I grew up as a comic book nerd. The boxes filled with years of my obsession which my mother grudgingly stores for me can attest to that. And of all the series I collected, none were as close to me as X-Men. I hunted down the Phoenix saga. I collected Classic X-Men until they caught up with the issues I already had. I was there when the team went to Australia for no damn reason and nearly destroyed the franchise. So it shouldn’t be a big surprise to hear that I’ve also seen all four of the previous X-Men films several times. Even though I hated at least two of them.
Bryan Singer’s X-Men and X-Men II weren’t all that bad. And at the time, compared to the other comic book movies that had been released, grading on a curve a “not bad” was actually fairly impressive. But they still felt like a movie that featured the X-Men, not a movie about the X-Men. The sense of adventure and drama that anchored the comic was missing. There was no spark or recognition of the deep history. That would be fine for the movies if there had been something better in its place, maybe something original and fresh, but there wasn’t. It was a superficial look at a world that deserved better; the films were just missing something. They weren’t Schumacher’s Batman and Robin bad, but they weren’t great either.
Then a few things came to pass in the comic book movie world that changed everything: namely Spider-Man 2 and Batman Begins. Both challenged what a comic book movie could be and set a new standard for the superhero film. It was a good time to be a comic book nerd. Then X-Men: The Last Stand happened. X3 was a mess of a movie from the start. Fox rushed the third movie out, Singer left mid-way to direct Superman Returns (not the best career move ever) and Brett Ratner was not the guy that could glue the broken pieces together. The result was a movie that hurt the brains of comic book fans and made casual audiences wonder why people ever cared for the X-Men.
And then there was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a more divisive film that people either disliked, or they hated it passionately – very little middle ground. But regardless of whether or not they were any good, all four movies made money which meant a fifth was inevitable. Several suggestions were tossed around before they eventually settled on a prequel. Singer then returned as an executive producer, and Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Stardust) was hired to direct. The result is the best film in the series yet.
Once upon a time in 1962
Whether the decision to set the film in 1962 was because the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis worked in the story, or because it honors the comic book which debuted in September of 1963, the setting plays a major role.
But X-Men: First Class actually begins years earlier during World War II, when a young teenager named Erik Lehnsherr watches as his mother is dragged off by Nazis through a Concentration Camp. If you saw X-Men, then you saw the scene that begins First Class. But unlike in X-Men, the story continues after Lehnsherr was dragged off by Nazi guards.
Young Erik is taken to the office of the German Commandant (Kevin Bacon), who recognizes the powers in the boy. To bring that power out, he proceeds to commit atrocities against the kid that will set his bloody path as an adult. On the other side of the world, a teenager named Charles befriends a young shape-shifting mutant named Raven that had broken into his house searching for food. He accepts the girl into his life, which also sets the young Charles on his path of helping others.
Jump to 1962 as the Cold War is heating up. Part of the tension between the world powers is due to the secret manipulations of a group known as the Hellfire Club, a collection of mutants operating before the world knew that mutants existed. Led by Sebastian Shaw, the former Nazi that Lehnsherr has been hunting, the Club is under investigation by CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne). When the Club appears to be more than human, Xavier (James MacAvoy) is brought in to help.
The first confrontation against Shaw and his Club that includes telepath Emma Frost (January Jones), a mutant capable of controlling whirlwinds (Alex Gonzalez) and the teleporter Azael (Jason Flemyng), goes badly, but it does bring Xavier and Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), who was hunting Shaw on his own, together.
The CIA’s Division X, run by an unnamed man in black (Oliver Platt) helps Xavier to recruit a group of mutants to fight Shaw. Along with Xavier’s childhood friend Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Lehnsherr, he is joined by Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry), Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till), Angel (Zoe Kravitz) and Armondo Munoz/Darwin (Edi Gathegi).
As the proto-X-Men and the Hellfire Club face off, the ideologies of Xavier and Lehnsherr continue to mature, and the fate of the world and the budding mutant population are both in jeopardy.
One of the things that sets First Class apart from the other X-Men movies is the level of depth the script has. There is an action movie in there, but it is also a drama about two men that begin as friends, but who the audience know will become bitter enemies. It also seems to “get” the X-Men more than the other films. The little nods to the mythology and history of the comics are there, and they work within the canon of the existing films.
If anything, the greatest flaw in First Class is something that isn’t the fault of the film at all–it is a slave to the existing films. Most casual fans won’t know the mutant Banshee. Longtime fans certainly will, and he is a great addition because of the history, but you get the sense that Vaughn is doing the best with what he has. That shouldn’t take away from the film, but the casual fan will be left wondering who half the characters are. But putting that aside, First Class has a story that while steeped in the fantastic, is far more believable than a machine capable of turning people into water (or liquid goo), or a magic cure that rewrites DNA and can be turned into cure-bullets, or a stupid adamantium bullet that somehow erases memories in the dumbest way possible or… you get the point.
At the heart of the plot is tension. Tension between Xavier and Lehnsherr, tension between The Hellfire Club and the X-Men, and tension between the U.S. and the USSR. They all work well within each other, and the final climatic battle is suitably intertwined with all these themes, leading to a satisfying ending.
Although the film borrows heavily on the events of the 1960s, the look only touches on the era, which is something of a shame, but also something that is more of an absence than a problem. The clothes are correct for the time period, but they are also fairly average looking. The cars are period-specific, but you only see them a few times. Even the hairstyles are current. If it weren’t for the occasional black and white TV and the plot steeped in the historical events of the day, you might not realize that the film is a period piece at all.
None of that is a problem, but it feels like Vaughn is straining to make the film modern but is trapped by the mythos of the other films which relegates him to the 60s. Much more could have been done with the era, but again, this is more a case of what could have possibly been rather than a problem with the movie. Still, it feels like a missed opportunity, albeit a minor one.
But beyond that one gripe, the movie looks great. It is filled with color that was notably lacking in Singer’s nearly monochromatic world, and it is helped immensely by fantastic casting.
Although the name of Michael Fassbender may not yet be a household name, give it time, it will be. While Ian McKellan is one of the best living actors today, Fassbender plays the young Magneto with a complex blend of rage and limited compassion that McKellan lacked. You can see the character’s potential as a prophet to alienated mutants, especially in his interactions with the young Mystique which are among some of the best single moments of the film.
McAvoy also shines as Xavier, and as he slowly begins to accept the role of teacher, it feels natural. His relationship with Raven/Mystique is also an important dynamic, and the girl becomes something of a defining character for both Xavier and Lehnsherr. It is handled with subtlety and finesse, which makes it more powerful. A good deal of the credit needs to go to the actors, but it also reflects on Vaughn. Brett Ratner could not have done the same thing. Singer is credited for part of the story, but the inherent vulnerability and complexity of the character of Raven is a character-driven moment, which feels more akin to Vaughn’s work.
The young X-Men also do fine, but with the exception of Beast, none of them are really much more than a stepping stone to help create the man Xavier will become. They are mostly there as special effects, which is too bad, but completely understandable as they would have just gummed up the solid pacing of the film.
Speaking of the special effects, they look great, and Vaughn seems to have a good eye for CGI. There are no shaky cam shots, nor are there any moments where you are left wondering what you just saw. The tradeoff is there are only a few moments that you can call spectacular, but there are plenty of great moments. Vaughn manages to make complex and impossible action look believable, which is something Ratner was hit or miss with, but Singer failed at with mostly unspectacular and dull fights (remember X-Men and the lackluster fight in the Statue of Liberty?).
There aren’t many action scenes that will blow you away, but they are all fun to watch.
A First Class Ride
X-Men: First Class is the best of the X-Men films, with the only real competition coming from X2. But there is an intelligence that carries the film that wasn’t present in the other movies in the series. All the other X-Men films tried to be superhero films grounded in reality, while First Class just tries to be a good film.
The cast is spot on, and the lead actors all have a chemistry that was lacking in many of the other films (looking at you James Marsden and Famke Janssen). McAvoy and Fassbender play off each other well, and both represent something far more than themselves. Xavier is the hope of tomorrow, while Magneto is the specter of yesterday. And between them rests the future of the world, as seen through the eyes of a handful of kids.
In terms of an all-out action movie filled with massive explosions, First Class is only average—there are plenty of cool fight scenes, but nothing that really wows you. But it is a movie that wants to be more than that, and it succeeds in spades. Despite the prequel nature of First Class, a direct sequel would be a welcome addition to the franchise. Barring that, maybe they can reboot the entire franchise using this as a foundation. But if not, at least there is hope for the X-Men films.