Marvel and 20th Century Fox’s X-Men feature film franchise has suffered a few bumps in the road since Bryan Singer’s standout X2: X-Men United in 2003. Brett Ratner’s lackluster third film is one most of us can agree was not very good and while I didn’t mind X-Men Origins: Wolverine as much as others, I still can’t argue against those that found it to be a rather sloppy and an entirely unnecessary entry into a faltering franchise. Enter X-Men: First Class, something of a globe-trotting superhero feature akin to old school James Bond films with a focus on character, energy and overall entertainment rather than simply being “bigger”.
Taking us back to the start of the mutant storyline, the film begins in Poland 1944 where a young Erik Lensherr (Bill Milner) is separated from his mother at Auschwitz. As she’s taken from him, the pain wells inside, calling power he has no idea how to control as the metal gates bend inwards before he is knocked unconscious. Shortly thereafter we are introduced to Sebastian Shaw (played to absolute perfection by Kevin Bacon). Speaking in German, Shaw chides Erik into showing him the powers he possesses, but is unable to coax it out of him until he kills his mother, a move that unleashes Erik’s power as well as decides his future.
Flash forward 18 years and meet Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) a burgeoning geneticist and surprising playboy as he uses his knowledge and powers of telepathy to pick up ladies as well as find others like him. At his side is the familiar face of Mystique (played by Rebecca Romijn in previous installments) played here by Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and referred to as Raven.
Switching gears yet again we find ourselves as part of a stakeout as CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is spying on an Army colonel. What she ends up seeing sets this particular story in motion as Shaw is attempting to manipulate the U.S. government into starting World War III, a decision that will ultimately lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis, complete with archival footage of President Kennedy and a historical twist that makes this feel like something out of a comic book version of a Tom Clancy novel.
X-Men: First Class brings together many of the powerful, laws of physics defying mutants you’ve met in previous installments as well as a new “class” to give the scenery a bit of that fresh feeling. Particularly fun to watch was Jason Flemyng as a demon-like teleporter named Azazel and I really liked the dynamic between Lawrence’s Raven and Nicholas Hoult (A Single Man) as Hank McCoy (aka Beast). Though, this wasn’t much of a surprise, we’re talking about the three best talents among the supporting cast.
In the lead roles, McAvoy as Xavier, Michael Fassbender (Jane Eyre, Inglourious Basterds) as Lensherr and Bacon as Shaw are each perfectly suited for their characters’ demeanor and motivations. McAvoy’s eyes have that weathered and concerned look necessary as Xavier’s hope for peaceful mutant and human coexistence drives him. Fassbender’s ability to tap into the inner conflict Lensherr is dealing with culminates in a moment between him and McAvoy that will sell any doubter, even if it conjures memories of Yoda trying to get Luke Skywalker to raise his spaceship from the Dagobah marshes.
Finally, Kevin Bacon is pure villainy and not in that smarmy way we’ve necessarily come to see Bacon in the past, but in a whole new sense of cool, collected and confident. Our first introduction to Shaw, as he chats up a young Erik Lensherr, features Bacon speaking in German, a detail this film does not shy from as English is never the decided native tongue of each of its worldly characters. The timing on Bacon’s delivery is childishly menacing and a sign of things to come.
The film, however, isn’t without its issues. Outside of Lawrence and Hoult, I wasn’t particularly impressed with the rest of the young actors playing the group of mutants Xavier rounds up for his cause. Zoe Kravitz is particularly cringe-worthy as the winged mutant Angel Salvadore — though her character’s stripper introduction is perfect — and on Shaw’s side I’m beginning to think we’ve seen the best January Jones (“Mad Men”, Unknown) has to offer as her performance here is more about stripping down to her underwear rather than actually acting. Alternatively, there are a couple of cameo appearances and two words from a familiar face that should have X-fans cheering.
There is also a bit of an issue with the film’s frenzied pace. As you may have been able to tell in my opening introduction to the story, this film rarely stops for a breather and when it does, such as the training montage, it’s like pulling hard on the E-brake. It’s as if the script finally called for a bit of needless character exposition so the film takes a short rest stop to fulfill the requirement before getting back to business.
Where the film does score big points is in the way director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Layer Cake) embraces the story’s 1960s setting. Not only are we talking about props and set decoration, but the look of the film is unlike anything I can remember seeing from a modern day superhero movie. It’s stripped down about as much as it can possibly be, outside of the use of CG when necessary, giving it a grittier more filmic look rather than the pristine digital quality that tends to shine a film up beyond any sense of realism. The bouncy, almost retro TV score from Henry Jackman (Kick-Ass, Monsters vs Aliens) also adds to this feeling.
For what it’s worth, X-Men: First Class is a fun and enjoyable film with winks and nods that will benefit those familiar with the previous installments. It also continues to reinforce the positive message of the X-Men storyline, that of accepting people for who they are rather than categorizing them as anything but human, which I think is not only a solid moral message, but something that adds a point of entry for each character.
However, this film doesn’t really feel like it’s necessarily all that “new” as much as it feels like it was just sort of plopped down on the landscape. In franchise terms, it could very easily move to the first 2001 X-Men film without a hitch. This is good in terms of the film’s ability to create cohesion with its previous installments, but I’m not sure what it says about its sequel prospects. I’m sure they’ll introduce another storyline for a sequel, but at that point I truly hope they do go Bond style and simply introduce a new villain and, instead of Bond-like gadgetry, we simply get new mutants. Because at this point we’re far beyond character exposition and into territory where this needs to simply be a retro romp from decade-to-decade. They certainly have more than enough historical occurrences to tap into.