X-Men: First Class was released this weekend, an attempt to breathe life back into a franchise that had grown stale and lifeless. After the mediocre Wolverine movie, and the completely dreadful X3, many fans had started to wonder if there was anything left in the tank. At such a point the only real options are a reboot, the path Spider-Man is now taking, or a prequel. Considering that the Wolverine movie was already a prequel attempt to make up for X3, I went into this film without much hope for a good movie. Therefore it is a pleasure for me to admit that not only was this movie better than X3, but it is the best X-Men movie and on par with the better comic book films like Iron Man and the like. I’ve heard people say that it is as good or better than The Dark Knight, but I can’t agree with that. Nonetheless, it is a well-made, enjoyable film.
This entry into the franchise deals with Charles Xavier (Professor X) and his counterpart Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) in their earlier years. Although we see bits of their childhood in the ’40s, most of the action takes place in 1962 around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Before launching into this, I want to take a moment to point out the excellent portrayals of their characters by the two lead actors. James McAvoy, of such other works as Children of Dune and Wanted, played Charles Xavier as a very interesting and passionate character. Something of a cross between a young Martin Luther King Jr and Austin Powers, if that comparison isn’t too impossible to imagine. Michael Fassbender plays a strapping and charming Magneto, who is on a mission of vengeance. For those who might not remember, Magneto was a jew in Nazi Germany, and his family died in a concentration camp. Well, they sort of did, this movie expands on that in a way which explains why he is not just hunting Nazis, but one person in particular. Both of these actors could have carried the movie on their own, but they had an incredibly strong supporting cast that contributed superbly.
So this film mostly takes place in 1962 and focuses on Magneto’s quest for vengeance and the U.S government’s desire to stop a manipulative mutant mastermind named Sebastian Shaw from starting a nuclear war. Not surprisingly, he is also the man behind Magneto’s childhood tragedy, the reason Magneto is hunting him relentlessly. A daring CIA named Moira MacTaggert, played beautifully by the beautiful Rose Byrne, brings in Charles Xavier when she realizes there are people with mutant powers running around. Once he is brought into the picture, Xavier transforms from swinging grad student to passionate mutant messiah in a way that could have all too easily been cliché or forced. Thanks to McAvoy’s acting and the great cast supporting him, the transition flows well and it is not hard to accept at all.
As Xavier helps Moira chase down the bad guy Shaw, we also see Magneto homing in on him as well. The master of magnetism reaches him first, but Xavier and the others arrive shortly after and they start off as allies of convenience. This grows into a much stronger bond as Xavier and Magneto start tracking down mutants to recruit for their mission to stop Shaw, and unknowingly sow the seeds of the X-Men. They track down the ‘First Class’ and during this time we are treated to the funniest part of the movie featuring a very brief cameo by Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Most of the mutants they round up are second stringers from the comics, aside from Beast and Mystique, so they are unlikely to ring any bells for people who aren’t avid comic book fans. Despite that, or maybe because of it, they are very dynamic and believable characters. Again, the supporting cast is excellent, and all their subplots are enjoyable to watch unfold.
This film is tightly plotted, well written, and delivers everything the audience wants without purposely leaving unresolved sequel bait. Director Matthew Vaughn is accomplished, as one can see from his work on Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, and Stardust (check out my review archive under MySpace Reviews to see a review of Stardust). He does not let us down with this film either, maintaining his high standards and keeping excitement up throughout the film. He utilizes what could easily be very campy, but refrains from descending into cliché or flat characters and plots.
A review of this film would be wasted effort without calling out praise to some of the other fine actors and actresses who shined in this film as well. Jennifer Lawrence was vulnerable and vampish as Mystique, and her struggle to accept herself is inspiring and frightening at the same time. I couldn’t help but feel torn as Magneto influenced her. It was nice to see her overcome her self-loathing, but knowing what lay in her future made me wish it could have come from Xavier instead to keep her from going bad. Kevin Bacon played the big bad guy Sebastian Shaw, who was very much a great villain. The way he is Magneto’s most hated enemy, but ultimately so very similar in views and actions, was a great part of the film. January Jones played his right hand woman Emma Frost, known in comics as the White Queen. It was interesting to see January Jones, who is very much the ‘go to’ ’60s retro objet d’lust playing a ’60s retro version of the comic book character Emma Frost, who is also a literal objet d’lust being a drawing and wearing clothes that are…not slutty, but…yeah, slutty. Anyway, all the X-Men and the villain henchmen are excellent as well, we had Oliver Platt in a small but fun role as the CIA liaison for Xavier, and even others in smaller roles like Ray Wise, Don Creech, and Michael Ironside. All in all, a lot of great performances that drive the film.
So, bad things? I don’t want to be accused of drunken slobbering over Matthew Vaughn. I think I can find one or two things, but first I want to counter argue the main point I have seen other critics use. Some people say this film is too long. I absolutely hate when people watch a film, say it is good, and then say it was too long. My biggest gripe about Thor was that it was too short. Studios frequently make directors shorten their films, please critics stop giving them ammo to shorten more films in the future. Sure, we might shorten some of the rotten films, but we also hurt the good ones. I would rather quality control our films with ticket sales than a universal ban on lengthy pictures.
That being said, there are a few minor nitpicks with this movie. One was that because so much is going on, some of the X-Men that are introduced don’t really get a lot of time to shine. I mean they shine in the fights, but in terms of growth and development, not so much. This is really a much more minor point, because even the least developed characters in this movie are far better than anything in X3. So take it with a grain of salt. The only ‘real’ complaint would be that just as we’re starting to get to know and love the awesome buddy relationship between Xavier and Magneto, it is torn away by the plot and their future. Being a prequel, and being set in stone, we know that they end up enemies. However, seeing it happen in the same film where they meet is a bit jarring, in part because it feels a bit rushed, but also because they are just so great together I did not want to see it end. Now I do applaud movies that avoid sequel bait, and the new trend of having Nick Fury invite Captain Jack Sparrow into the Avengers, because of all the freaking post-credit sequences in every action franchise. This movie avoided that. There is nothing after the credits and when it ends, it really ends. A nice thing considering, but also sad because I wanted more.
So there you have it, X-Men: First Class was awesome and I highly recommend it. Even if you are not a huge comic book movie fan this is worth seeing. If you are then you have no excuse, go see it again or a third time. Tell your friends as well, drag them along. This movie needs to do better in the box office. If X3 was not the movie we needed, but was the movie we deserved (for being indiscriminate moviegoers that wasted money on X3); then X-Men: First Class is not the movie we deserve, but the movie we need to redeem the franchise. Go support this film, and maybe we’ll deserve more good movies in our future!