Review: X-Men: First Class

Superhero movies have been thriving in both Hollywood and public consciousness for almost 10 years now, and one of the biggest reasons has been the origin story. “Spider-Man” in 2002 revealed how the emotional power of a superhero’s motivation can humanize even those characters with the most extraordinary powers. “X-Men: First Class” provides this oh so necessary background to a franchise whose last two film entries sacrificed depth of character for mutant and superpower pageantry. Wolverine might be the most popular character from the “X-Men” world, but the story of how Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr developed two different ideologies and became Professor X and Magneto encapsulates the comics’ core. “First Class” recognizes this all the way.

When the action-packed but unmoving “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” was announced, it came coupled with the hiring of a writer for “X-Men Origins: Magneto.” “First Class” essentially gives us that story. This is a film about Erik’s decision to become Magneto and Michael Fassbender revels in the spotlight as the powerful metal-bender who eventually leads what becomes the Brotherhood of Mutants. Fassbender will continue to be an acting force to reckon with in the future as he brings incredible depth to a character already written so well.

“X-Men: First Class” has to be the best-written superhero film since “The Dark Knight” and maybe ever behind the first two “Spider-Man” films. The script is loaded with thematic insights into the notion of being an outsider — the very notion that’s made this comic so universally loved. The fascinating complexity of Magneto and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) gets abundant attention and even the minor characters exude that feeling of learning to embrace and understand their powers and differences for the first time.

The film opens with a scene directly from the original 2000 “X-Men”: a young Erik at a concentration camp gets separated from his mother and bends a metal gate. A Nazi doctor takes note of this ability and meets with Erik, eventually killing his mother in front of him as to provoke the anger that triggers Erik’s powers. That villain happens to be a mutant himself, one who in the ’60s becomes known as Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Erik’s one goal is to avenge that death and seemingly the other horrors of the Holocaust as they’ve radically affected his perspective. This background alone, that of a Holocaust survivor, makes Erik such a challenging character for an audience. In his pursuit of Shaw, Erik meets Charles (James McAvoy), whose own quest to find other mutants with the help of a young CIA agent named Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) also has him tracking Shaw. As it happens, Shaw’s plan is to incite the Cuban Missile Crisis and start a nuclear war, setting the stage for mutant supremacy.

Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart are tough shoes to fill, but Fassbender and McAvoy make those characters their own while commanding the screen much like those venerated talents. Despite the film leaning heavily toward Magneto’s story, McAvoy impresses here as a rallying leader figure. He has a youthful charisma that a bald wheelchair-bound Professor X never gets the luxury of wielding in the original films, but he demonstrates a maturity we’ve never gotten to see from McAvoy, who’s always playing teenage or 20-something characters thanks to his boyish looks. The chemistry between him and Fassbender echoes that between McKellan and Stewart but in a much different way. With this film now in the “X-Men” canon, I think revisiting the original trilogy would actually make the original films’ Magneto-Professor X subplots more powerful. That’s how well the writing team captures their relationship and story despite the many other things going on.

Director Matthew Vaughn strikes a nice balance between the grittiness of a “Layer Cake” and the superhero fun of “Kick-Ass.”  Vaughn milks the most he can out of a PG-13 rating as some gruesome deaths are left to the imagination or shown simply without the blood. Graphic enough or not, “First Class” keeps a dark tone with the exception of all the teenage mutants learning to control and showing off their powers. Even then, they remain firmly rooted in the script’s core ideas and messages.

“First Class” forces you to keep track of several mutants, but only a couple feel hollow or ineffective. Despite being a comic book icon, Emma Frost appears to be nothing but a fembot as played by January Jones. A telepath like Professor X but with the ability to turn her skin into diamonds, she serves Shaw with seemingly no regard for her own interests, whatever they may be. Jones provides no edginess to the character, who essentially serves the same purpose as Mystique in the original films as the faithful but alluring evil “assistant.”

Lawrence as Raven aka Mystique and Nicholas Hoult as Hank aka Beast represent an effective use of subplot. Both play young mutants who possess powers that exhibit physical characteristics. As young people, they wrestle with questions of fitting in or embracing who they are, which echoes the larger Erik/Charles storyline on a smaller scale.

Regardless your thoughts on “X-Men: First Class” as a stand-alone film, it unquestionably does great justice to the power of the “X-Men” story as a whole and reminds us why this message has universal qualities that all can identify with. Not only are there the questions of conformity, but also of human nature. The climax reminds us of one of the major differences between Charles and Erik: one has faith that humanity will come to accept mutants and the other doesn’t. Although we’ve been trained to agree with Charles since Bryan Singer’s first film in 2000, “First Class” helps us come to realize the power of Magneto’s argument, proving he’s not so much a villain, but a character with a darker and perhaps more realistic world view.

The talent runs very deep in this retro-fitted backstory to the “X-Men” universe that refocuses the franchise for the better. The potential for another trilogy holds promise in the idea that Magneto and Professor X will continue to be the main characters, not simply “the old guys.” The entire “X-Men” story is a battle back and forth of who’s right and who’s wrong, hence the chess metaphor that so perfectly captures their relationship. The entire team behind “First Class” sees the power of this story and it reflects in the work of this fun yet thoughtful and moving blockbuster.

4.5/5 Stars

X-Men: First Class
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn (screenplay), Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer (story)
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne

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