Eleven years ago 20th Century Fox and director Bryan Singer introduced the world at large to the idea of mutants living among us with the box office smash “X-Men”. Following that success a couple of years later with “X2: X-Men United”, which was an even bigger blockbuster and an even better movie. However, when Bryan Singer left the franchise to direct “Superman Returns”, some would argue the franchise lost its way with the likes of the critically maligned “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”.
Personally, I enjoyed both of those films (as did many audiences based on their box office receipts), although I do recognize their flaws. To those critics and even some fans that were displeased with the aforementioned last two installment into the franchise, a new entry has come along to right those proverbial wrongs. That film is the critically acclaimed “X-Men: First Class” from director Matthew Vaughn (“Layer Cake”), with Bryan Singer serving as a producer this time around.
“X-Men: First Class” explores the friendship between Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender). Set in the early 1960’s, the two one-time friends and veritable leaders of the mutant race, join forces with the CIA to discover and train new mutants in the use of their powers. However, when a dangerous mutant named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) sets into motion events that could lead to nuclear war; Charles, Erik and their team of mutant recruits must band together to save mankind.
When this film was initially announced I was excited because at the time Bryan Singer was attached to direct. However, shortly thereafter Singer was forced to drop out due to scheduling conflicts, and eventually director Matthew Vaughn was hired to take over the reins.
It was upon this revelation that my excitement for the prequel began to wane because Matthew Vaughn had already balked at the chance to direct an X-Men feature with “X-Men: The Last Stand”. Thus, my confidence in him wasn’t exactly solid. That was before I watched his surprisingly entertaining, tongue planted firmly in cheek, comic book adaptation “Kick-@$$”.
After seeing the aforementioned film, my concern for the X-Men franchise was quickly dissipating. My thought was so long as Matthew Vaughn, and company, remained relatively faithful to the material, plus made every attempt possible to ensure this is the best in the series; then the future of the franchise would be in good hands.
So, let me say that I for one can attest that “X-Men: First Class” not only delivered the goods, but surpassed almost every one of my expectations. If you are one of the fans or critics or general moviegoers that were disappointed to some degree with any of the previous films, then this movie should easily renew your faith in the franchise.
Written by Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz (“Thor”) the story for “X-Men: First Class” is jam-packed with history for not only the franchise, but even some actual world history to boot (albeit with a comic book slant). Not to mention terrific character beats (especially for the primary cast members); plus, taking considerable care to not trample too much upon the continuity that had been established by the previous films in the series.
Admittedly there were some minor contradictions between this film and the rest of the series; however, they can be forgiven or explained away in later sequels. So I digress.
On top of all that the film boasts some very entertaining action and visual effects set pieces that are some of the best this series has ever had to offer. From the scenes of the various young mutants training to harness their abilities to the film’s climactic moments, the visual spectacle on display is well worth the price of admission.
As always the best scripts, action, visual effects, and directors and crew members are all for naught if the cast can’t step up to deliver the goods too. And this cast delivered with great ease and nearly flawless execution.
Leading the cast are two very talented actors: one is the more recognizable James McAvoy (“Wanted”) portraying Charles Xavier, and the other is the soon to be recognizable, due to this role, Michael Fassbender (“300”).
At the onset of this film you can forget some of your preconceived notions for the character of Charles Xavier that you may have gleamed from comics or the movies. Here we are introduced to a version of the character that’s willing to be somewhat ethically loose with his powers. For example, he is not above using his telepathic abilities to hit on women in bars and such.
Now, I understand that some could be turned off by this take on the character in his younger years, and therefore attempt to write off the film in the process. However, actor James McAvoy manages to portray this time in Xavier’s life with such charm and personality that you can’t help but be drawn in by him.
And when the character begins to embrace his destiny as a potential future leader of mutants, McAvoy naturally shifts gears with the character. Over the course of his story arc James begins tempering the more spirited side to Xavier with an over-bearing sense of responsibility and a strong ethical moral code that we all know from the original trilogy.
As for the future Magneto, actor Michael Fassbender portrays this younger Erik Lehnsherr with much more volatility than we’ve ever seen from the character. However, with that temperament, we also see an underlying sadness that is constantly at odds with his intense anger and aggression.
When we see those flashes of sadness come to the surface of Erik, Michael truly excels at playing them off with genuine surprise and bewilderment from the character. Seeing these moments of vulnerability seep into the role was a fresh approach to Erik that we had not seen previously.
Plus, witnessing the transition of Erik from a man consumed by vengeance and lacking any real sense of direction to a man with a mission and purpose in life was extremely satisfying and intriguing to watch.
Separately both James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender were great, but their shared scenes are simply excellent. The natural rapport the two share onscreen perfectly conveys the brotherly relationship the characters once shared in the comics.
Honestly, if the Academy was willing to take a chance on another comic book property for a potential award nomination (beyond the visual and sound effects categories), then this film and its two lead actors could easily snag a nod. Of course, this most likely will not happen, but the fact that they could be considered worthy is a testament to the quality of this movie.
Alongside the two leads are a plethora of actors and actresses delivering very solid turns, even if their characters aren’t given as much to do as the aforementioned. The two biggest standouts from the supporting cast of young mutants are Mystique and Beast, played by Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”) and Nicholas Hoult (“Clash of the Titans”).
These two young talents deliver strong performances, and provide a different perspective on the events of the film than that of the leads. For me, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the movie spent as much time as it did showcasing the viewpoint of the “students”; especially, since the driving force of the film was the early years of Charles and Erik.
On the villainous side of things, we have Kevin Bacon (“Hollow Man”) and January Jones (TV’s “Mad Men”), portraying Sebastian Shaw and his femme fatale, Emma Frost respectively.
Between the two, Kevin gave the stronger performance, not to mention having more to do within the story. His portrayal of Sebastian Shaw was an interesting blend of a charismatic, suave, and sophisticated business man, mixed with a cold and calculating killer, devoid of any vestige of humanity.
To his credit, Kevin could have played the role over-the-top, which seems to be the temptation for so many actors when playing characters with a clear messiah complex, but he didn’t. Instead, he opted to play things more subdued and both the character and the film benefited.
Now, a moment ago, when I said that Kevin’s performance was the stronger of the two, that wasn’t to say that January Jones didn’t deliver on her end. On the contrary, January did a good job portraying Emma, a character whose beauty belies the cold-hearted mutant she truly is.
Some have complained that January seemed too emotionless and detached, but that’s the way her character should be, so her portrayal would be accurate. It’s just so many times critics aren’t aware of the source material (I know I’m guilty of this too), and judge based solely on what they see whether that’s the way the character is supposed to be or not.
So, in the end, with all the terrific performances, excellent storytelling, and great visual effects and action sequences, “X-Men: First Class” is an outstanding movie! Serving as a perfect introduction to those who may be unfamiliar with the film franchise or its comic book source material, but also providing longtime fans another excellent entry into the franchise that easily erases any ill-will garnered from the last two installments.
“X-Men: First Class” is rated PG-13 for violence and language.