Review: X-Men: First Class
You’re working with a franchise that has four movies already released, and is based upon a comic book franchise that has run for decades and has released literally thousands of issues and created dozens of spin-offs. Given all that history, all that expectation, all those different fans wanting something specific and unique from the movie you are intending to produce: what do you do? You create a basic storyline rooted in universal human emotions and include unique details to please each of the different audiences, and in my opinion, that is what director Matthew Vaughan and the cast of X-Men: First Class accomplished.
The central conflicts of this movie are very basic: revenge, greed, warring nations, the struggle to be accepted, and the desire for a better world. All of this is very accessible, which means the story can take less time setting up the conflicts and more time building characters. While I was somewhat sad that they recycled the utterly brilliant scene from Bryan Singer’s X-Men, in which a young Eric Lehnsherr rips apart a concentration camp gate, it’s still a great and compelling scene. The Nazi element remains present in the movie, giving both an authentic post-war vibe to the movie, and credibility and power to Erik Lehnsherr’s drive for revenge. The transition from a personal desire for revenge to a global mission to overthrow and eliminate humanity as presented in this film is quite believable. Honestly, every moment with Magneto has all the raw power and emotion that comes from a deep-seated need for revenge and severe emotional damage. Michael Fassbender delivers an unrelenting, cold-blooded performance (the bar scene in Argentina still gives me chills thinking about it), and I wish there had been more.
James McAvoy plays his counterpart – Charles Xavier, the peacemaker with unflinching hope for a better world. He had to live up to Patrick Stewart’s now iconic performances, and I think he was up to it. He manages to make the requisite team-building montage fairly engaging. He is often funny but never in a cheesy way, always more endearing than embarrassing, and his occasional use of the 60s slang, “groovy,” was never forced, conjuring up the time-period without making you groan in your seat. We see a fun-loving, playboy version of Charles Xavier, yet to be tempered by reality into the cooler, more responsible leader that he will become. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Mystique was solid, and the burgeoning romance with Hank McCoy provided a natural vehicle through which to portray these two characters’ conflicting desires to ‘be normal’ and escape from their much more visible mutations. That being said, I couldn’t see this Mystique, warm though occasionally given to fits of temper, turning into the cold-blooded killer portrayed in the comics or the other movies.
Kevin Bacon gives a passing turn as the central villain, Sebastian Shaw, but he clearly has a fair amount of fun with the role. Even if he doesn’t make your blood run cold at any point, at least it’s an enjoyable performance. January Jones sure did look the part of the icy White Queen Emma Frost, but her delivery was icy as well – they just didn’t give her many lines to work with. Luckily, there was only one role, that of the henchman Riptide, who strangely had no lines whatsoever. Even Jason Flemyng as the other henchman, Azazel, gets a few chances to speak and breathe life into his character. And seriously? Azazel, eventual father of fan favorite Nightcrawler? That is some awesomely obscure fan-boy fare.
Now, for some of the more nitty-gritty details. Did this movie adhere to X-Men canon? Not in the least for the comics, but they were right in line with all the other movies in the franchise. There were a couple of brief (but great) references to the other movies in the series that gave me a good laugh. The main discrepancies with the comic canon were the characters presented here. But the original X-Men line-up (specifically Cyclops, Angel, Ice Man, and Jean Grey) couldn’t be in this movie, because they were all younger in the other movies, which were later in this chronology. As a fairly acceptable consolation, however, the mutants included in this line-up were all fan-favorites. I felt like the inclusion of Scott Summers’ brother Alex, aka Havok, as part of this team was the makers of the film saying to fans, “We know this should be Cyclops, we can’t do it because of the other films, but this is the best and closest substitute we could give you.” Honestly, while the idea of Havok being in the original team doesn’t make a lick of sense in the comic universe, it worked pretty well in the film. Other articles of canon, like Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost leading the Hellfire Club, are sure to please long-time fan-boys looking for something more than the basic X-Men story.
While a huge canon discrepancy, Beast transforming into his fully blue-fur form really advanced his inner conflict of conformity vs. self-acceptance. It also ties into a conversation he has with Xavier about Jekyll and Hyde rather well. He looks really great in full Beast form – as long as it’s being aided by CGI. Honestly, there are some moments where he looks like a normal dude in an awkward blue animal suit, while there are other moments where he looks incredible. It was a love-hate thing for me. Other than that, though, this movie was visually stunning. All the CGI was seamless, and the action was very well done – by far my favorite moments were the aerial combat scenes, and to my extreme satisfaction, there were a few of these. Plus, the blue and yellow suits! I knew they were coming, and I still loved seeing them in action.
As a period film, they did a solid job. Government higher-ups and mob bosses hobnobbing in a gentleman’s club, U.S. and Soviet secret agents, mod clothes galore – this definitely felt like the early 60s. But unfortunately this film played fast and loose with history, depicting the U.S. as being aware of Soviet plans to install missiles in Cuba before it happens, and ignoring the fact that the U.S. became aware of the situation only after efforts to install these weapons had already begun. While this wouldn’t be a big deal in a superhero fantasy, it is a problem when the movie attempts to use recordings of President Kennedy’s television addresses to the nation to place this story in concrete history. Since Marvel, unlike the DC Universe, is intended to be understood as existing within the “real world”, this did bug me a little bit.
So there you have it: a solid period film, great action, fan-boy fodder and nods to continuity, some occasionally clunky lines and a few poorly characterized roles, but overall one hell of a ride. And I could get caught up on some of the goofier things, as one particular big-name critic chose to do about Magneto’s helmet, but you know what? We get the origins of Magneto’s helmet! So I honestly don’t care. It was a great movie, for fans and non-fans alike.