X-Men: First Class
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay by Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz
James McAvoy as Charles Xavier
Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto
Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggert
January Jones as Emma Frost
Jennifer Lawrence as Raven / Mystique
Oliver Platt as Man In Black Suit
Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw
How long is X-Men: First Class? 132 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality, and a violent image.
The Rarest Creature: A Decent Prequel
The prequel is a tricky endeavor. Often plagued with errors, inconsistencies, and annoying references to future films, most prequels end up failing on many levels. Even what is generally considered the best prequel of all time — The Godfather, Part II — is mostly sequel. And, of course, the world is still suffering, and hopefully learning, from those prequels.
The advertisements for the set-in-the-1960s origin film to the Snyder/Ratner trilogy, X-Men: First Class played heavily on the prequel aspect of this film. Already a proposal met with some hesitancy, constantly reminding us who Charles and Erik will become (not Professor X/Magneto but Patrick Stewart Professor X/Ian McKellan Magneto) could reasonably worry potential audience members and comic fans alike. You throw the franchise-destroying, trilogy-ender X-Men: The Last Stand (Dark Phoenix was NOT Batman & Robin Bane and the last stand should not have been 60% tertiary characters from the first films) and 2009’s not-well-received prequel X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and the X label comes with a lot of questionable will.
That’s why it’s a shame that X-Men: First Class bears the prequel label. Director Matthew Vaughn’s (Kick-Ass, Layer Cake) take on the franchise does not just stand on its own, but surpasses its future predecessors in many ways. It even holds references to its cinematic future to two cameos, both well done, one exceedingly so.
Set in the early 1960s, X-Men: First Class shows how telepath Charles Xavier’s (James McAvoy) School for Gifted Youngsters came together. As Holocaust survivor/metal-controller Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) seeks vengeance against energy-absorber Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the Nazi officer who killed his mother, Charles is finishing his thesis on the next evolution in humans at Oxford University. While in England with adopted kid sister/shapeshifter Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, later to become Mystique), CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) seeks Charles out after witnessing real mutants at the Shaw-led Hellfire Club. Shaw’s evil team includes tornado-creating Riptide (Alex Gonzalez), demon-looking transporter Azazel (Jason Flemyng), and Emma Frost (January Jones), another telepath who can turn herself into diamonds. Learning about Shaw’s plan to create World War III through the Cuban Missile Crisis, Charles and Erik decide to work together along with the CIA to stop him. They go about gathering a team that consists of Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz), Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till), and Armando Munoz/Darwin (Edi Gathegi).
The most (and greatest) difference between this film and its previous sequels are the characters. As a series based on “team,” obviously not everyone is going to get the attention they deserve but X-Men: First Class balances this inherent difficulty much better than the first three films. Practically every character gets decent moments and everyone on the Team X is instilled with not just a personality, but a humanity. There’s a pleasure in the performances as well as the relationships.
The relationship between Charles and Erik is of crucial importance, and the one around which the movie revolves. The chemistry between McAvoy and Fassbender (two of the best younger actors working today) is undeniable and one wishes that they had more screen time, if only to see the two work off one another more. You immediately get a sense of their remarkable connection and why their eventual separation is tragic. Charles clearly knows where Erik’s mind is and where it will lead him, but you can tell that he hopes against hope that opinions will change. While Erik’s anti-human/pro-mutant crusade might come across as somewhat of a MacGuffin in the first films, with X-Men: First Class you understand where Erik comes from and how and why his philosophy formed. Handled infinitely better than the Kenobi/Skywalker split, expect this pairing to star in a lot of future slashfic.
Both Charles and Erik also share a special connection with Raven. Though the original Raven/Mystique (played by Rebecca Romijn) had a closeness with Magneto, she didn’t really rise up as a character like she does in X-Men: First Class. In fact, Raven is probably the third most important character in the entire film (or fourth depending on where you place Shaw). Originally found by Charles Xavier when they were both young children, the two develop an older brother/younger sister relationship that works surprisingly well, and the deep affection between the two outcasts drives both the characters. Raven also serves the important role of the character torn between two worlds. She hates having to hide in plain sight (so to speak), wants to be honest about who she is, but knows the world won’t accept a blue person. Even Charles seems uncomfortable when she’s in her real skin. Erik lets her, possibly for the first time, know that she should be proud of who she is.
Her insecurities about being normal-normal and mutant-normal might seem similar to what Rogue dealt with during the first films, but Lawrence gives this conflict a lot more weight and allows us into this turmoil better than Paquin did.
Raven also finds a comrade in Hank McCoy. Super intelligent with super agility but animal-like feet. Hank considers his deformity (and Raven’s blueness) a flaw. However, unlike Raven who wants to maintain her hue, he wants to look “normal.” He attempts a cure to retain abilities while curing the appearance of his feet. It doesn’t work.
Nevertheless, I want to give a special commendation to Nicholas Hoult. who is probably best known as the boy in the Hugh Grant movie About A Boy. As the super-geeky McCoy responsible for much X-technology, the appealing Hoult easily shares the screen with, and holds his own against, his Academy Award-nominated/should be Academy Award-nominated costars. (Watch Fassbender in Hunger.)
Aside from the characters, the film holds back tremendously from the seriousness and mopiness that dragged down a lot of the Snyder/Ratner films. While the mutant rights struggle still remains an obvious allegory for various different human rights movements, it’s significantly less overbearing than in the original trilogy. The look Matthew Vaughn brings to the series is vastly different too. Gone is the darkness of the first three films and those dumb padded leather outfits. X-Men: First Class is brightly filmed with an appreciation for a 1960s style and features suits that hearken back to the group’s first appearance in September 1963.
In the world of the mainstream superhero movie, X-Men: First Class shares a place alongside the first Iron Man. Quirky, enjoyable to comic fans and non-comic fans alike, and most importantly confident in itself, X-Men: First Class succeeds in understanding that the key to these films is making us want to spend time with the characters rather than wait for the next action set piece.