X-Men: First Class can be considered as a boon to X-Men fans who have been disappointed with the last two entries in the series. The Last Stand focused more on the action and special effects and less on the characters populating the universe while Wolverine’s Origins felt like an unnecessary add-on even though it was competent in its own right. However, both those movies never reached the standards set by X-Men 1 and 2. With the release of First Class, fans can finally get down to erasing the bad memories of the third and fourth entries. X-Men: First Class can be considered as equal to the original two movies and features everything you would want in a superhero origin story – strong acting, a tight script, well-written central characters and lots of action and excitement. Though it doesn’t reach the heights of Batman Begins or Iron Man as far as origin stories go, it can be considered a very close second to those two.
It is no coincidence that all three of the positively received X-Men movies have a direct involvement by Bryan Singer. He was the director in the first two, but took a leave from X-Men to helm another genre effort in Superman Returns. First Class has him only in a story writing capacity but, no disrespect to Matthew Vaughn who is a very competent film-maker, this film feels like Singer movie, which is a resounding positive when you look at his resume.
First Class opens in the year 1944 in WWII Poland – with scenes that are directly lifted from the original X-Men – as we are introduced to a very young Erik Lensherr who loses his mother in tragic circumstances. Subsequently, a brief glimpse of Charles Xavier’s first meeting with Raven in his expensive mansion follows before we move on to the year 1962 which is where the bulk of the movie is set. Most people who have a basic idea of the cold war era will know why the year 1962 is significant in history. First Class puts an interesting spin on familiar events with the involvement of mutants in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), an ex-Nazi and leader of the Hellfire Club, is planning to set in motion events that will result in the USA and the Soviet Union destroying each other in a thermonuclear war leaving him and his mutant brothers to take over the world. He calls it “survival of the fittest.” As humans have overcome the more primal animals to become the dominant species on Earth, so should mutants by overcoming the lesser evolved species. Of course, once the C.I.A, through agent Moira MacTaggert (Olivia Williams), gets wind of the plan, they seek the help of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) who is an expert on genetic mutation. The rest of the movie revolves around Xavier’s attempts to hone the powers of Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), their clash of styles and philosophies, their attempt to bring together a team of equally capable mutants to stop Shaw, and Erik’s mission to avenge his mother’s death at the hands of Shaw. While that seems like a lot of threads to keep up with, the movie’s structure and writing is so good that it never becomes too overwhelming that it can be considered a negative.
Before moving on to what makes First Class such a good film, it is wise to spend time talking about the main turn-off – the secondary mutants. With the exception of Emma Frost/White Queen (a very good-looking January Jones) who represents a legitimate nemesis for Professor X, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), the rest of the mutants have been selected from among the least-interesting X-Men characters. This decision, however, is understandable given the fact that this spin-off is planned as a new trilogy, and thus can be forgiven, but it is still worth mentioning as the only negative in an otherwise great movie.
Ignoring that aspect, what First Class does well, it does really well. The special effects are top-notch and, like all good superhero movies, are used sparingly and don’t overwhelm the human element even during the action-laden climax. However, the major plus lies in the portrayal of the three primary characters and their relationships. Charles Xavier is not the grumpy looking baldy on a wheelchair that we all know; he is pretty youthful and fun-loving before having the responsibility of mutant leader thrust on him. Erik Lensherr, having been scarred from past experiences, finds it difficult to trust anyone – mutant or otherwise. He believes that anger and vengeance are the only tools that unlock the full extent of his tremendous abilities before being shown his softer side by Charles. The relationship between them is one of the highlights of the movie.
Sebastian Shaw is the more straightforward super-villain and his goal, like all others, is taking over the world. The main difference between other antagonists and Shaw is the almost father/son relationship he shares with Erik. Erik feels responsible for his mother’s death at Shaw’s hands while the latter will always be the person who unlocked the monster within Erik. Though the film leaves a lot of aspects of their relationship open to interpretation, it is another noteworthy aspect of the movie.
If the primary characters are perfect, so is the casting and performances. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender have the least-enviable tasks of taking over from two of the best actors of the modern era (Two Knights of the Realm no less). However, from the moment we lay our eyes on them, we are no longer thinking about Sir Ian McKellen or Sir Patrick Stewart. They own their respective roles and their presence is so forceful that when they are on-screen, everything else recedes into the background. Michael Fassbender is especially deserving of praise given that his performance, much like the character he portrays, is magnetic and there is not one false note in it at all.
Kevin Bacon is one of those actors who never seems to have it in him to deliver a bad performance. He doesn’t produce one here. The interactions between him and Erik serve as special highlights in his portrayal of the megalomaniacal Shaw. One wonders whether Jennifer Lawrence, arguably the most well-known of the rest after her Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone, will have more to do in the proposed sequels than she does here. The rest of the cast is rounded out by some well-known names and some newcomers, all of whom are competent enough not to drag the quality of the movie down. There are also some great cameos from well-known actors one of which, in spite of being uncredited, will bring out the biggest cheers.
It will be really interesting to see where Vaughn and Singer take the series from here because the ending almost guarantees the presence of a sequel. As it stands, this movie negates certain occurrences in the third X-Men movie. Many fans believe that there is still a lot of untapped potential in the X-Men universe. Given that they left out some of the more well-known mutants, one certainly hopes that the planned sequels justify that exclusion by ramping up the overall quality of the production. As for me, I will be a happy bunny if the next movie includes both James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Like Robert Downey Jr. with Iron Man, they are the real stars of this movie.