I sat through _X Men First Class_ trying to put my finger on what wasn’t working for me, and I finally realized: “This guy looks more like a Nazi than a Pole or a Jew” [or a Gypsy, as the case may be]. He certainly doesn’t look like the little boy in the prologue or Ian McKellan.
Now, I don’t think I’ve ever read a single _X-Men_ comic book, but I’m familiar with the mythos through pop culture osmosis like any self-respecting Geek, and of course I’ve seen all the recent movies, though this was the first I went to see in the theater, and only because I had a hankering to go to the theater. It was that or _Thor_, and _X-Men First Class_ fit my schedule a bit better.
So, the dude playing Charles Xavier didn’t strike me as a convincing “young Patrick Stewart,” but neither did the dude playing his clone in _Star Trek Nemesis_. But Fassbender, the guy playing Eric “Magneto” Lehnsherr, looks nothing like Sir Ian McKellen, and nothing like a kid who grew up at Auschwitz.
Apparently, the comics have never specifically identified Magneto as either a Jew or a Gypsy, and elements of the characters history suggest both. However, whatever the comic book canon, the movie canon has thus far strongly implied that he’s Jewish. McKellen’s portrayal in the first three films evoked someone who was bitter because of a lifetime of persecution and prejudice, someone who had a deep vulnerability which made him sympathetic.
Now, I’ve seen some awkward comparisons made with this prequel to _Star Wars_, but I’m going to do the same. If Lucas had written the _Star Wars_ prequels properly we should have had no more than 1/2 hour of Anakin-as-a-kid, and everything in Episode 2 should have been Episode 1. Following that analogy, here we have the story of Eric as hero/anti-hero, working closely with Charles. Now, the actors have been rightly praised by many reviews I’ve read for capturing the friendship-about-to-go-south the same way McKellen and Stewart depicted the friendship-gone-bad.
However, if we follow the _Star Wars_ analogy, it’s almost like the persona are shifted. Lucas gave us a young Anakin who was raised in slavery, ripped away from his mother, torn by various divided loyalties, troubled by corruption, etc., a troubled kid thrust by various crises into making some very bad choices when the time came. It was sometimes hard to see how this postmodern sissy teenager driven by angst because the awe-inspiring, evil but generally composed Darth Vader.
Well, this is the reverse. In many ways, the Magneto of “First Class” already is “Darth Vader.” We see him in his vulnerability at Auschwitz. We see him demonstrate his power in a fit of rage at the Nazi researcher who kills his mother just to get him to demonstrate his power (yet he does everything *but* kill the guy who just killed his mom). Next, we see him all grown up, looking physically fit (played by a German-Irish actor), apparently highly educated, able to speak multiple languages fluently, and totally calm, cool and collected about hunting down former Nazis. He callously tortures a Swiss banker, kills some former Nazis in a South American bar, and then goes on a quest for his “White Whale.”
In a role for which physique should be totally unimportant, they went with a big tough guy. We’re talking about a guy who can move huge metal objects with his mind. McKellan’s Magneto is diminutive in stature when not wearing his outfit, but he’s supremely threatening. Comic book characters are all about contrasts: Batman is the World’s Greatest Detective, and his greatest rivals are puzzle-makers and complete lunatics; Superman is the strongest man in the world, and his greatest enemies are either super-geniuses or aliens. Professor X is a bald, crippled telepath, and his greatest nemesis is a Holocaust survivor with a literally magnetic personality.
This guy is supposed to be a “good guy” in the film (though a good guy you know is turning bad), and never once did I feel any empathy towards him the way I felt for McKellen’s older version of the character who *was* the primary villain.
In short, I could see Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker maturing to be Ian McKellen’s Magneto; I can see Michael Fassbender’s Magneto maturing to be Darth Vader. I cannot see Fassbender’s Magneto maturing to be McKellen’s.