A few weeks ago, I assigned my Composition I students a rhetorical essay. They are supposed to do a rhetorical analysis of a visual source of their choice.
As this is the first time I have assigned this specific essay, I had no example essays to give them. Naturally (and insanely) I agreed to write my own rhetorical essay as an example.
I now have much more empathy for my students, who have been telling me how difficult this assignment is. It is difficult; I am not altogether sure I fulfilled the requirements for my own essay. Nonetheless, I shall give you, dear readers, the fruit of this afternoon’s labors, a rhetorical analysis of Erik from X-Men: First Class.
Mutant and Proud:
Erik in X-Men: First Class
The X-Men film franchise which began with X-Men in 2000, follows the plight of mutant characters as they struggle to find acceptance in human society. One of the most important characters in the films is Magneto. In X-Men, X-2 and X-Men: The Last Stand he is portrayed primarily as a villain, a “bad” mutant who is opposed to assimilating with humans, unlike the “good” mutants who want to co-exist peacefully with humans. Magneto does not believe that peaceful co-existence is possible and distrusts humans. However, in the recent film X-Men: First Class, the writers and producers revisit Magneto’s character. They portray him as sympathetic, even a hero. In doing so, the writers and film-makers make several choices. They can be examined rhetorically in order to gain a more complete understanding of why these choices were effective.
In terms of ethos, or credibility, the film-makers rely on two different strategies in X-Men: First Class. The first strategy is to rely upon existing stories and characters, both from the earlier films and from the original Marvel comics which inspired the films. The film-makers decided to take two recognizable characters — primarily Professor Xavier and Magneto — and to tell their story. The second strategy relied upon an understanding of pathos, or, the film-maker’s understanding of their potential audience. In an interview, producer Simon Kinberg said that the film-makers wanted to retell the story in a “fresh” light and to “create characters we [the audience] hadn’t seen in the franchise before” (Children of the Atom). In doing so, they make an “old story” appear new, which has the potential to attract both old fans of the original films and comic books — anxious to have something new and interesting — and new fans who are not familiar with the earlier films or comics.
In creating their “old-new” X-Men story, the film-makers make distinct choices in terms of logos, or, constructing the rules and logic of the film. The earlier films are set in a contemporary world, where mutants struggle to be treated as equals alongside humans. The mutants are often met with hostility and bigotry. In these films, the characters of Professor Xavier and Magneto are depicted as older men, and men who have been enemies for many years. By contrast, the film-makers of X-Men: First Class decided to set the main action of the film in the past — in 1962. This allows them to revisit both Professor Xavier (simply known as “Charles”) and Magneto (Erik), bringing a fresh perspective to the story. Both of the characters are portrayed as younger men, and as friends. By the logos (or logic/rules) of this 1962 world, mutants are not even known to the general public; they remain hidden. Erik and Charles argue about what will become of mutants once their existence is known to humans. Charles is optimistic; Erik, however, believes that humans will turn against mutants.
(1) Magneto as portrayed by Ian McKellen; (2) Erik (younger Magento) as portrayed by Michael Fassbender.
In revisiting these characters’ history, it allows them to become something different. Erik is freed from being a complete villain because he has not yet developed into a villain. He is allowed to be seen differently, even sympathetically, by the audience. This is where pathos again comes into play.
In X-Men: First Class Erik is a German-Jew, a Holocaust survivor and a mutant. He is abused and tortured because he is Jewish and a mutant. These experiences shape the character’s attitudes towards humans. When he tells his friend Charles that humans will destroy mutants, it is based on what he has endured.
Erik is made more sympathetic by the fact that he is not a passive victim. He is driven to avenge the wrongs done to him. This makes him more appealing and even admirable. Erik is willing to engage in forms of torture to achieve his goals. Yet, his background makes him sympathetic, even as he commits questionable acts. There is additional satisfaction for the audience in watching Erik kill Nazis. Though his methods are violent, there is a sense of moral righteousness to his actions.
The way Erik is portrayed in X-Men: First Class makes his point of view — that peaceful co-existence and assimilation with humans is not an option for mutants — understandable to viewers on an emotional level. Many viewers may even agree with Erik. By contrast to earlier films in the X-Men franchise, Erik is more than just a “bad” mutant and a villain; he is instead rebranded as sympathetic and engaging, even admirable.
Children of the Atom: Filming X-Men: First Class. 20th Century Fox, 2011.
X-Men. Dir. Bryan Singer. With Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. 20th Century Fox, 2000.
X-2. Dir. Bryan Signer. With Hugh Jackman, With Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. 20th Century Fox, 2003.
X-Men: First Class. Dir. Matthew Vaughn. With James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender. 20th Century Fox, 2011.
X-Men: The Last Stand. Dir. Brett Ratner. With Hugh Jackman,Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. 20th Century Fox, 2006.
Anyone who knows me would not find this essay a surprise on any levels. Personally, I am pleased I didn’t give in to the desire to start dribbling on about how Michael Fassbender looks like he just walked out of the pages of GQ.