Superhero franchise turns back the clock, rises to new heights
Five seems to be the magic number this summer.
Only a few months after Fast Five, the fifth entry in the Fast and the Furious franchise, took its series to new heights with a shift in the series’ identity, X-Men: First Class, the fifth film to be released under the X-Men banner, has rejuvenated and revamped a dying film series — becoming, easily, the best film adaptation of Marvel’s merry mutants. But, in a series known more for overhyped mediocrity, what exactly does the best amount to?
Based on characters from the long-running Marvel Comics series, X-Men: First Class has had an interesting road to the big screen. Envisioned originally as a spin-off featuring the younger mutant characters from the first three X-Men movies, the film mutated into a prequel — detailing the first few days of the X-Men as a team. Along the way, the film absorbed the long-in-development Magneto origin movie, brought back Bryan Singer, the director of the first two X-Men movies, as a producer and even wooed back Matthew Vaughn, a filmmaker who had come famously close to directing X3: The Last Stand before creative differences between Vaughn and the studio sent him running.
The end result is a fun, tightly plotted tribute to Silver Age comic books, James Bond espionage and Tom Clancy political thrillers. A bit overstuffed at times, the movie ultimately juggles its themes and set pieces, only letting a few of the minor balls drop now and again.
X-Men: First Class is a weird amalgam of prequel and reboot. Aspects of the film clearly point to First Class being set in the same universe audiences are familiar with from the previous four X-Men films. Other aspects, specifically the timeframe of events, strongly suggest that X-Men: First Class is a clean slate reboot for the characters, superheroes granted strange and wonderful powers due to a genetic quark that sets them apart from your average human.
One can only hope that First Class is a reboot because, as a movie, it’s much more entertaining and enticing than what the X-Men franchise had become in recent years.
When the first X-Men film came out, it was well regarded primarily because it was the first superhero in a long time that wasn’t complete and utter garbage. When seen through the eyes of somebody who has lived in the modern golden age of superhero films, though, major scripting issues, a clumsy plot and paper-thin characters make the film almost unwatchable. X2, while widely regarded to be a highlight of ‘00s’ surplus of superhero films, isn’t exactly high art either. Wildly entertaining action and great performances from the lead can only go so far towards making up for the film’s out-of-character cartoonish plot.
In First Class, though, director Matthew Vaughn has struck a nice balance between tongue-in-cheek geekiness and genuine action-tinged pathos. There’s a lot of goofiness in the film, which is set in the ‘60s and frequently takes on a tone reminiscent of Stan Lee’s original X-Men books, but there is also a lot of originality and fun. Oh, and darkness. There’s a lot of darkness.
First Class is, at times, extremely violent, profane and, one would argue, extremely inappropriate for children. Characters in the film are maimed, mutilated and murdered in ways that would make Christopher Nolan’s Batman squirm. Regardless, this balance between lighthearted goofiness and adult-oriented moral grays makes for an extremely entertaining film.
James McAvoy stars as Professor Charles Xavier, a wide-eyed, somewhat naïve young mutant who has an extremely giving heart but somewhat of a low self-esteem when it comes to his species. Believing mutants should aspire to blend in to society as best possible, Charles has it easy since his power of telepathy is easy to hide. As he enters the world, fresh from a lengthy stay in academia, Charles begins to discover he is not alone in the world. Charles is eventually introduced to a world of super powered folk when he is recruited into the CIA. Chief among his new acquaintances is Erik Lehnsherr, a man who the film wonderfully presents as Charles’ dark mirror compliment.
While Charles grew up in a posh mansion and only needed to use his powers when he wanted to pick up a girl at the bar, Erik is the product of pain and experimentation. Taken from his parents during a violent stay in a Jewish concentration camp, Erik grew up under the knife of Sebastian Shaw. A seemingly immortal mutant Nazi with aspirations of world domination, after World War II ends he becomes the leader of the Hellfire Club (an underground cabal that seeks mutant reign on Earth).
As a man, Erik uses his magnetic powers to hunt Nazis, seeking revenge on the villain who took his childhood innocence away. It’s in chasing Shaw, though, that Erik slowly begins to become a villain himself. Seeing only the darkness in others, Erik begins to build a shell around his soul so impenetrable that by the time he meets Charles it’s impossible to reconcile their views on peaceful co-existence between mutants and humans. As Erik (the future mutant terrorist named Magneto) actor Michael Fassbender is the epitome of badass. James Bond with an extra chromosome, Fassbender’s silent rage makes him every bit as charismatic a character as Sir Ian McKellen portrayed in the original X-Men trilogy.
McAvoy and Fassbender have great chemistry together and it is their story that drives the film’s nougat center. United by the shared excitement of discovering a new species, Charles and Erik manage to ignore the increasingly less subtle differences in their philosophy as they team up to train the first generation of mutant superheroes. It’s the quiet moments between the two, where they compare their views on the world, that really sell the characters.
As far as Charles and Erik’s students go, don’t expect the familiar faces from the original X-Men trilogy. The mutants of First Class are culled from some of the more obscure segments of X-Men mythos — from Angel, a stripper with fly-like powers played by Zoe Kravitz, to Darwin, a hero with adaptive powers played by Edi Gathegi.
While First Class is clearly Charles and Erik’s story, most of the supporting characters are given genuine character arcs and development. Jennifer Lawrence, as the shapeshifter Mystique, has a particularly heartbreaking journey as she discovers her place in the world and comes to terms with her off-putting blue and scaly appearance. Torn between a lifelong friendship with Charles — tinged with the bitter scales of unrequited love — and the charismatic Erik whose pro-mutant preaching plays to Mystique’s low self-esteem, Mystique finds herself toeing the line between the two men’s philosophies.
Nicholas Hoult plays Dr. Hank McCoy, a self-conscious mutant who struggles to hide his giant, ape-like feet. Even more self-conscious than Mystique, Hank is driven to experiment on himself in an attempt to cure what he perceives to be a deformity.
While a lot of the minor characters and their relationships are given an unfortunate glossing over, over all the film manages to give each of the X-Men a special moment unique to themselves.
The villains, on the other hand, are less fortunate. Besides the extremely charismatic Kevin Bacon delivering a wonderfully nasty performance, the evil mutants in First Class are mostly dialogue-free shadow puppets — existing to look badass as they rumble with the X-Men but otherwise completely devoid of character or motivation.
And don’t even get me started on January Jones, an actress who emotes less than a rock. As Emma Frost, Jones is the film’s largest dead weight —not even her extreme beauty can make up for her vapid performance.
The film’s small-scale but dedicated production design makes the world the movie exists in look tight and focused, despite an obvious budget cut from previous sequels. Cheaper looking effects don’t mar the film’s action thanks to the fact the film is briskly paced — moving along at an extreme clip that keeps audiences happy, entertained and never bored.
X-Men: First Class is a unique film in that it presents its antagonists’ story as fleshed out and complete as its heroes. Erik, the eventual Magneto, in many ways comes across as the hero of the story — claiming his own identity and motivation in a clearly defined, well-written story arc. By the end of the movie, it wouldn’t be surprising that audiences are split between sideing with Charles’ or Erik’s philosophy. This is the sign of a good movie.
This new direction the X-Men series is headed into is at both exciting and encouraging. Smaller in scale and more character oriented, the film doesn’t forget to bring the action either. It’s a great balance between summer blockbuster and spring thriller
Director: Matthew Vaughn Notable Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Oliver Platt and Kevin Bacon Writer(s): Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.