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"X-Men: First Class as a Love Story"

The Trope of Falling in Love

"Falling in love" has been the dominant trope in our literary landscape several hundred years, and as with any such overriding cultural construction, one need merely nod at it to claim one has created a sufficient story. This descent into narrative laziness is succinctly invoked in Avril Lavigne's exceptionally grating song, "Skater Boy," which opens, "He was a boy. She was a girl. / Can I make it any more obvious?" No. In eight words, every one of us instantly understands; that's how thoroughly embedded the cliché is.

In the majority of narratives, nodding at the cliché largely stands in for developing a compelling relationship between two individuals. The highest literary example of this may be Romeo and Juliet, in which two teens have sexual chemistry at a dance, spend a few days obsessing over each other due to hormones and reverse psychology, and end up killing themselves for the love of someone they scarcely had a chance to get to know. It's sad, and it works as a story because it's about the sadness of the social situation rather than Romeo and Juliet. It's not, however, about falling in love.

Like most every cliché, "falling in love" gained its stature because it has real power. People really do fall in love, and it's amazing. And in those rare instances where this narrative is executed as a natural, dynamic building of relationship between two people who genuinely "click," it can create an extremely compelling story.

So what does it mean to "fall in love"? I'm using the phrase to refer to two people meeting and discovering, as they get to know each other, a strong sense of mutual intrigue and admiration that leads them to be mesmerized by each other. It usually implies sexual attraction, but this is not essential to the basic emotion. Asexuals can fall in love too. It is a sub-category of grand passion. Catherine and Heathcliff have a grand passion, but they never fell in love: their relationship predates the ability to feel that new intrigue for each other. Jane Eyre and Rochester fall in love: they meet, click, complement, and challenge each other in a believable and fractious way; they captivate each other.

Charles and Erik

If ever I have seen two fictional characters fall in love, I saw it with Charles and Erik in X-Men: First Class. There's a reason why the film reads as slashy and has generated innumerable romance fics, even by people--such as myself--who were not particularly Xavier/Magneto shippers prior to this film. However, figuring out whether or not they have a sexual attraction or if that is implied in canon or what the actors have to say about it (while fun) is really not terribly important. Irrespective of sex, the emotional journey they go through is one of falling in love, clearly and explicitly on screen.

Emotionally, they fairly crash into each other in a way that is natural and makes sense. Both are primed to be open to each other by significant lacks in their prior relationships. Erik lacks relationship almost entirely. He has cut himself off from other people in pursuit of his revenge. He believes he's condemned to be cut off--like Frankenstein's monster--as the only one of his kind, the only person he's ever been aware of who has freakish powers.

Charles's isolation is subtler. He's aware of other mutants and has a close relationship with one of them (Raven). He is also more normally enmeshed in a community and social life. But he is the only telepath he's ever known, and this isolates him, probably all the more so because he can read others' minds and know exactly how their experience differs from his. Moreover, it seems the only person he's shared his abilities with up to working for the CIA is Raven, perhaps the meaning behind her statement that she is his only friend. He has other "friends," surely, but they can never be true friends while he hides his true self from them. As for Raven, they are genuinely close, but he treats her emphatically as his little sister. His hedging around the issue of her appearance and generally blasé interactions with her suggest that he keeps much of himself in reserve, as one does with a child, under the assumption that they won't understand or aren't ready for adult confidences. Add to this a childhood marked by emotionally distant parents, and Charles, too, has experienced a great interpersonal lack.

Then, for each of them, into this emotional hole falls someone who can fill it. Again, for Erik the transformation is obvious. In one fell swoop, he learns that he is not the only mutant and, on a more personal level, that someone cares enough to want to save his life and (more intriguingly for Erik) has the power to do it. He is, moreover, faced with a person who instantly knows "everything" about him and likes and accepts him for all that he is. I keep recurring to the observation of Blake's 7's Jenna when Zen read her mind: to be completely known is like innocence. What a strange comfort it must be to share, with no fear of negative consequence, all the wreck of his life.

For Charles, the yardstick is Raven. He already has someone whom he loves and who loves him, someone he shares the burden and blessing of mutation with. But in his mind, she's a kid, and Erik is an equal. For the first time, he meets another mutant with a power vast, like his own (though fundamentally incomparable), who is as independent and self-willed as he, a man about his age, who is certainly capable fully sharing in any risk--physical, emotional, or philosophical--that Charles can take on.

As with most people when they fall in love, Charles and Erik's connection is fueled by sameness and difference, a complementarity. They see in each other someone fairly equal in psychological strength, intelligence, capability; they also share fundamentally sociable nature with an instinct for interpersonal connection and leadership. Yet their experiences of life are worlds apart, perhaps antipodes: Erik a product of torment and oppression but grounded in a (probably somewhat idealized) early childhood experience of love and inclusion, Charles a child of extreme privilege but, in a low-grade, persistent way, emotionally deprived. These differences ultimately lead to conflict but also provide a source of constantly renewed fascination and stimulation.

Of all their companions, they are the ones who feel best understood by each other, the ones with whom they can share themselves most freely, the natural "older brothers" who assign themselves to care for "the children." They are ones who challenge each other most fully to better know themselves, to more deeply question and comprehend their world and their ideals. They spend scads of time together, apparently without giving it a second thought; it just feels good. At times, they can hardly take their eyes off each other. All their world bends around their finding each other, like debris pulled into the core of a new-formed planet.

In writerly terms, where most stories "tell" us that two people are falling in love, this narrative, like the great ones, "shows" us--with the force of the inevitable. But the power of the narrative doesn't end there.

The Trope of Happily Ever After

Almost as prominent as the trope of "falling in love" is the trope of "falling in love and living happily ever after." The implication of such an ending underlies numerous fairy tales, every Shakespearean comedy, the vast majority of Victorian novels, and so on. The difficulty with this implication when it appears in literature that aspires to a psychological realist sense of character is that, as Schmendrick put it in the movie of The Last Unicorn, "There are no happy endings because nothing ever ends."

To be sure, there are stopping places. When Harry Met Sally, for example, stops with the couple happily married. It doesn't narrate what the rest of their lives will be like but leaves them at a point where a major hurdle has been overcome. This is a perfectly legitimate happy ending. Less legitimate, in my view, is the ending that "middlemarches" (to use a term I coined from George Eliot's novel), i.e., states literally or by implication that the characters' lives henceforth will be filled with the "happily ever after" that is the reward of their virtuous struggle, end of story.

Jane Eyre middlemarches (even more than Middlemarch does). After spending several hundred pages building the tempestuous relationship between two strong-willed people, some of whose core moral values differ, in a situation of strong gender (and social) inequality, the novel suddenly tries to sell us on their being henceforth united as one in bliss devoid of conflict. As the culmination to a well-rendered "falling in love" story, such an ending blasts character and undermines realism--because in realistic relationships, falling in love is a stage on a challenging life journey in which "nothing ever ends."

Xavier and Magneto

In every (major?) version of X-Men canon (and that's a lot), Xavier and Magneto end up adversaries. The very strength of will they admire in each other and the very clash of world views they find invigorating drive them apart. Neither can compromise his values, and their values are incommensurate. It's a melancholy ending to heady romance... except "nothing ever ends." This is not the curtain falling; it is not the dark reflection of ending "at the altar rails" as George Bernard Shaw derisively put it. It is life going on. It's a natural evolution of their love in a way we never get to see with Jane and Rochester and so many others.

The crowning power of Charles/Erik ship is that it soldiers on past its brief, intoxicating idyll into years of hardship, anger, and distrust--wounded but never dying. In every (major?) version of X-Men canon, Xavier and Magneto are still friends, sometimes, in those rare moments when they actually meet and talk as people again.

Theirs is a tale of falling in love, but it is not only that. It's a tale of a lifetime spent practicing love under continual bludgeoning and against all the odds. They are David and Jonathan learning as true consolation the reality that, in Leonard Cohen's words, "Love is not a victory march. / It's a cold and its a broken hallelujah."

Date: 2011-09-25 10:52 pm (UTC)
oaktree: a woman blows soap bubbles (Default)
From: [personal profile] oaktree
How is it that I hadn't read this already? As always, excellent, and articulating my feelings on the subject perfectly.

I like your point about Charles and Erik's spending their lives "practicing love under continual bludgeoning and against all the odds." We're so used to being seduced by the (sometimes imagined) happily ever after ending, or the fade-to-black post-wedding in a film that it can feel like a real disappointment when one can't see the characters having a happy ending. And yet, that's life. Happy endings don't exist; the happiest ending anyone can hope for is continued passion and connection, and Charles and Erik have that in spades, despite the pain of their relationship.

Date: 2011-11-05 05:21 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This is a gorgeous and incisive analysis. I really enjoyed the distinction drawn between sexual attraction versus falling in love, as well as the sameness and difference both attracting and repelling them (like magnets! Lame pun, sorry, moving on). I also liked that point you made about how neither Charles nor Erik compromise their morals, and it just seems to fit with how the story evolves naturally without compromising their characters, but rather works in all the ambiguity and difficulty of their continuing relationship, which doesn't fit into either the mould of "happy couple" or "hero/villain" (though I have to say I've only watched the movie, and have only the vaguest outline of the rest of the canon(s)!).

I wish I could say more something exciting than, "I agree, I agree, I agree," but you seem to have hit so many nails on the head. Maybe the only criticism I can think of is that I wish this piece was longer. :D

Oh, and just as a minor tangent: you mention that falling in love is a subcategory of grand passion. Do you have any other posts where you can expand on that and define your idea of 'grand passion'? I always cringe when people call Wuthering Heights a love story - it is partly that, but it also other parts many terrifying things - and I'd be curious to see your take on it.

Anyway, I look forward to reading the rest of your meta on X-Men! Thanks for the tasty brain food.

Date: 2014-02-17 03:57 pm (UTC)
billie: The DW standard (Default)
From: [personal profile] billie
This is an excellent analysis. I found myself smiling and nodding all the way through -- yes, that's it, exactly. Thank you for sharing this.

Date: 2016-02-01 02:43 pm (UTC)
annejumps: (Default)
From: [personal profile] annejumps
I love this so much!


labingi: (Default)

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