Fans of the X-Men comic book series have had an irregular time at the theaters in the last decade, experiencing the luxury of watching two great re-imagings of the mutants onscreen and then withstanding a painful final film along with a forgettable spin-off. Blame Brett Ratner or Hollywood for wanting to milk the series for more dough, either one is a suitable explanation for the absence of the X-Men for the last few years.
Time began to pass and dust eventually settled on the series, and soon began the Marvel film onslaught, summer after summer. But inescapably, a reboot was in the works and like Batman Begins proved, prequels are hot properties. Based on the concept of the Marvel Comics popular limited series of the same name, X-Men: First Class is the newest entry in the franchise and the second big superhero film of the 2011. It’s also a surprising triumph, a revelation of new ideas tied with the old and a sense of artistic style unseen in a comic book blockbuster of this caliber.
Everyone knows of the origin story behind the X-Men involving Magneto and Professor Xavier, how before they were enemies they were actually good friends, even teammates at one point. In X-Men: First Class the story begins without the metal wheelchair or the ever-flowing red cape, instead it takes a unique approach. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is introduced as a charming young scholar who not only has the ability to read other’s minds, but also does an exceptional job at picking up the ladies in local pubs with his clever pick-up lines. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) on the other hand, is tortured as a boy during World War II by a Natzi scientist who’s bent on harnessing his power to control metal (or so it’s assumed).
The plot takes a nice detour with Erik all grown up, hunting down his former captors in a menacing approach that seems fit for a Quentin Tarantino movie. It’s during these scenes where it becomes obvious that not only is Fassbender incredibly talented, but his take on the character is much darker and tempered than in the previous X-Men films. Ian McKellen did a commendable job but this is the Magneto that was born in the comics, a violent being not mad with power for dominance but revenge against those who attacked him for his being different.
The various strokes the film takes at establishing how Erik evolves into who he eventually becomes are its greatest quality. The same goes for how it develops Charles beyond his pacifist mentality. Once the two finally cross paths and begin to work with one another, ethical quarrels and mixed strategies are to be expected and when they arise, the opposing perspectives are portrayed sincerely.
It’s the age old dilemma of power over peace, and X-Men: First Class makes this the upfront battle over anything else. No matter how similar their end goal is, the two cannot co-exist. Credit is deserved to the film’s director Matthew Vaughn for managing this aspect so attentively, and being delicately precise with the emotional baggage involved. Most superhero movies would not even attempt to cover a subject like this with such a high maturity level.
Aside from the great chemistry from the two leads, there is a lot going on in terms of story with X-Men: First Class. The time period takes place in the 60’s and with it comes the obvious décor and fashion traits, along with such real-world moments of terror from the past like the Cuban missile crisis. The theme of espionage and covert ops is reminiscent of a James Bond film, with a mad super villain and his scheming henchmen (and woman) bent on global domination along with a fancy lair.
Vaughn infuses this style and the trappings involved with it subtly into the plot without making it more than just an opportunity to try something alternative. Though some sets do seem like they were taken right of the set of The Brady Bunch, that comes with the territory when using the 60’s as a backdrop.
Spoiler’s aside, once Charles and Erik gather their bunch of young, inexperienced mutants at the soon to be X-mansion, the humor and heart of the film begin to surface at a steady rate. The various training sequences bring a smile to your face instead of sticking to a tired montage of each hero getting stronger with every minute. Even with such a large cast of characters with multiple back stories and set-up, Vaughn doesn’t get overwhelmed and gives everyone their individual moment.
That being said, there is the odd character that gets the blunt end of involvement and in X-Men: First Class it happens to be with the villains, or in this case, the members of the Hellfire Club. Aside from Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) who is the film’s main antagonist, the other villains are a bit under-developed. Shaw’s band of followers rarely speak lines of importance but at least they get to do a bunch of cool looking things.
Azazel’s teleporting power is just as visually impressive to watch as it was in X2 where Nightcrawler busted through the White House, though this time around it is used in a more vicious effect. One weak point however, lies in the casting and interpretation of Emma Frost (January Jones). While Jones looks the part and dresses extremely similar to her sexy comic-book counterpart, she clearly didn’t choose to evoke the same personality. Frost is a massive character in the Marvel universe with such a limitless amount of power, she openly revels in it. She has much more of a personality and presence in the comics but instead Jones decides to portray her as if she were a Barbie doll, uttering her threatening lines and glances with a sense of blandness or boredom.
It was just the case of wrong casting (hopefully), because Jones is terrific in the Mad Men series as the stone cold ex-wife of Don Draper. As for Bacon, he is as fun to watch as always, enjoying the opportunity to play a dastardly bad guy without resorting to campy characteristics. He makes Shaw a force to be reckoned with not just for his strength and power, but his belief that what he is doing isn’t truly evil, only necessary. This makes the strain between Charles and Erik even more of an issue and presents insight into the sides they eventually choose.
The glue that holds the whole film together and balances everything on a thin wire like a stage magician is Matthew Vaughn. While filming issues gave a negative impression upon X-Men: First Class since production, faith was always reliant on the director to make an X-Men movie that audiences would care about again.
Vaughn films action scenes with playful imagination and wonder, using CGI effectively as a tool to enhance the sights onscreen. The climactic battle is chaotic in appearance but has a lot at stake for the characters, making it more involving than your typical large scale battle. Some fans however, may be upset at how X-Men regular Beast (Nicholas Hoult) appears once he begins to shed his blue fur. Not an exact representation, but close enough.
Still, as visually impressive as X-Men: First Class can be, Vaughn is a natural storyteller and he never loses sight of what the big picture is: the relationship between Fassbender and McAvoy. The two are fascinating to watch and once the film gets to the end of their doomed partnership, it’s unforced and deserving.
X-Men: First Class is a cut well above super-hero movie standards and appeals to everyone. Whether or not you’re an avid fan of the comic book series you’ll find something to enjoy. The story hits all the right notes along with some unexpected ones, and it has a ton of entertainment packed into it. Summer always has its fair share of treats in cinematic form, but they don’t get better than this.
As a bonus, the film has a cameo that is just about perfect in delivery, featuring a great line that stays true with the new tone established for the series. Keep your eye out for it!