Dear Matthew Vaughn. I want to have all of your adopted babies. Signed, Johnny M (Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, graduating class of 1995).
Film: X-Men: First Class
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence
Written by: Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Genre: Superhero, action, fantasy
Rating: 8 out of 10 / A-
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN THE NEXT EVOLUTION OF MILD SPOILERS!
The year is 1962. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is living in luxury, the child of wealth and privilege. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is a driven man, hunting for the men responsible for killing his parents in a Nazi death camp. Both happen to be mutants: Charles a powerful telepath and Erik able to manipulate metal. Along with Charles’ good friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), a mutant shapeshifter, both men are drawn into service for the CIA thanks to agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne). Moira has been tracking a group of mutants called the Hellfire Club. The Club’s mastermind, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), has plans to start World War III by escalating tensions between the US and Russia in what would become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Charles, Erik and a group of young mutants are the only ones capable of stopping Shaw and his nuclear holocaust.
The first X-Men film back in 2000 ushered in a wave of superhero films. It was kinetic, entertaining, dramatic and still managed to keep the essence of the X-Men intact. X2: X-Men United upped the ante even more, turning out to be one of the finest comic book films ever made. X-Men: The Last Stand was a definite step down, disappointing and relatively empty. And the less said about X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the better. Like Batman Begins or the 2009 Star Trek film, X-Men: First Class hits the reset button on the film franchise, taking the series in a new direction unmoored from both the continuity of the films before as well as the labyrinthine and confusing continuity (or lack thereof) in the comics.
I will make you forget all about X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
The first step toward truly igniting a new franchise starts with the right director, and there are few people better situated to do it than Matthew Vaughn. His previous films read like a glowing resume: he’s great at action and comic book mayhem (Kick-Ass), great with juggling multiple character arcs (Layer Cake), and great at finding the right balance of light, dark, sweet, and grim (Stardust). Vaughn was originally hired to do The Last Stand, but dropped out because he didn’t think he could deliver a quality film in the time he was given. It was a blessing in disguise, really, because Vaughn handles this film perfectly. The pacing is fantastic: the film never feels drawn out, slack or rushed. The action scenes are crisp and wonderfully filmed, and everything’s framed just the way it should be. Even in quiet moments, the film seems to pulse with energy. The special effects are often simple but gorgeous, always used judiciously so as not to overwhelm the story. Vaughn and frequent collaborator Jane Goldman also polished the original script, and the characters all feel organic and real.
Part of that is due to the great cast. McAvoy and Fassbender are a very winning combination with very real, palpable chemistry (and you subtexters can take that any way you like). Even their appearance reflects their character: McAvoy’s baby face mirrors Xavier’s optimism and sometimes naive view of mutant/human relations, while Erik looks lean and hungry, as if his quest for vengeance has begun to eat him from the inside. Both men are immediately attractive and charismatic, and it’s easy to feel swayed by either one even though they’re often on totally opposite ethical poles. Xavier and Erik (who will become Magneto) are two sides of the same coin, and both McAvoy and Fassbender acknowledge and display that in every scene.
Xavier and Erik play games in private.
The supporting cast doesn’t always come up to McAvoy and Fassbender’s levels, but there are a lot of very good performances in what is really an ensemble piece. Jennifer Lawrence fully inhabits the role of a young Mystique, wrestling with accepting herself and her place in the world, never sure if she wants to be a part of it or fight against it. Rose Byrne is also good, a great mix of femininity and action, even if Moira’s character is far removed from her place in the comics. Among the young mutants, the standouts are Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast and Lucas Till as Alex Summers/Havok. Both play awkward outsiders, with Hoult as the shy, brainy type and Till as the brooding loner. The best of the cast, though, may have to be Kevin Bacon, who not only appears to be ageless, but is a pitch-perfect villain. Cool, magnetic and confident, Bacon never hams it up or plays the character as a one note Big Bad. His Shaw never leaves any doubt why he’s the leader of the Hellfire Club.
But we can’t mention the best without the worst, and here is where I go into a rant about January Jones. Jones plays Emma Frost, aka The White Queen, Shaw’s right-hand woman and a powerful mutant in her own right. I like Emma. I always have. Traditionally, Emma has been portrayed in the comics as a sexpot in white leather, and Jones, if nothing else, certainly does look the part. That’s where it ends. In every incarnation of the X-Men, Emma Frost has been the femme fatale of femme fatales: icy but seductive, manipulative but inescapable. Jones plays her as a piece of sentient plastic, a blow up doll with a really expensive wardrobe. In a film full of great performances from great actors, Jones is a giant, sucking void. Her monotone delivery and bored expressions wouldn’t even cut it in Vivid Video. To call her wooden is an insult to trees and timber everywhere. Her performance is so bad, it actually knocked the film’s grade down by a point.
To your right, you’ll see the reason January Jones is in the film in the first place.
You may notice that I haven’t brought up the issue of adaptation decay. That’s because I’m not grading the film on it. The original film series got flack from a lot of overeager fans who thought it was unfaithful to the comics. But that was always the original intent. The X-Men films were designed to appeal to mainstream audiences, primarily to people who don’t read comics and have no idea who the X-Men are. The first films did a great job of distilling the essence of each character, even if their backstory or their relationship were altered. Officially, the films are considered one of the many alternate realities that diverge from the main one.
First Class could be seen as a brand new reality in that light, a new way to see how the characters evolve and grow. One of the most enjoyable parts of the movie is seeing the beginning of things we all know and love from the series and how they all come together: Cerebro, the Blackbird, seeing Banshee learn how to fly or Havok learning how to control his plasma blasts. Even Xavier and Erik aren’t the powerful mutants we meet in the first film, and it’s thrilling watching them learn from each other how to better use their abilities. There are a number of in-jokes for astute fanboys, as well, and a couple very, very amusing cameos (that I won’t spoil here).
Class is back in session.
Placing the film in the real world, and tying it to events as monumental as the Cuban Missile Crisis, grounds the film in a spectacular way. The film feels very immediate, even if it’s set 50 years in the past, and there is always a looming sense of danger. Unlike many superhero films, there is never a certainty that the heroes will make it out alive. The fact that most of these mutants are young adults confronted with a very sudden and shockingly violent (albeit mostly bloodless) reality heightens the tension. Sebastian Shaw is ruthless, and he does some horrible, frightening things. It’s pretty grim for a PG-13 film, but it’s the edge of darkness that gives the film flesh and life. This is not an empty popcorn film. It has a heart, a mind, and a healthy stock of endorphins.
Origin films are tricky creatures. Too much exposition stifles the story while not enough leads to confusion and incoherence. First Class avoids all that. Even more so than the original X-Men, it’s a fantastic, brilliant start to what will surely be a bright new franchise…that will hopefully evolve beyond the need for January Jones, but as long as I can see Michael Fassbender in a wetsuit or Lucas Till in a tank top, I can overlook that.
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and was born with the mutant power of snark.