Countdown to X-Men: Days of Future Past, Part 5…
X-Men: First Class has quite a lot going in its favor: the novelty of being a period superhero film (something we sadly just don’t see enough of), the fascinating backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and - perhaps most importantly - a chance to see how the relationship between franchise stalwarts Xavier and Magneto began. When it sticks to any of the above, the film is often quite marvelous. As it stands, it’s still pretty good, albeit marred somewhat by the very same flaws that plagued its predecessors.
Fortunately, those flaws are tempered by what the film does right, and when it’s good, X-Men: First Class is rather excellent. By being set in the sixties and using the Cuban Missile Crisis as a launching point, First Class distinguishes itself immediately by taking a page from James Bond and becoming a swinging, superhero spy adventure. The Bond influence is omnipresent, yet not overbearing - the filmmakers are clearly evoking the best of Ken Adams in production design that includes a high-tech submarine, and Michael Fassbender’s stunning array of turtlenecks definitely evokes that classic Our Man Flint vibe - but the film stands on its own as well, as a unique creation taking inspiration from the spy films of the sixties and Jack Kirby comics, and combining the two into something wholly new.
Keeping the film head-and-shoulders above the last installments are the two leads, Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively. Their previous friendship was always alluded to throughout the series, and finally here we see the beginnings of what will turn them into lifelong friends/rivals. Being much younger, the characters are slightly different than we might remember: McAvoy plays Xavier as a cocky young Oxford student with a way with the ladies and the world at his fingertips (quite the contrast to Patrick Stewart’s demure and conservative portrayal), although there is a strong undercurrent of responsibility lurking just beneath the surface. Xavier is a born leader, as he demonstrates by bringing out the best in everyone he comes into contact with here and helping them to realize their full potential.
On the opposite side of that spectrum is Fassbender’s Lensherr, the man who would be Magneto. The film’s earliest segments feature Lensherr hunting down ex-Nazis in search of his old concentration camp superintendent Klaus Schmidt, aka Sebastion Shaw, who was responsible for the murder of Erik’s mother, and it’s in these early scenes where the film is at its most engaging. Seriously, watching Fassbender kill Nazis deserves a movie all its own, and the actor seems to relish dressing up like the early Connery Bond and using his powers of magnetism on his former oppressors. But beyond that, the film arrives at its most touching moments by showing the development of Erick and Xavier’s relationship - although their first meeting is somewhat clunky, the two quickly complement each other, with Xavier helping Erik to use his powers in a way that doesn’t involve reliving the most painful moments of his life.
The contrast between Charles and Erik is central to X-Men: First Class, and strong eno
ugh on its own to carry the movie. But, being that this is an X-Men film, it can’t go throughout the full length of its run-time without packing in as many mutant characters as it possibly can. I feel like a bit of a broken record now after having reviewed four of these movies, but the problem persists: there are too many goddamn characters in this movie; many of them without more than five lines of dialogue between them. The characters and the actors portraying them vary wildly in quality, such as the one who probably gets the most development, Mystique, as played by Jennifer Lawrence. Now, Lawrence is unquestionably one of the finest actresses of her generation, but here shows a degree of uncertainty that is unbefitting of the character, who is quite changed from the previous films. This Mystique is miles away from the icy femme fatale played by Rebecca Romijn, instead fashioned into a fun-loving young woman more suited to Lawrence’s talents, and the results are somewhat incongruous. It does help to further strengthen the conflict between Xavier and Magneto, as Mystique starts on one side and is slowly seduced to the other.
The rest of the X-team gets barely a character beat between them all: Nicholas Hoult gets a rudimentary romantic subplot with Mystique, which also ties into his character Beast looking for a cure to his mutant condition, which ultimately backfires and causes him to don furry prosthetics that don’t look all that great when put into action. Other members such as Lucas Till’s Havok exist soley to make fun of Hoult’s character (look, Ma - conflict!), while yet even more switch to the villains’ side for rather flimsy reasons or are killed off before they can do anything interesting *. The villains are at least fronted by a wonderful Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw - an out of left field choice that pays off wonderfully for the film, but his Hellfire Club of minions barely get an ounce of characterization between them. Especially bland is January Jones as Emma Frost, a sting made all the moreso painful considering Alice Eve was originally to play the part and would surely have made much more of an impact in the role.
Yet in spite these faults, the film works. Matthew Vaughn didn’t get to make X3, but he more than makes up for it here - crafting a film that automatically course-corrects the franchise after two blunders in a row. Vaughn totally recreates the world of the X-universe, a world where the characters actually get to wear brightly-colored costumes for a change and yet still keep of a whole with what has come before. The action isn’t quite as confidently-staged as it should be, and Vaughn overplays his hand by rushing certain events forward too quickly - we really should have gotten another movie before Xavier and Magneto have their big split ** - but he does so much right elsewhere it’s once again easy to forgive the film its faults.
It’s not perfect, but there is a whole lot of fun to be had with X-Men: First Class.
* And on that note, you’re really gonna go for the (so overplayed at this point that its more of a parody of anything else now) trope of having the black guy killed first? Really?
** In keeping with the contradictory continuity of the previous films, First Class further muddies the waters by having Xavier crippled at the end - an event that happens in 1962, although scenes in X3 and Wolverine that take place in the eighties see him walking around perfectly normal. And that very same scene in X3 showed Xavier and Magneto working together, despite pretty much parting ways at the end of the film here. And there’s also the rather important detail of Xavier and Mystique being raised together as siblings, although prior films never even hinted at such. And, oh yeah, there's that little matter of Emma Frost being Silverfox's younger sister in the last Wolverine movie, which clearly takes place almost thirty years after her henching for Shaw (and later, Magneto) originally...