Film Review – X-Men: First Class
Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011) does everything you would expect in a summer blockbuster featuring super heroes and super villains. It’s actually kind of surprising the level of accomplishment that the movie reached, given the well-reported rush that the production went through. Think about it like this: Vaughn was not brought in as the film’s director until only about a year ago. To think that he was able to jump aboard this project and in about twelve months’ time produce a well-made movie is a borderline miracle, even though we can clearly see evidence of its quick assembly. However, the film is a highly enjoyable entertainment, bringing the series back to form after the disappointments of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). I, for one, welcomed it with open arms.
As we all know by its title, the film acts as a prequel to the Bryan Singer film, X-Men (2000). One of the big pluses that this film had going for it was that Singer returned to the franchise as a story contributor. This time around, the film takes place in the 1960s, during a very troubling time in American history. One of the more interesting aspects was how the filmmakers wrapped the origins of Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), and their young students to the Cold War, the U.S. arms race with Russia, President Kennedy, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Who would’ve thought that the true nature of the Cold War and the possibility of WWIII were due to a few mutants harboring a superiority complex? Hopefully high school students won’t get their U.S. History lessons mixed up. But it works within the context of the film; interweaving the story with real world situations, the film feels a little more relevant. We see the connection between these mutants wanting to be accepted in to society with the real-world outcasts of the time more clearly.
Another strength that the film had was the development of the Erik Lehnsherr character. Erik (who will become Magneto) has always been one of the more fascinating characters of the X-Men universe to me. This is a man who has seen and experienced the very worst from mankind in his lifetime, and has been filled with hate and vengeance ever since. The opening of this movie harks back to the opening of X-Men, where we see a young Erik being torn away from his family in one of the Nazi concentration camps. We get to see more of his background here, and how his subjugation under the evil villain Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) fed his hate and pushed him to seek revenge on all those who would discriminate and torment others. Michael Fassbender has been a great actor for quite some time now, and I almost feel that this movie doesn’t really deserve his talent. But he uses his skill and charisma very well in his performance, allowing us to both fear Erik and sympathize with his plight. As he describes himself in the movie, Erik is Frankenstein in search of his maker.
His storyline is contrasted with that of a young Charles Xavier. A mutant with telepathic abilities, Charles is depicted as a young hotshot college graduate eager to enter the world of teaching. His wild ways are quickly ended when he is called upon by Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and the CIA to help stop Shaw from collaborating with the Russians to send missiles to Cuba. Charles runs into Erik, hot on the heels of Shaw himself, and the two form a unique bond and friendship, with one man driven by anger and the other motivated by the possibility of equality between mutants and humans. The very best scenes are between these two men, and showing their recruitment of young mutants to help stop Shaw and find a safe place in the world for them to live. The two both try to fight for a certain goal, but are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum. Their relationship is developed and tested very well as the movie progresses, and during the final passages, when the two make their stands on where the mutant/human balance should lie, it’s very well executed.
That’s where the last couple of X-Men installments lacked, as they had less of a focus on character and story, instead concentrating on just effects. With the gist of this film being on Erik, Charles, and the young mutant team, the special effects and CGI really do not have as much bearing on the quality of the film. With the movie rushed in such quick production, a lot of the effects during the action scenes seem underdeveloped, and a lot of the mutant power abilities don’t feel very convincing. But Vaughn was able to make due with what he had, and because much of the action has a point and the stakes are well realized, I was able to forgive the movie of that.
There were other minor issues. Take, for example, the underdevelopment of a lot of the supporting characters, which has been an issue with all of the movies. With so many characters being introduced, there simply is not enough time to fully get to know all of them. This is most exemplified in the Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) character, the shape-shifting mutant who will become known as Mystique. Her arc throughout the movie felt poorly handled, and her relationships with Charles, Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), and, finally, Erik, simply did not feel real within its timeframe. It seemed the amount of people moving within this story and the choices they make felt compacted and shortened. There is certainly enough material here to warrant a number of other installments, but it seemed that the filmmakers wanted to get as much as they could in, while setting everything up appropriately to bring us back around to the first movie.
With those minor problems aside, X-Men: First Class still works as a very well made comic book movie, bringing life back to a series that was almost dead in the water. The action was well staged, the acting was good by most of the principle actors, and the dynamic between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr felt real and believable. For the most part, this movie was just a lot of fun. There was an air of enjoyment to it—not taking itself too seriously, but accomplishing what it sets out to do probably better than it should have. I had a good time while watching it; there was not one dull moment or a scene that was not entertaining. If you’re looking for a well-made popcorn movie to see in the theaters, let this one be it.
Final Grade: B+