In the current surge of superhero movies, X-Men is the series that got there first. Based on the Marvel Comics characters, the initial instalment in 2000 featured a then-unknown Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Halle Berry as Storm and James Marsden as Cyclops, and then went on to spawn two sequels, plus a Wolverine solo movie. The films introduced us to these and other ‘mutants’ – people classed as outsiders because they are born with special powers. Professor Xavier, a mind-reading mutant played by Patrick Stewart, was of the view that mankind and mutants could live in harmony, while metal-bending hero Magneto, played by Ian McKellen, saw the mutants as the rightful successors to humans. This struggle was evident in each of the films, with mutants choosing sides and engaging in constant battle with each other. The good guys, of course, were dubbed the X-Men.
X-Men: First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn (no stranger to costumed heroes after last year’s Kick-Ass), fills us in on the back story. James McAvoy plays a young Professor Xavier, with Michael Fassbender as Magneto: the two start off as friends, but their relationship turns sour and creates a rivalry when they discover their opposing views. Other stars include Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Oliver Platt and Jennifer Lawrence. Younger versions of other characters from the past X-Men films will also be seen, including Mystique and the Beast. We caught up with McAvoy to talk mutants, mind-reading and magnetism, and also to find out how it feels to play a character who eventually loses his hair and ends up in a wheelchair – we imagine that transition will be explained in the film.
You’re a big fan of Star Trek. How was it to play a character made famous by a former Star Trek actor?
[Laughs] I’m a total Star Trek fan. You have to stop yourself doing your Patrick Stewart impression! I managed to get the line, ‘On my mark,’ but I couldn’t get ‘Engage’ or ‘Make it so’ in there. But he did say ‘On my mark’ a lot in The Next Generation.
Did you read the X-Men comics when you got the part?
It was largely based on the script, because we do mess with a lot of the chronology of it all. I did look at the comic book version of First Class, even though it’s utterly different.
The summer movie season is particularly crowded this year. What will set X-Men: First Class apart?
I think the fact that it’s a period movie is rare for the superhero action genre, and the sense of humour it has will elevate the film. And we’ve already got this solid base of movies that we know audiences like. This movie will show you how they got there.
What’s that overall story about?
It’s about the burgeoning tension between these two characters, Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto), played by Michael Fassbender, and my character, Charles Xavier (Professor X). And on a greater level, it’s about where this new species of mutants is going. I think Charles regards himself as a human who has evolved – an evolutionary human. And Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon, regards himself as somebody who is vying for the finite resources of the world with an entirely different species: human beings. He doesn’t regard himself as one. So the film becomes about whether Erik will fall on that side or Charles’s. In terms of the comic books he goes back and forth, really, for a long, long time. It’s not like the eternal constant war you think it is in the other movies, where Ian McKellen has always been the bad guy.
The movie starts with them being unaware of the existence of other mutants, doesn’t it?
Charles suspects there are others, but doesn’t know. Erik has never met another mutant and doesn’t expect to. And it’s not just about us, but about a family of mutants being created. My inference, from the script, is that Charles didn’t have any time with his parents – his father is never mentioned and he’s never in a scene with his mother. I think he never really had a family and just wanted to create something.
So Charles’s challenge seems quite human, then.
Yeah. And actually, I think Charles has had it easy. For all the mutants in the world who were persecuted or scared, Charles isn’t afraid of anything. He’s entitled, he’s had a lot of money, he’s got a fabulous education, he’s not naive or blinkered in any way. And his ability allows him ultimate access and empathy with other people. He understands them really, really well because he’s spent his entire life listening to them without them knowing. When the rest of the mutants come along, he’s suddenly in this crazy world in which he has to step up and help lead and educate. I think that is something he relishes and enjoys, but it’s a new experience for him and he has to become a bigger person than he was.
You’ve talked a lot about a potential trilogy of films for X-Men. Have you had ideas about how that might play?
The possibilities are just so, so exciting in terms of what could happen. The characters are all going through so much, with so many traumas. They’re all pretty saintly by the time they get to the first X-Men, so let’s have them really struggle for now. I just think it should be really messed up, and that’s all I can really say because they probably won’t let me do any of it otherwise.
X-Men: First Class is in UAE cinemas on June 2. Read our review next week this month.
Other actors playing younger versions of established characters.
Chris Pine as James T Kirk
As seen in: Star Trek (2009)
Director JJ Abrams revisited the original TV series, telling the story of how the crew got together, but with a clever time-travel twist.
Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker
As seen in: Star Wars Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Not the best acting performance, but he did help us understand how Darth Vader came to be, and how Luke and Leia ended up separated.
Hugh Jackman as Wolverine
As seen in: X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Nine years after he first grew lambchop sideburns for the part, an older Jackman played a younger Wolverine to reveal the character’s back story.
River Phoenix as Indiana Jones
As seen in: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
The third Indy movie begins in 1912, with a teenage version trying to thwart some graverobbers. The scene reveals where Indiana Jones got the idea for the hat and the whip.
Robert De Niro as Don Corleone
As seen in: The Godfather Part II (1974)
The film tells two stories side by side – one of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), and the other of his father, the original Godfather (De Niro), from his childhood to his early years as a gangster.