Opposing values create conflict. They can also create a powerful attraction.
This push-pull dynamic is what fuels “X-Men: First Class”, and makes it one of the best instalments to date. Unfortunately, the franchise’s heavy baggage limits this film to just being good, when it could’ve been great.
Originally, Twentieth Century Fox had planned to do a stand-alone origin movie for Magneto aka Erik Lehnsherr, the nefarious mutant with powers of magnetism. Then they realised his story was merely one half of a whole. Charles Xavier, the powerful telepath and destined founder of the X-Men, was the yin to Lehnsherr’s yang. Since a protagonist is only as interesting as his antagonist (and vice versa), the studio wisely decided to make their next X-Men movie a story about the both of them and the complex relationship between them. This is as much a story of nature versus nurture as it is about super-powered characters dazzling us with super-powered spectacle. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the real appeal of the film lies in its human drama.
“First Class” sets up its thematic intent right from the start. We see the formative years of Xavier and Lehnsherr, and how drastically different their life experiences are. One grows up in the lap of luxury, seeing only the rosy sides of life, while the other knows nothing but pain and suffering. Young Erik’s powers are directly tied to his traumatic childhood in a Nazi concentration camp. Now, in adulthood, Xavier has developed into a carefree, benevolent but somewhat naïve person, while Lehnsherr has become a bitter, empty vessel driven only by vigilante justice. They are both products of their respective environments.
When the two finally meet, there’s the distinct feel of the film’s narrative locking into place. As they give each other a sense of greater purpose beyond their personal agendas, the film finds its footing as a roundly compelling story. Xavier’s generic intentions to help mutantkind gains a proper focus, in trying to help Lehnsherr overcome his dark side. And Lehnsherr learns that there are greater needs out there above his own selfish desire for revenge. It’s interesting to witness how the two men’s completely differing worldviews and approaches actually end up complementing each other. These characters grow together thanks to a reciprocal influence, even if ultimately they begin to grow apart.
That eventual animosity is of course a given, since this a prequel of sorts. And here’s where the major part of that baggage I was referring to comes into play. What really weighs down “First Class” is its self-contained nature. Yeah, so we already know what happens to these best of friends. This doesn’t mean we’re in any hurry to see them part ways. The film certainly is. By the time the end credits roll, almost all the character and story arcs have been neatly wrapped up so they are consistent with the start of Bryan Singer’s “X-Men”. This goes for certain other mutants too, who change sides way too easily without any real set up or the slightest hint that they were heading in that direction. I found it cheap and lazy.
At least Lehnsherr’s turn has a believable progression. But it still feels like it happens one movie too early. I know the studio was hedging their bets, in case the film flopped at the box office. Regardless, they should have kept Lehnsherr on the side of the good guys in this one, with his friendship with Xavier frayed but intact… then only in the next movie does he betray Xavier’s noble, peaceful ideals. The emotional impact would be so much stronger. The tragedy of a broken friendship and the subsequent sense of loss would be more deeply felt.
As it is, I felt quite a fair bit for them. And that is all down to the masterful performances by Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy. Many critics have commented that when Daniel Craig gives up his stint as James Bond, Fassbender would be the perfect successor, and I couldn’t agree more. He spends the entire first act on a solo mission around the world, hunting down Nazis with a ruthless, hard bastard verve reminiscent of Sean Connery on his best days as 007. For lack of a more apt term, Fassbender has a screen presence that is absolutely magnetic. The nice thing is that he’s also a generous actor, and knows when to rein in his dark charisma so that his scenes with McAvoy have a natural ebb and flow of focus.
Which isn’t to suggest McAvoy was in any danger of being out-acted. His role simply isn’t as showy and doesn’t contain the big emotional beats that Fassbender’s has. The Scotsman brings a vibe of his own to the nascent Professor X, imbuing him with a mixture of armchair wisdom and the kind of casual snobbery that comes from having life handed to you on a silver platter. Yet, Xavier is still a likable character, because McAvoy is gifted enough of an actor to summon just the right amount of cheeky twinkle in his eye. Xavier truly enjoys being a mutant and helping others appreciate their mutant-ness. That enthusiasm is infectious.
In the supporting roles, we have a number of solid actors giving unremarkable but effective performances. Jennifer Lawrence isn’t called upon to deliver anything that earned her a Best Actress nomination at this year’s Oscars. She doesn’t need to. Her Raven Darkholme/Mystique is your stock-standard, identity crisis-afflicted young mutant. Lawrence smartly underplays the angst without making her character a bore. Her various romantic subplots are a little random though, not to mention half-baked. First, she’s Xavier’s lovelorn puppy, then she has a high-school crush on Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), and lastly an awkward attraction to Lehnsherr which feels like a tacked-on afterthought in service of franchise continuity. That’s another bit of baggage the film did not need.
Hoult fares a little better. Then again, his character isn’t tied down by any onscreen history, save for the forgettable Kelsey Grammar version in “X-Men 3: The Last Stand” (which this film ignores, design-wise). I liked his nervous, gawky quality. It’s a shame he is rendered so lifeless in his Beast form, no thanks to the heavy prosthetic make-up. Brit Director Matthew Vaughn, who was attached to 2006’s “X3” before dropping out due to its ridiculous deadline, ironically ended up with an even more punishing schedule here. In a production as rushed as this, it was inevitable that some compromises would occur. The lack of time to fully develop the make-up effects to a level where the actor would look good wearing it and could perform properly in it rears its ugly head (pun intended) with Beast, and to a lesser extent, Mystique.
On the other hand, January Jones is unhindered by much make-up (or clothing) and yet she manages to put in a horribly inert performance. Last I checked, Emma Frost wasn’t a village idiot, which how Jones comes off. Luckily, she’s a treat for the eyes, whether in big-boobied human or glittering diamond form. In fact, none of the villains have any discernible personality. They’re just there to give the X-Men enemies to fight. Except for Kevin Bacon, of course. All slimy, creepy menace, he is a delight as the big baddie Sebastian Shaw. He is so likably unlikable that you can find yourself thinking how cool it would be to join his Hellfire Club.
And what a groovy club it is. A sequence at the beginning sees CIA agents, led by Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) infiltrating a “gentlemen’s establishment” filled with lingerie-clad ladies and psychedelic decor. It recalls the anything-goes risqué fun of the early Hugh Hefner Playboy empire. The 1960s setting is perhaps the best idea the filmmakers could’ve ever come up with. It’s not just the costumes and sets either (though I totally dig the nod to Dr. Strangelove’s War Room). The real stroke of inspiration was to weave Marvel’s fictional universe with real-world history of the 60s. Apparently, evil mutants secretly manipulated politics between USA and Russia that would end with the humans obliterating themselves in World War III. By featuring the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis as part of the plot, it places the X-Men’s story in the context of our world. Just showing the mutants watching archival footage of President Kennedy addressing the crisis on TV creates the feeling that these could have been people who actually existed. There’s so much potential for further stories set in this alternate past. I hope the writing team on this film (Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman) will not again rush things in the next outing.
A lot has been said about acting and drama and story concepts, but what about the action? The super-powers? Well, frankly, they’re nothing you haven’t already gotten a good glimpse of in the trailers. They’re mostly fun to watch, and Vaughn shows a steady hand in depicting the fight scenes. The studio has been so anxious to sell the money shots, like the climactic naval showdown at the Bay Of Pigs, they undersold what actually makes “First Class” a superior superhero flick — the emotional investment we have in the main characters.
“First Class” is best taken as a stand-alone effort, apart from the rest of the franchise. In that sense, the film itself is a mutant, evolving naturally out of what had come before while simultaneously taking wild leaps into unknown territory. I respect Vaughn for trying to create a wholly original version in his own voice, but he couldn’t quite escape the obligations to honour existing canon.
Like Xavier and Magneto, this movie is conflicted. If not entirely successful, that’s at least what makes it unique.