastika, and all of Erik’s pain and fears. On the other side is X, Charles’ last name initial and the logo for his future school.
On the surface, it represents the choice between good and evil, integration versus domination, Erik siding with Charles or becoming Magneto. In the subtext, the Nazi side represents all the fears Erik has about trust and love, especially when it comes to Charles– he’s worried Charles will break him and manipulate him just like Shaw did. The X side represents his want and desperate need of love from Charles, and the love Erik has for their little mutant family. Erik finally finds where he belongs after years of being lost, and he wants to hold onto it with everything he’s got.
But it doesn’t work out that way.
Charles does end up breaking Erik, and Erik then becomes Magneto.
Which is why when Erik finally kills Shaw, and the coin passes through his head (and Charles’ head telepathically), it lands Nazi side up. I go way into this in The “Cure.”
Beautiful, isn’t it? It’s absolutely ingenious how the writers and director did this. I’m absolutely smitten. I want everyone to understand and appreciate how amazing the X-Men films really are, and just how important they’re going to become in 2016 when Apocalypse is released.
Part 2 to be continued…