James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier
Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto
Jennifer Lawrence as Raven Darkholme / Mystique
Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw
Rose Byrne as Dr. Moira MacTaggert
January Jones as Emma Frost
Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy / Beast
Jason Flemyng as Azazel
Zoë Kravitz as Angel Salvadore
Lucas Till as Alex Summers / Havok
Morgan Lily as Young Raven Darkholme / Young Mystique
Oliver Platt as Man in Black
Edi Gathegi as Armando Muñoz / Darwin
Ray Wise as Secretary of State of the United States
Bill Milner as Young Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto
Caleb Landry Jones as Sean Cassidy / Banshee
Álex González as Janos Quested / Riptide
Demetri Goritsas as Levene
Laurence Belcher as Young Charles Xavier
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, two men from different backgrounds pool their resources to bring attention to the plight of those with genetic mutations, some that give them extraordinary powers, others that make them look different. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is an academic in genetic mutations, while Erik Lehnsherr (Mike Fassbender) is a Holocaust survivor bent on getting revenge against those responsible for his parents’ death in the concentration camps. In particular, he’s after Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) who years later has turned up as a wealthy power broker known as Sebastian Shaw, who has become involved with playing both sides of the conflict between the United States and the Soviets.
Fans of Bryan Singer’s work to bring Marvel’s not-so-merry mutants to the big screen should be thrilled by his return to the franchise, this time overseeing the prequel as a producer while allowing “Kick-Ass” director Matthew Vaughn to bring his own creative personality to the mix. Together, they’ve created a movie that fits well into the context of the other films without worrying so much about continuity, making for a satisfying prequel.
This is a true origin story showing how Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr first met and how they worked together until the formation of their divergent ideologies led them to create warring mutant factions. In his movies, Singer used mutants as an analogy for the persecution of homosexuals, but here they’re thrown into the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis and impending Space Race between the US and the Soviet Union with the government playing just as an important part as Charles tries to work with them to find and train mutants. There is a certain feel and language Singer created in the original “X-Men” in 2000 that helped set the standard for all the superhero movies that have come since then, and Vaughn thrives in the prequel’s 1962 setting to create something that incorporates influences ranging from James Bond to “Mad Men” to “Dr. Strangelove.”
The first half hour cuts between Charles and Erik each making their way in this world following their early epiphanies, Erik essentially turning into “Erik Lensherr: Nazi Hunter,” as his anger drives him to violence in order to find the man who killed his mother, while Charles focuses on his studies to become a professor of genetics.
Casting for any comic book movie is crucial and Vaughn could not have done much better than having James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender playing the roles made famous by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. There’s little question that the conflict between Professor X and Magneto is the core both of the comics and earlier movies, and the rapport between McAvoy and Fassbender is certainly on par. McAvoy brings a great deal of charm to the table showing younger Xavier to be more of the ladies’ man we’ve seen in the comics; Fassbender oozes a far more dangerous “bad boy” energy, as he turns to Charles to help control his anger-driven magnetic powers. The way this relationship is established and evolves over the course of “First Class” is absolutely perfect, and the thought of seeing Magneto when he was still young and vibrant plays a large part in what makes this such a strong reboot (of sorts). (It’s fun to watch Fassbender’s mastery of languages, but it’s unclear why a Polish Jewish immigrant would have a British accent… or an Irish one, as Fassbender’s own accent sometimes slips in.)
Another revelation in casting is Jennifer Lawrence as Raven Darkholme aka Mystique, Charles’ earliest mutant discovery and childhood friend who plays an enormous role in the division of the friends. Lawrence is a stronger actor than Rebecca Romijn, so we can actually see her transform from a fairly innocent teenager to the seductress she’ll later become. The fourth cog in the wheel is Nicholas Hoult as Dr. Hank McCoy, not quite in his blue and furry phase just yet, but he is already the group’s genius inventing things like early incarnations of Cerebro and the Blackbird. Hank adds an intriguing dynamic to the love triangle because Raven finds a kindred spirit in a mutant who must hide his mutation to be accepted. This subplot introduces the early vestiges of McCoy trying to find a cure for mutation, a brilliant tease for some of the comic storylines as well as the main plot of “The Last Stand.” The casting works well because you can truly believe these are the four characters that will go on to be the ones in Bryan Singer and Brett Ratner’s movies.
I wasn’t as thrilled by Kevin Bacon’s portrayal of Sebastian Shaw, maybe because other than his powers, he’s nothing like the character from the comics and more like a stock comic book villain. Likewise, January Jones gives a fairly lifeless performance as Emma Frost, though her deliberately cold delivery may be what’s necessary for the character. Jason Flemyng’s Azazel has cool teleportation powers that will appeal to fans of Nightcrawler – it’s not a coincidence but who knows if they can connect the two characters with what’s been established in this movie?
On the other hand, creating a connection between Shaw and Magneto by having the former being a Nazi from his past doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially once Shaw shows up with no accent and with mutant abilities that were nowhere to be found during his earlier scene. It makes you wonder why bother including the Hellfire Club in there at all, because here, they’re just another group of mutants with none of what makes the group so distinctive in the comics.
At times, the movie tends to drag, because it takes so long to get to the part most X-Men fans will be waiting to see, which is Charles and Erik joining forces to assemble and train the first team of young mutants. Due to decisions made in earlier films, the movie X-Men are already a mish-mash of characters and storylines from the comic books, and “First Class” follows suit, pulling together mutants from all fifty odd years of the books, some more esoteric than the others. The two mutants that will bring comic fans the most thrills are Lucas Till as Havok and Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee, and they offer some of the best moments in an extended montage showing them learning to hone and control their powers. The decision to include Darwin and Angel (the Grant Morrison one) are both odd choices, especially since they’re characters who don’t seem that necessary to the story.
Oddly missing is the international diversity of the group that was so prominent in comics. Banshee isn’t Irish, for instance, nor is Rose Byrne’s Moira McTaggert Scottish. In fact, she isn’t even a genetic scientist, instead being the CIA agent who first discovers the existence of mutants and becomes Charles’ government liaison. Byrne’s character thrives in the first section of the movie when it’s all about secret agents and “Mad Men”-like settings, but she is almost forgotten once Charles and Erik join forces.
Despite introducing so many characters, Vaughn somehow manages to keep the story tightly focused using a slightly conventional structure broken up into four distinct sections. In fact, it’s fairly impressive what he’s created in terms of the scope of this world and the scale of the set pieces considering the comparatively short production window. With FX designed by John Dykstra, who performed similar duties on “Star Wars” and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” they find cool ways of depicting the mutant powers with Emma Frost’s crystalline form being one of the few that just doesn’t look right. Even so, they do clever things to make what may seem like the more innocuous psychic powers of Frost and Charles Xavier interesting to make up for them not being as visual. Some of the practical make-up also looks a bit funky at times.
Placing the movie firmly in the early ’60s creates its own set of problems because none of the younger actors really look or act like kids of that era, instead bringing their own MTV-influenced teen angst to the movie. This is a fairly minor quibble, but it does show inconsistencies in Vaughn’s attempt at setting the story within a realistic historical context of the times, essentially building up to a reworking of the Bay of Pigs invasion to include a battle between the two groups of mutants.
The Bottom Line:
Fans of the comics may be confused by how disparate elements from the books have been tossed together, but fans of the movies should appreciate how Matthew Vaughn has established characters they love in a unique setting with a strong cast and set pieces just as big and impressive as the other movies. It may not quite reach the level of perfection of “X2,” but it does a far better job introducing the characters than Singer did in his first movie, and that alone is something worth commending.