A Long Time Coming: A Review of X-Men: First Class

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Well gang, it looks like the fifth time’s the charm. And no, I am not talking about the fifth Fast and Furious movie, which really has no reason to exist. Eleven years ago, the success of Marvel and 20th Century Fox’s X-Men launched the rebirth of the comic book movie business, a genre in Hollywood that went MIA around the mid 90’s (I blame Batman and Robin… and Steel). While I never read the comics, the 1990’s X-Men Animated Series stands alone as one of the defining cornerstones of my childhood, and I was a ripe 12-years-old, fresh out of elementary school when the first movie hit theaters. Since then, the franchise has been everywhere from good (X-2 Mutant’s United) to bad (X-3 The Last Stand) to ugly (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), and while I’ll admit that I can enjoy even the weaker movies on a personal level, I can honestly say that X-Men: First Class is the first time the franchise has been truly something great.

Now THAT is an X-Men cast if I've ever seen one.

X-Men First Class, at its most basic level, is an origin story, and a really good one at that. It opens with an almost picture perfect reenactment of the prologue scene in Poland at the opening of the first movie eleven years ago. We then get a few more glimpses into Charles Xavier’s and Erik Lensherr’s childhoods, and the whole time I couldn’t help myself but think that their contrasting pasts were a well-placed metaphor to the pasts of… say Roosevelt and Hitler. Charles was raised in a very wealthy family, given all the necessities of a high-class society, allowing him to develop his gift of telepathy in a safe and confined environment where he could explore all avenues of how to use his gift to benefit society. Erik’s childhood, on the other hand, is brutal and oppressive. At the first sight of his gift in magnetism, Sebastian Shaw (under a hidden alias) exploits Erik’s vulnerability, enforcing the development of his ability by injecting rage and vengeance inside him.

The plot fast-forwards 18 years, with a young Mr. Xavier in the final preparations for his thesis on human mutation while young Mr. Lensherr is en route to his revenge on the monster that created him. Xavier’s research catches the eye of CIA agent Moria MacTaggert, currently investigating a possible threat instigated by the Hellfire Club, a mutant organization conveniently run by Shaw, the very man Lensherr is hunting down. The two track down Shaw at the same time, but Charles realizes they alone will not be enough to take the Hellfire Club down and stops Erik before he kills himself in his selfish haste for vengeance.

The wheels begin spinning as agent MacTaggert brings Charles, Erik, and Charles’ foster sister Raven (better known as the shape-shifter Mistique) to CIA’s “Dimension X” facility. There they meet with a young scientist, Hank McCoy (Beast), and they devise a plan to find others like them to build up their numbers in order to create a community of mutants.

From here, there’s a great big montage of cameos and references.

Oh, the references.

We see the first rendition of Cerebro, and with it, Charles and Erik seek out a culturally diverse group of young mutants to join them at Dimension X: Including “Angel” Salvadore (not to be confused with the other Angel from X-3) Armando Muñoz (Darwin), Alex Summers (Havok), and Sean Cassidy (Banshee).

A good portion of the middle act is invested in showing this group of young mutants introducing themselves, demonstrating their powers, and coming up with their own codenames. While Charles and Erik go to find answers as to what Shaw is planning, Shaw personally goes to their new recruits to take them for his own cause. The young group of mutants meet their first real threat far sooner than they were ever ready, so the training to focus their gifts begins.

For a film that has so many characters and plot threads, I was surprisingly pleased with how efficiently they all pulled together. The pacing is great, and the setting in the early 60’s during the Cuban Missile Crisis works fantastically,  quite appropriate as the very first X-Men comic first appeared in the aftermath of those events in 1963.

Also what’s awesome is the arrival of the original 1960’s X-Men uniforms, and they looked great. Even to this day I am reminded of that one line from the original X-Men

“What would you prefer? Yellow spandex?”

…and my young twelve-year-old self mentally screaming, YES!!! YES I WOULD!!!

This movie is awesome at introducing its new characters and making them interesting and likeable. By its end, I was officially a fan of both Havok and Banshee (two characters I knew very little about). I also was very impressed with Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as a younger Mystique.

This is with the complete exception of Emma Frost who is damn near perfect (performance, powers, looks, the whole package), but I wasn’t completely sold on all the Hellfire mutants. I actually remember the Hellfire club quite clearly from the cartoon (then known as The Inner Circle) and it seems the very colorful, very pompous British theme of them has been replaced with two tight-lipped cold-blooded thugs named Azazel and Riptide, whose powers are essentially knockoff versions of Nightcrawler and Storm (though technically, Azazel is suppose to be Nightcrawler’s father, so I’ll let that one slide). Sebastian Shaw himself, I don’t think his casting (Kevin Bacon) was the perfect choice. I would have much more preferred to see someone like Jason Isaacs in the part.

Then again...

As for our two leads, both their acting is fantastic. James McAvoy immediately grabbed me as the young Professor X, and became my personal favorite of the whole movie. He brought so much life to the character in a way I had never seen before. It was a beautiful thing to see a version of Xavier just beginning his dream for mutant awareness and acceptance, so full of energy and hope, if not all too naïve and overconfident (almost Tony Stark-ish), blissfully unaware just how insurmountably difficult his journey ahead will be.

Of course, there is also much to be said about Michael Fassbender’s performance as Magneto. Plainly put, he is badass. As we follow his tragic decent into what would eventually become his falling out with Charles and his ascension to the leader and founder of the Mutant Brotherhood, we are rooting for him the whole time because we fully understand his reasoning. It’s rare that we get to root for opposing factions at the same time, and while all us fans already know (or at least have a pretty good idea) exactly how this movie’s going to end, it’s still equally captivating and as powerful as ever.

I demand a whole movie with Magneto in this outfit.

I fully support director Mathew Vaughn in any further X-Men projects, because the guy clearly knows that he’s doing. Purists will always have something to complain about, but faithfully adapted or not, this is a good movie. Complex plot, compelling characters, plenty of awesome effects. In fact, this could be a monumental moment for the franchise. If this movie does well, X-Men may very well be on its way to becoming the new Batman. By that I mean a superhero movie franchise that Hollywood will repeatedly come back to over the decades and further explore different avenues for the franchise. Heaven knows there are plenty of ideas and material still to work with, yet here are a few of my final thoughts:

  • As much as we all loved to see Patrick Stuart and Ian McKellen play these iconic roles, I am all for letting McAvoy and Fassbender take the reigns as Professor X and Magneto and let them further explore their own versions of these characters
  • These period pieces seem to work well with the franchise. Don’t be afraid to further explore that and find other metaphors to history.
  • Please let there be at least one X-Men movie that plays a the theme-song from the animated series. Seriously, that music was so badass.
  • If I ever get to see Hugh Jackmen in Wolverine’s classic yellow and blue, a twelve-year-old dream of mine will officially be complete.

So with that, X-Men First Class, pretty awesome. Don’t miss it.

P.S. There is no P.S. after the credits for this one, so no need to wait when it’s over.

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