Film Review: X-Men: First Class

June 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

When one hears the words “X-men,” a host of images and associations may scroll through their mind. For some, it’s the colorful comics that began back in the 60’s with Professor Charles Xavier and his gifted youngsters, others may remember the excellent cartoon adaptation of the same comics that ran in the mid 90’s; still others may think, with equal parts approval and vitriol, of the film series begun in 2000 by director Bryan Singer and continued by Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand) and Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). This summer, the X-series is getting a prequel/reboot make-over with Matthew Vaughan’s X-Men: First Class. With Singer involved as both a story creator and producer, First Class carves in excellent niche in the mythos begun while also allowing for a new direction moving forward, something the film series has needed since the bland, inconsistent Origins: Wolverine.

Beginning with the same opening scene as the original X-men, First Class wastes no time in introducing the figure of Erik Lehnsherr, who will come to be known as the villainous Magneto, as a small boy in a concentration camp. Erik, a young Jew, is also a “mutant,” a being who’s genes are the key to the next stage of human evolution and allow him, and those like him, to do extraordinary things. However, Erik’s ability to manipulate metal draws the attention of the sinister doctor in the camp, Sebastian Shaw (played with brilliant menace by Kevin Bacon), who has his own interests in young Erik’s future. Half a world away, young Charles Xavier, another budding mutant with the ability to read others’ minds, makes the acquaintance of Raven, an outcast whose mutation covers her natural skin in blue scales unless she is taking the appearance of someone else. Charles is fascinated by Raven, much like Shaw is of Erik, because of the growing emergence of mutants among the populace and she is adopted as his “sister.”

The film then flash-forwards into the early 1960’s, with Charles (James McAvoy) a young doctoral student working on mutation and Erik (Michael Fassbender, easily the star of the film) a Nazi hunter who is seeking the villainous Shaw for vengeance, being brought together by Agent Moira MacTaggert  to help stop Shaw and his cronies from igniting nuclear war between the United States and the U.S.S.R. Along the way, Charles and Erik recruit a number of young mutants to help them in their struggle and stop Armageddon from breaking out.  As disaster begins to draw nearer, it becomes clear that Erik and Charles, despite their close friendship and similar dream, are fast becoming ideologically opposed as to how mutants should integrate themselves into normal society. Caught between this feud are Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) whose mutations make fitting in much harder than the others.  As the team struggles with their external foe Shaw and the internal battle with themselves, it becomes clear that something must give before the world is destroyed.

X-Men: First Class succeeds where the most recent previous installments have failed, by creating well-rounded, flawed characters who are not above reproach or admiration. McAvoy and Fassbender create two of the best representations of human character in any comic book adaptation thus far, and their Professor X and Magento truly do echo Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.  Helping this is the film’s sixties setting which brings to mind James Bond and the Civil Rights movement, and Vaughn expertly captures that ethos. The younger cast is likewise full of interesting young actors who do a good job of creating realistic characters. It is really only the villains, save for Bacon and January Jones’ Emma Frost, who are bland and flat. We learn almost nothing about the others or their motivations for supporting Shaw, but the film is so smooth and slick, that it really doesn’t matter. Vaughn, no stranger to the comic book genre, having done 2010’s Kick-Ass, seems to recognize where the talent lies in his cast and does a great job with keeping the three best actors (McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence) onscreen for the majority of the film. If a sequel is produced, and the film like any good action picture leaves it open, it would be wise to create a set of villains as interesting as the heroes.

One of the questions that has been picking the brain of many an X-Man fan since the film’s announcement is: is this a prequel or a reboot of the franchise? The short answer is both. The film does fit into the mythos of (at least) the first two films that Singer directed in a rough fashion. Helping this is two surprise cameos that are sure to please fans of the film series. However, the film does deviate from certain points of the film’s histories and excludes The Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine entirely. While a tad frustrating, and partly due to the rights of certain characters being co-owned by Fox and Sony, First Class is definitely the best of the X-films and does a great job of pulling minor characters to the forefront and utilizing them as well as, if not better than, some of the bigger name characters like Wolverine, Cyclops, and Storm. First Class seems to herald a new direction for the X-Men onscreen and if it is any indication of what’s to come, it is a path that fans can get behind.

~

Steffen Kellen is a Junior literature major at Ave Maria University

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