The trend of superheroes and sequels continues with Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class. It’s been a while since we’ve seen the whole X-Men gang together. If you don’t count Wolverine’s solo origin story (it seems that most people would rather forget that even happened) then it’s been five years since X-Men: The Last Stand.
Now we have a more general origin story that tells us where some of the other famous characters came from. In a lot of ways, it’s different from the films that came before it, which is an excellent way to begin the series afresh.
It begins with footage that we’d already seen from the first film, which is the scene of young Erik Lehnsherr in Poland in 1944 being separated from his parents in a concentration camp. The strong surge of anger he experiences at being separated brings out his amazing ability to control metal, which he uses to break the gate separating him from his mother. A Nazi scientist believes that this can power can be harnessed with the right motivation, causing him to murder Erik’s mother in front of him. That does the trick as his power comes out in full force.
Years later in the early 60s, Erik (Michael Fassbender) is on a mission of revenge against all of the scientists who used him back then. We also meet the other main characters of the story. CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is on the trail of certain high-profile targets, including Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), when she discovers the existence of mutants. She enlists the help of a genetics expert, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), and his friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) to help find out about them. Eventually Erik’s and their mission collide as Erik is after Shaw as well, Shaw being the new identity of the Nazi scientist who helped Erik release his power, as well as a mutant himself who can absorb and redirect energy.
However, Shaw has allies as well, including a telepath known as Emma Frost (January Jones), making it difficult to get at him. In order to improve their odds, Charles uses a large satellite developed by the CIA so that he can locate other mutants and put together a team with the help of Erik, who has now allied himself with him.
The team they end up putting together includes Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), a brilliant scientist who can climb really well, Sean Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones), who can fly using supersonic sound, and Alex Summers (Lucas Till), who can emit large amounts of energy. Now it’s up to them to stop Shaw before he can implement his plan of mutual annihilation of the United States and Russia during one of the tensest events of both countries’ histories.
Just from that synopsis, you can tell that there is a lot going on in this film, but that’s actually one it’s strong points. The story is emotionally involving, exciting, and a lot of fun. A lot of the emotional element comes from the two opening scenes of young Erik trying to use his new powers as well as from the younger mutants trying to find acceptance in a world that would likely find them freaks if they knew of their existence. This emotional connect with the characters goes a long way towards getting us involved in the story.
McAvoy and Fassbender help provide a good centerpiece for the film with their two characters. Most people are used to watching these two fight each other as enemies, which makes it fascinating to see the two working on the same side. Throughout the film though, we seem glimmers of things to come as we learn that their two viewpoints don’t necessarily match up perfectly.
McAvoy gives Xavier a calmness about the character while exuding hope toward the younger mutants. Fassbender also has a certain calmness, but only because Erik has been patient for so long with only one singular purpose in mind. The two make a good match for the characters and provide some excellent chemistry for the film.
The film is filled with fantastic special effects that include the various powers of the mutants like shapeshifting, teleportation, tossing metal back and forth, and even growing gills. These are seamlessly integrated and help make the large action sequences an exciting experience. The filmmakers really went all-out on these action sequences, especially the final, climactic battle. The one problem with this is that the last sequence felt like it went on a little too long, making the film feel longer than it had to be. The film runs a good 131 minutes, and there were some scenes that didn’t really need to be there, but overall, the pacing of the film is decent.
The film’s bigger weakness is in its villains. Shaw never really comes off as a threatening character, which is especially surprising given that he’s a mutant who can absorb and control energy. This could have been due to Bacon’s performance. I don’t know about you, but whenever I think of actors who can come off as threatening, Kevin Bacon is not one of the first names that comes to mind. For the most part, he comes off as a very bland villain, very similarly to his ally in the film, Emma Frost. Jones also comes off as though she’s just not that interested in the part. For villains, presence can make or break the audience’s reaction to them.
Then again, it could just be that the parts weren’t written particularly well. If the screenwriters had taken the time to come up with a more memorable villain who was up to something more interesting than the old “creating a land just for mutants” plot, then the film would have been even better. However, the way this plot was implemented was pretty interesting.
Using the Cuban Missile Crisis as a backdrop, Shaw sees to it that American missiles are placed in Turkey while also getting Russia to attempt the placement of missiles in Cuba, thus pretty much guaranteeing World War III. This helps ground the story in reality a little more, which is rather difficult given the material. By using an actual event, it also helps place the characters in the proper chronology.
Overall, this new entry to the X-Men saga will please fans and non-fans of the comic book heroes alike. It shakes things up by giving us a little something new from the franchise, mainly a bit of a history lesson. The history of the characters and the use of an actual historical event make this the best X-Men film in the series.
That could be considered high praise depending on your viewpoint of the other films. I for one thought the first and third films were alright, while the second film and Wolverine’s original story were a little weaker. This one has renewed my faith in the series as it’s done for many so far. You can be sure that some much-welcomed sequels will follow.
X-Men: First Class provides an interesting double-use of history while giving us excellent action sequences with fantastic special effects. We also get great performances and chemistry from McAvoy and Fassbender.