The Good: Good acting, Great story development, Good special effects, Wonderful character development.
The Bad: Continuity, Michael Fassbender's accent.
The Basics: The prequel film X-Men: First Class is surprisingly good: smart, witty, well-performed and even better for those who are not fans of the franchise.
It has felt like a long time since I went to the movie theater and left feeling like I wanted to rave (positively) about the film I saw afterward. But that is where I am at following taking in X-Men: First Class. In fact, I enjoyed X-Men: First Class far more than I thought that I would, which is saying something. I have enjoyed the cinematic X-Men movies, but have not read any of the books, so when I write about them, all I am discussing is what is in the movies. And what was in X-Men: First Class was thoroughly enjoyable . . .
. . . except . . .
. . . in the context of the already created X-Men movies. And because I enjoyed the film so much, I've decided to dispense with the usual and leap into the worst aspects first. Quite simply, for a prequel film that begins where the first X-Men movie began and thus seeks to illustrate an important missing chapter in the history of mutants in the X-Men universe, there is a stunning lack of respect for what has come before in two key places. The first and most egregious error comes in making X-Men: First Class the entire history of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto). This is problematic - to avoid spoiling anything for anyone who has not watched the other films and who wants to essentially go into seeing X-Men: First Class blind - because Xavier is bald and with Erik when they meet Jean Grey for the first time. Given that he is not bald at the end of this movie, but the rift between the two mutant titans has come, director Matthew Vaughn shows a pretty stunning lack of understanding of the continuity already established. Furthermore, because Xavier is bald (fans will understand this is being used as a euphemism for more telling character traits!) in the Wolverine prequel, there is a rushed quality to the overall story told in X-Men: First Class.
That said, the only other problems with X-Men: First Class are that the actor playing Hank McCoy, Nicholas Hoult, has absolutely no connection or stature that would make him a reasonable precursor to Kelsey Grammar (who played the role in X-Men III: The Last Stand) and that Michael Fassbender's Irish accent comes out more and more as the movie goes on. I'm not saying that there weren't a lot of Irish Jews living in Poland in 1944, but . . . wait, I think I can safely say that. Fassbender's acting or the casting here is a little off. Regardless, X-Men: First Class deserves to be a hit and if it is at all possible to avoid seeing any previews for the film (all of which seemed to pull from the last hour to half hour of the movie, annoyingly enough), one should see it soon and on the big screen.
Starting in Poland in 1944, Erik Lehnsherr inadvertently reveals to the Nazis his extraordinary power to bend metal with only his mind. This brings him to the attention of Nazi scientist Klaus Schmidt who tries to cultivate Erik's powers by killing Erik's mother in front of him. Meanwhile in Westchester at the same time, Charles Xavier walks into his kitchen and discovers his mother there, only he knows immediately it is not his mother and Raven, a shapeshifting mutant, is revealed to him. While Erik begins a search for Klaus and Charles becomes a world-renowned expert in genetics, tensions begin to rise in the world. In 1962, the CIA seeks out Charles when an agent witnesses Emma Frost and a powerful teleporting mutant she is working with abduct Colonel Hendry from a Las Vegas club.
When Charles and the CIA hunt down a vicious manipulator named Sebastian Shaw, they rescue Erik who is trying to sink Shaw's boat and desperately attempts to stop Shaw's submarine. Shaw is the man Erik knew as Schmidt and Erik's desire for vengeance leads him to an unlikely pairing with Charles. With the CIAs help, Charles, Erik and Raven are united with the brilliant mutant scientist Hank McCoy and Charles and Erik begin the search for more mutants. After finding several and encouraging them to begin honing their talents and to work for the U.S. government. This puts Xavier's mutants on Shaw's radar and puts the entire operation in jeopardy as Shaw attempts to create nuclear war through what we now call the Cuban Missile Crisis.
X-Men: First Class is incredibly clever on several levels and one of the things I enjoyed most about the film was that the previews made it appear like the actual crisis - the U.S. and U.S.S.R. squaring off over nuclear missile deployment in Cuba - was the central thrust of the film. Not so. Instead, Shaw becomes an intriguing villain who believes that a nuclear apocalypse will end human life and allow mutants to be created, spread, and/or be revealed to a world they will then dominate. His philosophy is ghastly, but it mirrors what Charles speaks about early in the film when he shares his thesis with Raven. Shaw's aid, Emma Frost, is a cool villain and the scenes she is in are electric - for more than just the costuming. Indeed, Emma is Xavier's foil as a fellow telepath and unlike Xavier, she has a secondary power, which is that she can become diamond. This is a pretty clever power and it is exceptionally well-executed with the special effects of the film.
The thrust of X-Men: First Class is in the relationship between Charles and Erik and that is where the film is very successful as well. Charles and Erik are men of about equal power, with opposing philosophies on the relationship between humanity and mutants. Their enthusiasm in hunting down mutants together is fun to watch and they interact well. Moreover, both James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender have the gravitas to realistically evolve into characters played by Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen. I didn't, honestly, see the resemblance for Fassbender and McKellen until almost the very last scene, but near the climax there is a moment when Fassbender lets complete vulnerability into his eyes and in that moment, he looked like a young McKellen.
Despite the rushed plot of X-Men: First Class, the character journeys are compelling and well-executed. Xavier focuses on the betterment of mutantkind and preparing for a world where both humans and mutants may exist together. Erik, on the other hand, is focused with liberating mutants from the yoke of human oppression. Strangely, Xavier never points out to Erik that it was a mutant, not a man, who committed the worst crimes against Erik. But while Xavier philosophizes and is oblivious to advances of a fairly adult Raven, Erik tunes his anger and comes to believe that if mankind wants to wipe themselves out, he will happily help it along. How Charles and Erik then continue and evolve their relationship makes the movie more engaging as it goes on.
What also works is how the characters from the X-Men universe were selected. While I am sure there is a chronology that dictates such things, with only Xavier, Erik, Raven and Hank having been seen in prior X-Men films, there is a real sense of menace throughout the movie to other characters, like Emma Frost, Angel, Darwin, Banshee and Havoc. When Emma Frost is captured by Erik and Charles, for example, there truly is the sense that anything can happen to her and I like that. In a prequel it is hard enough to build in surprises, so that X-Men: First Class mixes it up with characters that can be casualties works.
In addition to great special effects, good plot development and good character development, the acting is pretty wonderful. I had not seen January Jones in anything outside the Jimmy Kimmel Live HoBo diet sketch, but she rules as Emma Frost. With equal grace and ability, Jennifer Lawrence recreates Raven (Mystique). Lawrence makes Raven very powerful in her convictions, but exceptionally emotionally vulnerable and the conflict is played out very well through Lawrence's performance. Indeed, it didn't occur to me until post-viewing analysis that Raven might be characterized as something of an easy mutant given that she expresses feelings for Charles, Hank and Erik. But I attribute the failure to view the character that was as an acting success on the part of Lawrence. Lawrence makes it clear that Raven's attraction to McCoy is more a transference of feelings for Charles to McCoy. Her budding romance with Erik works as a result.
Kevin Bacon makes Shaw plausible as a villain without ever appearing over-the-top.
For fans of the franchise, there are two wonderful cameos that play to the larger story of X-Men, though this was the first Marvel film I did not notice Stan Lee in. For those not invested in the franchise, there are clever tongue-in-cheek moments like when Charles unwittingly outs McCoy as a mutant to the CIA and Hank tells the director of the project, "You didn't ask, so I didn't tell." As well, there is no post-credit scene on this one. X-Men: First Class is solidly entertaining and while it is not at all perfect, it is one of the smartest super hero movies I've ever seen and so far the best movie I've seen in theaters this year.
For other X-Men films, please check out my reviews of:
X-2: X-Men United
X-Men III: The Last Stand
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.