The summer of 2011 brought the moviegoer four comic-book action-bonanzas to choose from. That total rises to five if you count Transformers 3 in that company. When X-Men: First Class joined the list, I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for it. I loved the first two X-Men movies. The mention of the third movie evokes responses from people ranging from “meh” to something akin to uttering choice four letter words on holy ground. I didn’t hate The Last Stand, nor did I hate Wolverine. But I sure as hell wouldn’t call them good movies. After Wolverine, it felt very much as though the franchise had simply run out of gas.
I am pleased to say that with First Class, I was very much mistaken. The first X-Men movie, helmed by Bryan Singer, never provided a clear genesis story, which this film most certainly does. As such, it has to take place in the early 1960s, which Director Matthew Vaughn uses to stylize this movie in a slick/sheik veneer of glitz that never feels tacky, just stylish. Vaughn, while not a veteran director, brought the wonderful Stardust to the megaplex a few years ago, and his gorgeous visual style is not diminished here.
The crux of the story, written by Vaughn, Jane Goldman (Stardust), and Zack Stentz and Ashley Miller (Thor, Fringe), from a story by Bryan Singer and Sheldon Turner, revolves around the complex relationship between Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy, and Erik Lehnsherr, played by Michael Fassbender, who later become archenemies Professor X and Magneto respectively. We meet a young Erik, forcibly separated from his parents in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, by a mysterious and sinister man played chillingly by Kevin Bacon. Twenty years later, Bacon’s Nazi torturer is known as Sebastian Shaw, what his real name may be is unknown. Shaw remains as unscrupulous and evil, willing to sacrifice anyone and everyone to achieve his ends.
At the same time a young Erik is being tortured to trigger his ability, in England, Charles, an overachieving child of a wealthy British family, encounters a woman who looks like his mother in the kitchen of his family’s large manor house. Charles’ psychic ability tips him off to the fact that whoever this person is, its most certainly not his mother. Her ploy called, the woman morphs back into the blue changeling we will later know as Mystiq, here known simply as Raven. A fast-friendship forms, Charles serving as the only friend or family the mutant girl has ever known.
We fast forward to the early 1960s, where most of the film takes place. John F. Kennedy is president. Tensions between the United States and the USSR are at the breaking point, as an event history calls “The Cuban Missile Crisis” begins to unfold. The Cold War is a perfect period in which to set an X-Men genesis story, as the doomed friendship between Charles and Erik echoes a great deal of the mentalities that created and sustained the Cold War.
When Erik and Charles become aware of each other, a friendship forms, growing stronger as time goes on. They devote themselves to locating others like themselves, assembling the disenfranchised mutants, plucking them from security and self-hatred. Arguably the heart of this movie is the voyage from self-loathing to self-acceptance among the mutants. Charles stands for the idea of harmony and unity between the mutants and mankind. Erik believes that the mutants will never be accepted by humanity, and they will always be enemies. This rift and struggle continue throughout the X-Men franchise, and this film puts it front and center, showing how it all began and how ideology irreparably fractured the relationship between two friends.
Without doubt, this movie works so well because of the relationship between the two leads. McAvoy and Fassbender have enough chemistry to blow up a lab. These two are talented, gifted actors, with many stellar performances in their young careers. I won’t pretend this film belongs in the same league as McAvoy’s turn in the incomparable Atonement, but make no mistake, this is a fine film and utterly enjoyable from start to finish.
The supporting cast are quite capable. The standouts include Nicolaus Hoult, from the superb British series Skins, Jennifer Lawrence, the “it” young actress of the moment from her jaw-dropping performance in Winter’s Bone, and Lucas Till.
The look and feel of the film are top notch. The direction sure and confident. The story unusually robust and tightly woven for the genre. A few winks and nods to the audience about things that will happen to these characters 40 years later provide nice humor, without becoming too meta or self-congratulatory.
I had expected to be entertained by X-Men: First Class, but I did not expect to so thoroughly enjoy it. It stands out as the freshest, best conceived and executed of the summer comic book flicks. It introduces us to the X-Men from the beginning, establishing relationships, history, and a concise explanation of the enduring conflicts of the X-Men universe. I particularly enjoyed the weaving in of mutant influence into the events of one of the most terrifying moments in history.
In all, X-Men: First Class successfully fused the very best elements of the comic book movie genre: larger-than-life conflicts, super powers, and effective allegory; while avoiding the traps that too many of these movies, including some released this summer, fall into, like clunky plotting, poor character development, and sacrificing the brains of the movie for special effects brawn. This film not only reinvigorates the franchise, but takes its place as the best of the X-Men movies.