Movie Review: X-Men: First Class
2011 is the summer of the superhero. Well, in the same way that the summer of 2010 was the summer of the superhero, and summer 2012 will almost certainly be the summer of the superhero. The point is, there are a number of superhero and comic-based properties coming to theaters this summer. DC is pushing Green Lantern, Marvel continues to build towards Avengers next summer with Thor and Captain America, and there’s no end to geek movies like Cowboys and Aliens and Transformers: The Dark of the Moon. X-Men: First Class has kind of been lost in all of this media blitz, which is a shame, because it’s probably the best X-Men movie yet, and one of the best movies of the summer.
First Class is a prequel to the X-Men film series of the early 2000s, detailing the first team of X-Men and the first meeting between Charles Xavier and Eric Lehnsherr, who would become Professor X and Magneto respectively. It is unrelated the X-Men: First Class comic miniseries which came out a couple years ago, and it bears little resemblance to the comic book origin of the X-Men. Here, the X-Men are gathered by a young, smooth-talking and lustrously-haired Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and a brooding, driven Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to prevent the Cuban Missile Crisis. Apparently the Cuban Missile Crisis has been engineered by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) as a way to wipe out the world’s superpowers and allow the newly emerging mutant race to rise up and rule the earth, with Shaw as their leader. Magneto has a personal grudge against Shaw, due to the fact that Shaw, a former Nazi, murdered his mother in front of him as a child, in an attempt to force him to demonstrate his mutant powers. Xavier and Magneto work with the CIA to gather a crew of mutants to fight Shaw’s Hellfire Club mutants, including his second in command, Emma Frost (January Jones).
It has a large cast of characters, but this is really the McAvoy/Fassbender show. Magneto is exactly the way he should be, full of rage and searching for a way to use it. Fassbender is a badass through and through, but he also manages to bring the introspection and humor the character needs. In contrast, McAvoy’s newly graduated Professor X has almost nothing in common on the surface with most portrayals of the character, especially Patrick Stewart’s. He’s a partying, philandering sixties guy, who despite his lofty ideals of acceptance, comes across as somewhat flawed and selfish at times. And that’s totally ok. What we’re seeing is Kid Xavier, who hasn’t yet seen the kinds of things which come to define his vision. McAvoy’s Xavier is the young Charles alluded to but not often seen in the comics, one who had a couple girlfriends and a lot of fun traveling around the world before settling down and bettering mankind. The two have a really good dynamic together, which allows them to make pretty lofty philosophical debates sound genuine.
The rest of the cast is fine. Sebastian Shaw’s Nazi background is more of a plot device than anything else, and the character we see in the opening scenes of the movie has little in common with Kevin Bacon’s sleazy club owner/megalomaniac villain of the rest of the film. January Jones does a great job of looking great in lingerie, and most of the X-Men, especially Mystique and Beast, come away with some good character bits. They could’ve done more with Moira MacTaggert, Charles’ Scottish geneticist love interest from the comics who is inexplicably (and awesomely) a CIA agent here, but maybe they’re leaving that for one of the many sequels they’ve proposed.
The most interesting part of First Class is that it’s a new story, one that hasn’t been seen in any medium. The problem with a lot of comic book movies and TV series is that they almost always start from the very beginning. We see a hundred different versions of Peter Parker being bitten by the spider or Bruce Wayne’s parents being gunned down, but there’s never a movie of The Death of Superman or Batman: No Man’s Land. The fact that this has to work in an established continuity means they story needs to be told in 1962 with characters who haven’t been shown as twentysomethings in 2006. It’s a What If? kind of story, and as a comics fan it’s nice to see ideas which haven’t already been executed, better, in a different medium.
That’s not to say the movie is without its flaws. David Brothers posted about the racial issues the film presents over on ComicsAlliance, and they’re not pretty. It’s not a dealbreaker, and it almost certainly wasn’t intentional, but the marginalization of black characters hurts the overall film. They also work through a lot of plot beats, especially for a movie trying to set up a new franchise. By the end of the movie, pretty much everything you expected has happened (to put it in as spoiler-free a way as possible). The movie works really well as a standalone piece, and the problem with doing sequels is that it would just be a series of films bending and twisting the world into the shape of the first X-Men film.
X-Men: First Class is probably not going to be anyone’s favorite superhero movie. But if you like X-Men, the Cold War, bromances, strong performances, January Jones in her unmentionables, or any combination thereof, you should check it out.
RATING: THREE STARS (OUT OF FOUR)