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
**SPOILER ALERT! This review contains spoilers. Do not proceed if you don’t want know certain story details in advance**
A fantastic cast, unique period setting, and ambitious plot make “X-Men: First Class” not only a great X-Men film, but a great superhero film. But be warned, it may be too intense for younger fans.
In the 1960’s, Erik Lehnsherr (the future Magneto) is on a quest to hunt down the Nazis responsible for killing his family and torturing him in order to learn about his powers. Little does he realize that the lead Nazi scientist he is after is also a mutant himself using the name Sebastian Shaw. Shaw now leads a small group of mutants called the Hellfire Club and they are secretly manipulating the U.S. and the Soviet Union into nuclear warfare for their own sinister reasons.
Erik’s bloody pursuit of Shaw leads him to cross paths with the young Professor Xavier. Along with his adopted sister Raven Darkholme (the future Mystique), the two are trying to ease the world into accepting mutants by aiding humanity. Their first step in this direction is to aid the CIA in their pursuit of Shaw. While Erik and Charles radically differ in their views on humanity, they are united as brother mutants in this matter. In order to do this, they must assemble a team of young mutants just discovering their powers to do battle with the Hellfire Club. This group of rookie superheroes end up being the only thing standing between mankind and nuclear war.
“X-Men: First Class” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language.
I have to admit that though I am a huge fan of the X-Men movies and comics, “X-Men: First Class” was not really on my radar. Most of my attention was on “Thor” and “Captain America.” And the posters, images, and other advertisements didn’t get me that excited about it either. So imagine my surprise when I found this prequel/reboot to not only be quite good, but one of the better superhero movies ever made. I’d put it on par with “X2” as the best of the X-Men series.
Where to start? Well, let’s begin with the period setting of the film. It’s set in the 1960s, so the sets, costumes, cars, and speech are all quite unique. You hear Charles Xavier call a woman “groovy.” You see President Kennedy on the TV screens. You see Emma Frost in go-go boots. It gives the movie a look and feel unlike any other superhero movie. The period setting also gives “X-Men: First Class” a unique James Bond feel. You half expect Sean Connery to walk onto the set at any moment. We follow Erik Lehnsherr as a Nazi hunter and he’s every bit as dashing and lethal as James Bond. The only difference is that he uses his mutant powers rather than gadgets. It’s a fantastic take on the Magneto character.
The cast of “X-Men: First Class” is phenomenal across the board. James McAvoy is perfect as Professor Charles Xavier. While his performance perfectly compliments Patrick Stewart’s from the previous movies, he stands well as a character on his own. He’s optimistic, friendly, and inspiring. He’s a perfect leader and it’s easy to see why the characters are drawn to him… even his enemies. Yet at the same time, we see him as a young man using his powers to hit on women, we see him chugging beer in a bar, and generally being human. It’s nice to see Professor X as a human being…er…mutant.
Jennifer Lawrence is also great as Raven Darkholme / Mystique. While she was pretty much eye candy in the previous X-Men movies, here her character is given a lot more depth. She takes the stereotypical story of a teenager conflicted about body image and ratchets it up a notch by throwing her mutant powers into the mix. It’s great to see her as a younger adopted sister of Charles Xavier. Their relationship becomes significantly more complex and you almost wish the other X-Men movies could be revisited so that Patrick Stewart and Rebecca Romijn could have some more scenes together. She also forms an intriguing romance with Hank McCoy that becomes a really engaging subplot for the story.
As already mentioned, Michael Fassbender is incredible as Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto. Ian McKellen was awesome as Magneto, but Fassbender gives us a cool new perspective on the character. His relationship with Charles Xavier is explored in greater depth here in a realistic way. You are quite sympathetic with his character and his motivations for revenge and his distrust of mankind. It’s also easy to see why mutants would be drawn to him as others are drawn to Xavier. We also get to see Magneto use his powers in unique and lethal ways. It’s actually quite shocking, even to audiences already dulled by movie violence.
While I’m making confessions in this review, I have to say that I didn’t understand the casting of Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw. He seemed like too recognizable a face. He didn’t seem malicious enough. I just didn’t see it. But after watching “X-Men: First Class” I have to say I was wrong. Bacon did a great job. We see two versions of the character. The first version is his Nazi scientist incarnation. Bacon delivers all of his lines in German in the eerie scene as he psychologically manipulates young Erik. And when he finally gets his to unleash his powers, he manically laughs. The movie compares him a lot to Dr. Frankenstein and it’s true. You half expect him to yell, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” as Erik unleashes his magnetic powers. Later in the film we see his other incarnation that of the leader of the Hellfire club. He’s smooth, chauvinistic, and manipulative. But every once in a while you see bits of the mad scientist break through. When Erik and Shaw have their inevitable final confrontation, it’s very satisfying and one of the more shocking and memorable moments of the film. It’s a great performance by Bacon.
The rest of the cast doesn’t get quite as much screen time as the other characters, but they all get moments to shine. I’m a big fan of Rose Byrne. I think she’s an incredibly versatile actress and she proves it again by going from “Bridesmaids” to “X-Men: First Class.” She represents the best humanity has to offer as Dr. Moira MacTaggert and there are some great hints at a romance between her and Professor X. Nicholas Hoult also stands out as Hank McCoy / Beast. As previously mentioned, he has a great romance with Mystique and his transformation scene into Beast is a very cool, werewolf-like, first person view that will amaze you. Lucas Till is also great as Alex Summers / Havok. He’s the kind of bad boy / jock of the group and the scenes where he attempts to master his powers add a lot of comic relief. The same can be said about Caleb Landry Jones as Sean Cassidy / Banshee. (I just wish they had kept his Irish origins in this movie.) Also look for small roles by Oliver Platt, Michael Ironside, and Ray Wise.
“X-Men: First Class” has a lot of Easter Eggs for X-Men fans. You get to see Magneto in his full comic book costume, red horns and all. You also get to see a couple of cameos by characters from earlier in the series, neither of which I want to ruin here. And if you’re well-read on the comics, you know that the devil-like Azazel played by Jason Flemyng has a lot more significant role in the X-Men universe than is revealed in this film.
What Didn’t Work:
As great as “X-Men: First Class” is, it does have a few problems. First of all, I wasn’t too impressed with the Beast makeup. It somehow didn’t look right, mainly with the hair, I suppose. On occasion when he’s in the Blackbird cockpit it looks good, but I half expected laughs when he first appeared on the screen.
I also wasn’t a big fan of the musical score by Henry Jackman. At times it sounded like something that would come off of a TV show, not a big, epic orchestral score like you’d expect. I also thought it would be more reflective of the ’60s, but I don’t think it was.
Finally, the previous X-Men movies were OK for kids under 10 to check out. “X-Men: First Class” is not, in my opinion. As Magneto tortures people, it gets quite graphic. He kills people in quite disturbing ways. I loved it as an adult, but my younger kids are not ready for it. There is also one f-bomb uttered by a character in a not-so-subtle way. No kid will miss it. So I think this movie is one where parents really need to heed the PG-13 rating. I’m kind of disappointed I can’t take my kids to it and thus give more money to Fox and Marvel. I think as an X-Men movie they should have been consistent in tone across all of the movies. It’s a shame that the films are kind of following the comics you can’t pick up many Marvel comic books these days and hand them to a young kid to read.
The Bottom Line:
“X-Men: First Class” is a great prequel to the X-Men movies and a great reboot of the series. I hope this movie performs well enough that they assemble this team to do more films set in this era. They have a lot to be proud of with this film. I’m just hoping one day we can see an X-Men crossover with the Avengers!