After some horrible missteps, Fox has delivered the best X-Men yet with a film that ranks amongst the best super hero movies ever made. X-Men First Class is exactly that.
Telling the story of how Professor X (James McAvoy and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) meet and subsequently become enemies, First Class takes place in the 60′s against the burgeoning threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We meet Magneto as he is still the child Erik Lensherr in a Nazi concentration camp. The footage looks pretty much exactly like it did at the beginning of the first X-Men but goes beyond Lensherr using his powers over magnetism to bend the gates of the camp and continues with his testing and training at the hands of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) who puts Lensherr through enormous pain to unlock his powers. Fast forward to the 60′s and Lensherr is taking revenge on the Nazis who killed his family and learns that Shaw is now the head of the Hellfire Club, a group of mutants looking to wipe humans out of existence to make way for the new dominant species. In the course of attacking Shaw, Lensherr comes across Charles Xavier, a mutant telepath and geneticist who is helping the CIA try to put an end to the Hellfire Club’s activities. The two become friends and set out to put together their own team of gifted mutants to foil Shaw and his cohorts.
First and foremost, the comic fan in me forces me to mention that, on paper, this movie should be a complete piece of shit. As an adaptation of source material, if you want to be strict to cannon, this is way off base. Because of the team they used in the first movie and how characters were subsequently introduced, it would be impossible to adhere to cannon in terms of who was on the team and what they did while on it. So producer Bryan Singer and director Matthew Vaughn inserted some characters in a way that almost seems haphazard and have their way with source material cannon like it was their drunken prom date. The fanboy will shout that given this situation a prequel to the movies or an adaptation of the comic X-Men: First Class should never have been attempted.
Going into this movie it was hard for me not to agree. Aside from the characters that are inserted for no really good reason like Darwin (Edi Gathegi) or Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), you have characters like Havok ( Lucas Till) who in the comics is Cyclops’s younger brother being repurposed as his father. Events are very different here than they are in the comics and if you are a slave to that then there is a lot to hate about this movie. I am a comics fan and I had very low expectations for this based on the number of perceived issues. Having seen the movie I can say with confidence that none of that stuff matters at all. This is a damn good film.
The central relationship focused on here is the one between Charles and Erik and it is very rich and well drawn but it is a mistake to assume that theirs is the only one given time. Certainly there are characters less developed than others but the flow of the story allows for intimate moments between everyone and a surprisingly complex network of interactions and relationships develop. It is here where the movie really triumphs in that while the roster is made up mostly of B-listers it captures the feel and texture that makes the comics great. The relationships amongst the characters have always been much more in focus than action or plot in the comics. That is not to say that they are in short supply of either of those things but rather that the relationships are the heart of the thing and the glue that holds it all together. More so than any of the other films in the franchise, First Class really gets that.
It helps that the relationships are based around more than just proximity and necessity as well. The themes that run through both the film and within the characters’ interactions are fairly relatable and universal and allow the audience to connect on more than a cursory level. I am very impressed with the amount of juggling Vaughn does here and I feel like he has done a great job of managing a pretty large slate of characters without many of them feeling like place holders or filler.
The performances really bear this out as well. Michael Fassbender is phenomenal as Lensherr and may very well outpace Sir Ian McKellan’s performance in the original films and that is really saying something. Seeing Fassbender here makes me sad that there wasn’t a Magneto standalone movie where I had previously had no interest in such a thing. James McAvoy brings not only weight to Xavier but also a bit of levity as well. He is a bit more playful here but can handle the serious and dramatic work flawlessly. The chemistry between the two is equally great and they manage to accomplish a lot in a relatively short amount of time. Kevin Bacon doesn’t really look a lot like the buff and hairy Shaw of the comics but his performance is razor sharp and spot on. He manages the role without overdoing the villainy and never wanders into any sort of ham fisted scenery chewing that so many before him have plunged into headlong. I don’t want to name everyone in the movie given how big the cast is but suffice it to say that they all did a great job without a sour note amongst them.
If character work was all that we had here and the whole thing was an acting workshop then that would have been fine. As it is, the movie is also a visually arresting and exciting sci-fi movie. I say sci-fi because it feels more like that than a standard super hero movie and that is a very good thing. The action is well paced and fun to watch with effects that really pop and never fail to convince. These scenes also exist to serve the story and not just as spectacle and as such work much better than action for action’s sake.
The movie is also very funny. There are all sorts of little in jokes and references to future films as well as some pretty awesome and hilarious cameos. Sure there are a lot of comics stuff that is not the same here but they do service the fans quite a bit with the humor and references. This may not be the X-Men: First Class of the comics but it is the most authentic and true to source X-Men film they have made. Fanboys need to look past the surface issues and the nit picky tedium and look at the underlying themes and feeling this movie is mining and they will see it is gold. After seeing how good this movie is and how well told of a story it is I honestly have to say I prefer it this way to the source material. Yeah, I know, I must not be a true fan then, right haters? Whatever. X-Men: First Class gets it in a way that the saddest of fanboys never will.
Conclusion [10 out of 10]
The score is very bold but upon reflection I really can’t find any significant flaws with this movie. I was thoroughly engaged throughout its over 2 hour running time and I want to see it again right away. I hope that it becomes its own franchise so I can spend more time with these characters, which is amazing given that I didn’t give a damn about any of them prior to the movie aside from Havok. This is absolutely the best comic book movie since the Dark Knight and it has raised a ridiculously high bar for the rest of the comic movies this summer. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t completely flabbergasted by this given that I was pretty convinced going in that it would be awful, but there it is. The gauntlet is thrown down for Captain America and Green Lantern.