DUBAI: It has always been the villain of the “X-Men” film series that has been its emotional heart. In the opening moments of “X-Men” (2000), a young boy is wrenched away from his parents at a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. As he reaches for his family, he starts to bend the metal around him — it is his love, and his pain, that affects the world around him. That young boy grows up to be Magneto — first played on screen by Sir Ian McKellen, then by Michael Fassbender for the last four films of the series.
“Dark Phoenix,” the latest, may also be the last. Though the X-Men will likely be seen onscreen again, 20th Century Fox, the company that has produced the films, is now owned by Disney, who will incorporate the X-Men into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though nothing has been announced, it’s been suggested that a reboot of the franchise is to come, dropping most of the actors and storylines of the last 20 years.
Fassbender doesn’t know the fate of the series, but if this is the end, he’s made peace with it.
“I have no idea! It’s not my issue to deal with. I’ll leave it in the hands of people who’ve got it,” he tells Arab News. “I’m not spending much time thinking about it, I’ve had a great journey on these four films, I’m happy. If something comes up that looks interesting, I’m always willing to read and take a look, but I’m perfectly happy.”
If “Dark Phoenix” is the last in the series, then at least the creative team was able to right one major wrong. Many fans feel the much-maligned third film in the series, “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006), botched one of the key storylines from X-Men’s comic book roots — the Dark Phoenix Saga, in which one of the lead characters — Jean Grey — becomes one of the most powerful creatures in the universe, only for absolute power to corrupt her absolutely.
Fassbender, and the film’s writer/director, Simon Kinberg, agreed with them, and wanted to make the story more focused on the women of the saga, staying true to both X-Men’s history and the current social climate.
“I think the seed of talking about female characters and power was there from the beginning,” says Fassbender. “Simon had unfinished business after “The Last Stand,” and you could tell from “Apocalypse” (2016) that he was putting this story in place, setting it up. So, the germ of that was there, and the timing — as it happens — just seems to be in sync with what’s going on in the real world. But Simon’s always been of that mindset; equality across the board for female and male characters.”
Big-budget superhero movies are still often green-screen fare, requiring actors in extravagant costumes to battle invisible monsters on a soundstage for months on end. But the process has at least evolved, so that less is left to the actor’s imagination.
“When I started doing effects movies, you had to imagine what they were going to put in later. There was some storyboarding stuff, but now they’ve got pre-visualization stuff that they show you on a laptop, to see what it’s going to look like and the geographical elements. Of course, you know it’s going to be a lot more fantastical when the team has spent some time on it,” says Fassbender. “I enjoy the technical challenges; it’s another thing that needs to be learned, and it’s something that is fun to explore. It’s not only being in time with the actors. It’s also being in time with the stunt team, if you’re on wires, it’s the riggers… everybody is communicating in the same rhythm. It’s like a dance, and I enjoy that.”
While Magneto is traditionally a villain, Fassbender has always played him as more of a tortured antihero, often falling on the side of good, but just as often straying from it. In “Dark Phoenix,” as well as its predecessor, “X-Men: Apocalypse,” the character has often fallen on the side of good, up against much greater and more powerful evils. In “Dark Phoenix,” it’s Sophie Turner, who plays the Phoenix herself, who gets to let loose as the big bad.
“I was a little bit jealous, to be honest. ‘What? Somebody else is causing trouble?’ Although ‘Apocalypse’ already stole that from me, so I was getting used to it!” says Fassbender.
There was a plus side to not being in full-on villain mode, however: He got to spend most of this film in a turtleneck and jeans, rather than Magneto’s hefty armor.
“I’m not wearing any Magneto costumes. The helmet is there, but everything is pared down to be a character exploration. I certainly was very thankful that it was an easy in-and-out for me, especially if you look at what Nicholas [Hoult] goes through each day as Beast! Compared to him, I definitely got an easier route,” he says.
Following the events of the last film, Fassbender explains, Magneto is now the leader of Genosha, an island nation where mutants such as himself can live without persecution, in harmony, and without fear of attack from humans who are threatened by their powers — the central struggle of the series.
“It’s his struggles through the series — certainly when I was playing it — culminating in this physical place,” says Fassbender. “Since his family has been ripped away from him, from what happened to him as a child and then, of course, with his wife and child later, well, that sense of death is always with him. But this is a mature Erik; he’s more at peace, and he only leaves this haven out of loyalty. It’s like an old Western, he’s got to go on his mission.
“He’s finally become the cult leader that was always alive in him!” he continues, with a laugh.
How Fassbender approached his performance depended on his mood that day, he explains, but playing a tortured character who has dealt with so much trauma throughout his life was, at times, emotionally difficult.
“There are times where I’ll go away and find a corner where I can just be by myself if I need to be in more of a meditative state,” he says. “We’re all at ease with one another; we all know each other very well and it’s whatever each of us needs to do. There’s always a respect there about whatever the other person’s process is and if anyone is ever struggling on camera, or in a moment, we’re all there for each other 100 percent and we want everyone to be the best on these sets.”