Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Oliver Platt, Jason Flemyng, Alex Gonzalez, Zoe Kravitz, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Caleb Landry Jones, Edi Gathegi, Lucas Till
Director Matthew Vaughn
Writers Ashley Millar, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Sheldon Turner, Bryan Singer
It’s hard to believe, but just over a decade ago Marvel’s Merry Mutants ushered in a wave of comic book movies that hasn’t yet stopped. The hype leading up the original film was indescribable, with sly marketing and an A-list cast leading anticipation into a fever pitch. Whether or not the film continues to hold up today is hotly debated amongst fans; some, like myself would argue it’s improved with age, while others would argue it’s a throwback to a time when everything wanted to be like The Matrix. But no matter how you feel about the original X-Men film or it’s three sequels, it’s undeniable that they took the ball handed to them by Blade (arguably the first decent movie based on a comic book property) and ran with it screaming to turn comic book movies into the summertime staple we’ve now become familiar too.
Amidst a summer which has more comic book movies planned than ever before, X-Men: First Class is a refreshing change of pace from the films we’ve gotten so used to. Functionally, the film is both a prequel and a reboot: bits of the first films are acknowledge, bits have been revamped, for the better ultimately. However, it also acknowledges that we know who all these characters are. While we spend a few moments getting to meet the characters, we are thrown right into the heart of the story, any origins being told quickly and efficiently to get us right into the action.
Set during the 1960s, the film follows a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) as he realizes there are more mutants in the world than he originally believed with the discovery of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), an evil mutant who is attempting to manipulate Russia into an all out nuclear war with the United States. Also in pursuit of Shaw is Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), who is on a roaring rampage of revenge against the Nazi officers who killed his mother and attempted to turn him into a weapon. While we do eventually meet other mutants, the bonding and friendship of Xavier and Lehnsherr is the movie’s focal point, and justly so. McAvoy’s Xavier is sympathetic and intelligent, showing the intellect and kindness the older Xavier we’ve seen possess, while still ultimately being a flawed individual who is in far over his head, while Fassbender’s Lehnsherr is easily the best part of the movie, a richly layered character whose turn to evil is accentuated by the level of badass oozing off of the character. No, seriously, Michael Fassbender is THE best thing about the movie, and if a sequel was just about him reading a paper and talking about how it was wrong, it would probably be an even better movie.
We do focus on the so-called “first class” somewhat briefly, but not enough to really touch on their characters. Only Beast and Mystique get real character development, and that’s to cover his third act transformation. Havok and Banshee in the movie are very cool characters, but remain fairly one-dimensional: Havok is cocky, almost like the jock on campus, and Banshee seems brash but very awkward. The characterizations are spot on from the comics, and it’s very cool to see them on screen, but new viewers aren’t given much to go on beyond that. Fellow team mate Angel gets an attempt at character development, but I believe she’s the worst of the bunch, largely thanks to her somewhat annoying and callous nature. Over on the “evil” side, we get Azazel, who does lots of cool stuff but gets maybe 2 lines, and Riptide, who isn’t even named in the film. There’s also Emma Frost, who is built up as a formidable opponent for Xavier, but otherwise January Jones seems like she might just be going through the motions.
This is all relieved for the villains with Bacon’s performance of Sebastian Shaw. He’s always a cool, calculating character, moving from scene to scene quietly. He shows a large sphere of influence and lots of guts, but never raises his voice, and usually has a smile on his face. Bacon was a surprisingly good choice for this role, playing Shaw without any ham or narm, instead lending an air of credibility to Shaw’s threat. When he finally lashes out into an all out attack, it has significance, and serves as a turning point for the film’s tone.
If I have any complaint about the film, it would be the pacing. Lehnsherr’s heel turn to Magneto feels rushed; understandably so, given the the filmmakers were likely unsure they’d be able to get a sequel. The best bits of the film are when he and Charles are discussing their philosophies, and how they affect mutant-kind, but when you consider Erik has known about other mutants for a whole 48 hours, it kind of hurts things. There’s also the idiot ball Beast is given, attempting to cure his appearance but cure his mutation, which is fine for Mystique, but worthless for Beast, who’s mutation is his appearance.
While the tone of the previous films toed the line between cheesy comic book movie sci-fi/action film and comic book film. X-Men: First Class is no exception, but seems to shed the implied shame of it’s comic book. This film embraces everything a comic book movie should be, combining action, drama and humor into an exciting and enriching blend. The story is deep and layered, the performances exciting and fresh while still holding an air of the performances from the previous films, and the film itself is just a damn fun film. Shocking, despite it’s terrible marketing campaign and the many initial concerns of fans, X-Men: First Class is easily the best in the franchise since X2, and has us looking forward to it’s inevitable sequel.