Imagine if someone Nolan-ized X-Men. Ok, maybe we use the phrase “Nolan-ze” a little too often. But if Nolan ever did direct an X-Men film, it’d be something close to First Class. Whenever I was a kid I remember watching the Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films, and compared to bigger, more fantastical superhero movies I was accustomed to like Sam Raimi’s Spiderman series and even the pre-Nolan Batman films, they weren’t my favorite. In fact they bored me. Wolverine and Cyclops were the only characters that were “cool” enough to hold my interest, and a lot of the more serious elements like Professor X and Magneto’s rivalry and the Civil Rights subtext slipped right under my radar. I haven’t re-watched the original X-Men film all the way through in years, and with each repeated viewing of X2 I grow fonder of it. X3: The Last Stand, I myself being 14 at the time, was the first of the series I saw in theaters, and I remember loving it. Looking back now that movie has its problems, mainly due to Fox’s interfering nature throwing Brett Ratner on the project, but I stand by the fact that it’s a fun film, and at least more entertaining than 2009’s disappointing “Wolverine”. Somewhere in my room is that X3 poster that I need to dig up. In case you didn’t already know or are just now figuring out through my brief recap, the X-Men series has had it’s own troubled past. A tumultuous past that’s almost entirely redeemed by Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class”, which was produced and co-wrote by Bryan Singer himself. The film approaches the X-Men series with strong, loving reverence along with a very clear desire for a smart, stylistic, and emotion-charged restart of a series that was once in trouble of growing stale, but now feels just as fresh in a 5th film as it did 12 years ago. Wow, 12 years ago? Great job making me feel old, Bryan Singer… The film centers on the very beginning of the mutant conflict in 1962 (the year before the X-Men comics actually started in the real world) and the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union that eventually led into the Cuban Missile Crisis. However this just serves as a backdrop to the real story here, which includes Charles Xavier’s continuing research into the mutant genome including discovering new individuals with powers and the government’s involvement along with Erik Lensherr’s bloodthirsty hunt for Sebastian Shaw, the super-powered and slightly demented owner of the Hellfire Club that is out to recruit a few mutants of his own to start a third world war. That’s a very, very condensed version of this film’s sequence of events that you could condense down to a synopsis. There’s a whole lot going on in this movie, a lot of characters and a lot of material covered, the movie takes full advantage of its 2 1/2 hour run time. However I feel like I could spend just as much time talking about the commendable performances that we get to see because this movie exists. The X-Men series has always been outstanding with its casting decisions which included Singer’s excellent choice in having acting juggernauts (all pun intended) Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan define Professor X and Magneto, giving Hugh Jackman the chance to infamously portray Wolverine, and even the surprise in Kelsey Grammar’s awesome Beast from X3. Matthew Vaughn, while he’s not been in the film game nearly as long as some of these same actors, has made some great but more daring choices like attaching wild card Nicholas Cage to his 2010 movie Kick-Ass and helping Ellen Page become the huge star that she is today. It’s this marriage of casting divinity that’s going to be hard to forget in X-Men: First Class. As I said just a few sentences ago, the performances by Stewart and McKellan were what part of the reason the original trilogy was stood out so much, and were undoubtedly a big “sink or swim” element for the trilogy. As luck would have it, both James McAvoy as Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lensherr match the tone and most surprisingly the quality of the “original” portrayals, along with even exploring new, interesting facets of these comic legends. James McAvoy, portraying a mobile and much more naïve Charles, perfectly illustrates Charles’ immense wisdom while still giving it a touch of boyish arrogance underneath anything he says. Also, he does the thing any guy would do with telepathy, use it to pick up women. Michael Fassbender also really nails it as “pre-Magneto” Erik. He really pulls all of the emotional strings to give us a peek into Erik’s tormented mind that contains great intelligence, deep-seated hate, a lust for revenge, and what we’re told is an even stronger ability than Charles’. I’ll go ahead and say that seeing Erik take on the Magneto helmet by the end of the movie (it’s in the trailer, don’t act surprised) sent chills down my spine. Both actors convinced me of the vast emotion and turmoil within the characters but also the otherworldly power present there. It’s really astonishing that these actors have both crafted a remarkable portrayal of these mutant “brothers” but you can see that natural progression coming down the line that made them who they were in the original trilogy. Rose Byrne, who’s really been known just for her parts in comedies (Bridesmaids, last year’s Get Him to the Greek) does a surprisingly awesome job as the government agent McTaggert that’s there to escort the “First Class’s” efforts to stop Sebastian Shaw, portrayed magnificently by Kevin Bacon. I admittedly chuckled whenever I heard Bacon was cast in the film’s “main villain” role, but the guy pulls “fully despicable” off well, and does so in a surprisingly sincere and intimidating way. January Jones isn’t particularly amazing as Emma Frost, but she’s easy enough on the eyes most guys in my demographic won’t complain about her acting skills. Oliver Platt, Michael Ironside, and Nikolas Hoult all do considerably awesome jobs with the smaller parts they’re given (with the exception of Hoult as Beast of course), but it’s Hoult’s performance as Hank McCoy that rarely breaks out of the teenage movie stereotype but seems to want to go farther.
Whereas Vaughn’s 2010 “Kick-Ass” had a pretty profound color palette and visual sense, First Class does the same in a far subtler, but just as impressive way. The costumes at the end of the film that we see in all the trailers had a nice aesthetic that gave us just enough of a taste of the classic X-Men, and I’ll never be able to fully explain my love for Vaughn’s design of the Magneto helmet that is actually a critical crux to the story. Seeing Erik get that helmet by the end of the film (it’s in the trailer and it’s not a huge spoiler to say Magneto becomes Magneto) was really something to see, especially considering the setup to that moment in the seconds before. Of course the movie has a 60s vibe to it and while it’s never really as overbearing as a lesser-talented director would have made it, it lends itself to some great design choices in clothing, building architecture, and of course the classic cars. For the most part the visual effects looked fantastic in the movie as well as the action sequences; even if there were a few shots that didn’t look entirely impressive probably because the film was completed on a very tight schedule thanks to Fox not wanting to lose the X-Men rights. The action scenes range from your classic power vs. power chaos, the incredibly epic finale we see in the trailers, and to a far darker and more disturbing place especially when the film is delving into Magneto’s tormented past with a handful of scenes at the Nazi camp Erik discovered his powers. I can see where X-Men: First Class would be a huge risk for Fox. There’s no Wolverine, there’s no Patrick Stewart, heck, there’s literally no one in the official cast list that’s in the original trilogy. So it’s understandable that X-Men First Class covers such a HUGE RANGE of story here, and the fact that it does take a colossal, twisting story and just uses that to make it a stronger, more tremendous film with its story, that’s just fantastic. It’s almost dizzying to think about what all could be mentioned when rambling about the story Vaughn and Singer tell here. I mean you have all these concepts at work here like the ever-present X-Men theme of acceptance in a changing society, a strong tale of revenge that in the first few scenes of the film feels almost like a crossover of James Bond and Inglourious Basterds, a historical backdrop very reminiscent of Alan Moore/Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, an origin story of one of the greatest superhero teams ever, and most importantly of all to me, this tragic story of two patriarchal men with very different ideas of approaching the world slowly but surely falling in line against each other. Yeah, and all of this is told in two hours and 13 minutes. It’s a very streamlined flow of ideas that all make their way to the screen in their own sweet time, each one appealing to a different fan. I almost felt like the trailers for the film were a little misleading, considering 90% of those shots are in the last 40 minutes of the film. This is very much a spy thriller that just so happens to include superheroes, an idea I just can’t get enough of. Vaughn and Singer have such an eye for this series and an eye for making these characters believable that by the end when we reach this humongous ending where all these seemingly random story threads meet together, it’s one of the most ambitious and grand finales Marvel’s ever achieved.
There’s easily enough material here for 2 or 3 films in that the events of First Class could have been their own trilogy, but guessing that either Vaughn or Singer wasn’t sure they’d get a second run at this, they tell almost every single story they want to tell here while still not over-packing it. But still at the end of the movie we’re given a very ominous, almost cliffhanger conclusion with even a few story elements that could easily be explored. Once you’ve seen the film, you’ll know exactly the shot this film ends on, and just like me, you’ll be dying to see more. Once you’ve seen the film, you’ll know exactly the shot this film ends on, and just like me, you’ll be dying to see more. I could have easily spent another 2 or 3 hours in the theater watching more of the world Vaughn and Singer created, or rather, re-created. While this is such a loving tribute to the original trilogy and such a beautiful marriage of the old and the new that unifies the sensibilities and ideas of the originals while giving it the shot-in-the-arm revival it needed with this new spin and new world to explore, Singer’s script isn’t perfect per say. He does do an awesome job of connecting the films together here and giving you those “Ah ha!” moments where you realize how certain things came to be, but the way he writes some of those scenes felt a little on the nose. The whole sequence where Raven explains all the mutants names was hard to swallow, and there were a few times it was a bit insulting that the movie assumed we still didn’t realize what something was by writing it out a bit too obviously. That might sound obscure, but once you see the film you’ll know what I mean. The same goes for a few of the powers in the film, including one of the bad guy’s ability to throw tornadoes. In the midst of a thankfully more serious and morose world where this epic clash of brothers is going on, a mutant line is about to be drawn between good and evil, and World War 3 is looming, seeing the cheesiness of some of these powers felt a little out of place and goofy. Also, a lot of people I knew had a big problem with how this film fit into the others continuity-wise, but when this film that apparently “breaks the timeline” is better than the timeline, I don’t have a problem accepting this as just that director’s own vision of how it happened. I really wouldn’t have wanted to see this film changed in any way. Thankfully also with Singer partially at the helm there are a handful of amazing cameos and winks to the trilogy to keep the older fans in delight. X-Men: First Class is an extraordinary film, and I’d go as far to say that it’s the first superhero film this year to truly break the mold and almost transcend the genre. It’s as powerful as any drama I’ve seen in the past few years, it’s got the action scenes that never fail to impress, it’s hilarious in several spots, it has style just oozing out of its pores like a James Bond film, and for those of us that have loved X-Men forever, it’s really rewarding to see this work of love really come to the screen. It defies the odds to tell one of Marvel’s greatest stories, the birth of the rivalry between Charles and Erik, in a perfect way. I think this is Marvel’s best film they’ve done in the past couple of decades of bringing amazing comics to life, if not it’s definitely tied with Spiderman 2, finally Marvel has a Dark Knight they can boast about. Underneath all the beauty of this film and even the dark places it goes, you know how this movie ends, you just don’t know how or by what measures it’ll get there.
5 out of 5