X-Men: First Class balances the light and the dark, the humour and heartbreak, as well as the tragedy and the giddiness present in that tragedy as we see everything we know about this universe fall in place. Director Matthew Vaughan, who was to direct the third X-Men film before Brett Ratner got the job, finally has a chance to not only direct a film in the franchise but to basically recharge the franchise after many fans felt burned after the last two films, X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine
While this film may be taken more as a prequel to the first two Bryan Singer films rather than a complete reboot, or preboot, as with films such as Martin Campbell’s James Bond film Casino Royale and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, mostly everything about X-Men First Class feels fresh; it’s no longer so Wolverine centric, though I love Hugh Jackman as the character, it’s more developed in terms of its characters and story than the last two films, and Kevin Bacon, though a surprising casting choice, proves satisfyingly sinister as Sebastian Shaw, the creator of the man, the mutant, who will eventually become Magneto. In this film Magento, played by Ian McKellen in the X-Men trilogy, is still Erik Lensherr, a holocaust survivor who is out revenge against Shaw for the crimes he committed against Erik in the name of perfecting Erik’s power; powers which ironically are used brutally against Shaw, a mutant himself, near the end of the film. As played by Michael Fassbender, this is arguably the most sympathetic and compelling Magneto we’ve seen on screen thus far, with all due respect to McKellen. I think this is due to the film essentially being X-Men Origins: Magneto even more than being a straight X-Men film, though the film is still essentially about the emergence of the X-Men, and certainly has an ending that is a set-up for future X-Men films that will probably explore of the team and their struggles.
The film is also not only about Erik’s journey to becoming Magneto but also about how his journey destroys his relationship with Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). When McAvoy was first cast as Xavier I was surprised at the choice. When I finally saw the film I really enjoyed his performance, understanding how this was not the completely saint-like Professor Xavier as played by Patrick Stewart. This Xavier is a little cockier, more of a ladies’ man, as well as man still not confined to his wheelchair, which is another example of why the film feels fresh. We get to see a Xavier who moves around and even becomes an action hero of sorts. It also adds to the tragedy of the film to see such an energetic character become wheelchair bound. I really liked the chemistry between McAvoy and Fassbender and even though I wished there were a few more scenes between them, both actors are so good in their individual scenes and with each other, conveying the blossoming bromance between Charles and Erik, particularly in a “use the force Luke” scene when Charles encourages Erik to move a satellite disk, that their eventual breaking apart is saddening. Coming back to my wanting more scenes between the two of them, there’s also the fact what we are saying is a friendship which has been cut short just when it is getting started.
The X-Men movies always suffer a bit from having too many characters to properly develop them all but I think this film, aside from just having a lot of characters, also manages to be character driven. The character driven aspect comes a lot from Charles and Erik’s relationship, but there’s also the surprising inclusion of a relationship between Charles and Raven, who we know from the original trilogy as Mystique, one of Magneto’s brotherhood. I was surprised by her role here as Charles’ spiritual sister and was glad that we got to see a different, softer side to Mystique, including her potential romance with Dr. Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who later becomes Beast after injecting himself with a cure to mask his huge feet. I would have liked a little bit more between Charles and CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne), since I believe Moira was Charles’s first love in the comics. I did like their few moments together though, particularly at the end when she actually coins the term “X-Men,” based on his last name. Good thing she didn’t go with his first name for the moniker.
A few things I didn’t like about the movie have to do with the character of Shaw. I like Bacon’s performance, as I said earlier but I didn’t like how he was virtually indestructible. This became a problem for me when Shaw and Azaziel attacked the CIA compound where the young mutants Charles and Erik recruited are hanging out. While the scene is well staged, I think I’ve seen too many scenes in too many films where a villain or villains can just defeat everyone in front of them without a fight. Also, as others have pointed out, there’s something odd about a franchise which is a civil rights allegory to kill off the token black character, in this case, Darwin. Angel betraying the group so fast also doesn’t quite work even though we haven’t learned enough about her to say she wouldn’t betray the group.
Returning to Shaw, while I liked how the Cuban Missile Crisis played in to his plan, his plan itself was a little too a-typical James Bond villain plot, though I understand that Vaughan has said it interviews he was inspired by the Bond franchise when doing this film, which is fine by me since I’m a huge Bond fan. Many have said Fassbender could be James Bond in a future film and I agree. When we see him hunting Nazis early in the film, he has that eloquent ruthlessness which is needed for Bond, as well as being a fine looking man. I would have liked a little more of the James Bond element injected in to the film but along with Christopher Nolan’s aforementioned The Dark Knight, which aside from being a superhero film was also a crime epic, X-Men: First Class does a good job of adding an extra layer of genre to a superhero film.
X-Men: First Class is the second longest X-Men film next to X2: X-Men United (2003), and I feel it’s the best in the series since that superb sequel. Like X2, X-Men: First Class has the proper scale and running time for an X-Men film. From what I’ve heard, Vaughan didn’t have long to make this film. After Bryan Singer dropped out but remained as a producer, Vaughan was brought on in May 2010, only having a year to make the film. Hopefully if a sequel is green lit Vaughan and his contributors on this film will have more time to work on the story and script with other writers, which isn’t to say the story and script are bad here; just that as with the first two X-Men films, one can see how much leeway Singer got with the second film, and was able to give us a fully realized vision of his X-Men universe. Vaughan strikes me as a director with a vision and while this film does contain touches which do belong to him, I think a sequel will allow his complete vision of the X-Men universe to be seen.