When it was announced that X-Men: First Class was being made, many including me, groaned. After X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the prospect of being put through a likely awful prequel was disconcerting. Luckily, the result is surprisingly good; director Matthew Vaughn puts forth an uneven but fresh and pulpy experience that delivers on multiple levels. My experience with X-Men is limited to a few volumes of Ultimate and Astonishing X-Men, the previous films, growing up with the animated show and their general pop-culture presence. So this review will not be looking at the film from a comic-driven perspective. That can be left to those much more knowledgeable and experienced with the comics.
The film starts by giving us insight into Erik’s (Bill Milner) childhood. In 1944, Erik and his mother are separated in a concentration camp. When Nazi doctor Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) sees Erik’s power he calls him into his office, asking him to repeat his abilities. When he cannot, Erik’s mother is shot. From then on, vengeance and anger drive him into adulthood. In the meantime, young Charles Xavier (Lawrence Belcher) meets a blue and scaly young girl named Raven (Morgan Lilly) with nowhere to go, and the two form an instant bond.
As an adult, brilliant and somewhat arrogant Xavier (James McAvoy) is on his way to becoming a professor with best friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) at his side. Erik (Michael Fassbender) travels the world looking for clues to Shaw’s whereabouts, set on revenge. Shaw and his Hellfire Club have a nefarious plan to trigger war between the US and Russia. Then we have CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), who learns there are mutant powers and asks Xavier for help. Once Erik finds his way to Xavier, the film tracks their initial friendship, the gathering of other mutants via Cerebro, and their efforts to stop Shaw and his potentially catastrophic plan.
Clearly, the most successful aspect of X-Men: First Class is the friendship between Xavier and Magneto. Both actors, particularly Fassbender, are outstanding and lend considerable gravitas to a popcorn summer flick. Their friendship is doomed from the start but their conversations are really what these films are about. Questioning the capacity of humanity to accept differences as well as the inherent isolation that comes with feeling disconnected from society, no matter what the cause. Are humans worth the trouble it will take to work together with them? Every X-Men film has these conversations and they always hit the same beats. The film conquers the repetition with the great acting at its center and by keeping future events looming over the conversations.
The two seemingly simple tasks that First Class succeeds in are that it is both consistently entertaining and emotionally satisfying. The breakdown of Xavier and Erik’s friendship actually has impact. The understanding that Erik’s rage will always define him has impact. I felt involved, and that level of investment in this genre is an almost entirely new feeling to me. Xavier’s first encounter with Cerebro left me with an almost giddy aftertaste. The scene when Xavier allows one of Erik’s memories to resurface is genuinely affecting. The same can be said for the way McAvoy plays the realization of his paralysis. Finally,watching just how desperate Xavier is to delay the inevitability of Erik’s desertion, is not just something the audience sees but feels. Yes, all of these examples involve Xavier and Erik, but their dynamic is at the center of this film, and it is enough to anchor any mediocrity or even flaws it is surrounded by.
As for consistently entertaining, many other films in this genre fall apart in the third act. This one does not. The uses of the mutants’ powers are imaginative. The set-pieces worked and the film is well-performed outside of January Jones who, between this and Unknown, is continuing to leave me flabbergasted by how Matthew Weiner is able to brilliantly uses her on “Mad Men”. The establishment of character relationships and seeing how everything starts is a treat as well. In short, it is entertaining.
Striving to give Raven an arc is inspired, but her final decision is lacking in believability. How does a girl with a strong and lifelong sisterly bond with Xavier end up becoming Mystique? X-Men First Class attempts to answer that question, and does so rather well, or so it seems. Every scene with Raven is meant to make us understand why she chooses to go with Erik by the end. She sees her mutation as a physical deformity. As Raven matures into an insecure woman, Xavier is unable to give her the kind of assurance she needs. Her interactions with Hank (Nicholas Hoult) confirm her need to be told she should not have to hide. Xavier misreading what Raven wants to hear, in addition to Erik telling her what she does want to hear, affect the way she views mutants place in the world. I wish Raven’s arc functioned more as the groundwork for her switch to Magneto’s side as opposed to fitting everything into one film. As groundwork, it would have been successful; as it is, something felt lacking by the end. The “mutant and proud” line did not exactly help matters.
As for some of the flaws, the film is somewhat tonally inconsistent. There are camp elements seeping in from the edges during certain scenes, and there are other times where that sense is nowhere to be found. The film could have also used violence more intelligently. The film plays as the tamest PG-13 action film imaginable. Violent things happen, but we never see them. This would be fine, but Vaughn is incapable of making those moments have any punch without showing violence. Thus, those moments promote an indifferent and passive audience reaction. Despite my somewhat negative opinion of Kick-Ass, the action scenes were executed wonderfully there. None of that punch can be found here.
X-Men: First Class is the kind of rare superhero film that mostly works. It is a joy to watch, and it manages to ‘preboot’ a franchise whose last two films were laughable. It fuses story with character, making sure each is of equal importance, and that prioritizing is part of what makes X-Men: First Class a rewarding time at the movies.