X-Men: First Class
dir. Matthew Vaughn
Release Date: Jun 03, 11
It’s been a while now since any real justice was done to the X-Men mythology on celluloid. Since Bryan Singer’s last effort, X2, we’ve been given the gifts of Brett Ratner playing with the franchise like an overeager little kid in a candy shop in The Last Stand, and the hacked-up, studio-driven disaster of Wolverine: Origins. Bearing this in mind, it was hard not to be skeptical about Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, an attempted franchise reboot that’s seeing its release only one year after it was first announced. Would this be another rushed disaster? Thankfully, no. Not only is it far from the hack job that 20th Century Fox has done on numerous Marvel films in the past decade, but it’s one of the most entertaining comic adaptations in a while.
The general mythology set up in the first filmic incarnation of the X-Men has been kept intact. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) was separated in a Polish concentration camp in 1944 as a boy from his mother and father, until Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) discovered that he had special gifts that could be useful to the Nazis. At the same time, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) was learning that not only did he possess a remarkable intellect, but also the ability to read minds. With the prologue set, we move forward to the ‘60s, in which a sexy CIA agent (Rose Byrne) commissions Xavier to try and catch Shaw before he manipulates the building Cuban missile crisis into something far more sinister. Meanwhile, Erik is now a violent vigilante, using his gift for manipulating metals to hunt Shaw down and avenge his family. The two collide, and soon an elite group of other mutants join them, to attempt to save the world.
In case you can’t tell, there’s a lot going on in First Class, but to its credit there’s no collapse under the weight of setting up what Fox clearly intends to be a new franchise. All of the above leaves out the introductions of, among others, the young Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, cherubic and seductive at once), Dr. Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and Emma Frost (January Jones), an evil temptress with telepathic powers to rival Xavier’s. The real centerpiece of the film, though, is the battle between Erik and Xavier. We know that one day the two will become sworn rivals (and the film gives little reminders throughout), but where Singer’s films got occasionally heavy-handed with the social parallels, Vaughn mostly keeps things subtle (the odd “Mutant and proud!” aside).
Fassbender runs away with the film as the future Magneto, playing him as a violent, revenge-driven psychopath while also finding genuine pathos in a man who truly believes, and ends up being proven right to a degree, that there is no place for mutants in regular society. McAvoy does solid work, if a little precocious, as Xavier; it’s strange to see Professor X when he wasn’t simply a wise old oracle. At last, Vaughn and his writing team (four cooks in the kitchen, all told) find the necessary balance between the leaders; neither Erik’s bloodlust nor Xavier’s absolute acceptance and desired assimilation are the true solution to uniting with society as a whole. That First Class can get at these deeper issues, and a good handful more, while also throwing in quite a few CG-driven action sequences that are remarkably well done given the tight production timeline, well, it’s a minor miracle.
For the first time in a while, First Class is a reboot that leaves you craving more. Though it gets a little cute with the foreshadowing at times, things move at a good clip and get all the major pieces in position for later. Not many X-Men have been introduced, and a lot of the ones who are don’t exactly come to mind right away in canon, so there’s room to grow, and for once with a superhero franchise, that’s to be awaited. Also, watch for a cameo from the most popular of the X-Men; it’s the best use of the one F-word rule in a PG-13 film in a long time.