I had no interest in X-Men: First Class went it was first announced, nor did I have any intention to ever see it. I thoroughly despised X-Men 3: The Last Stand (2006) and was completely underwhelmed by its follow-up, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). I figured that after two major misfires in a row (at least as far as I was concerned—I know both films were at least financially successful), I would set this particular movie franchise on “Ignore” and just remember how much I enjoyed the first two installments. But after some coaxing from my father-in-law, who very much wanted to see it, and some positive advance word of mouth, I decided to take the plunge. And I’m glad I did.
X-Men: First Class goes a long way toward restoring the luster to the series that was lost when original director Bryan Singer departed following 2003’s X-Men 2: X-Men United. Singer is back with this film, as a producer (and he also gets a story credit), with the directorial duties being handled by Matthew Vaughn. While movies often hand out credits to people who really have nothing to do with them, it’s reasonable to assume that Singer actually had a hand in making this film, given its quality and how it connects to the first two films.
First Class shows how the young Charles Xavier (played previously by Patrick Stewart, now by James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (formerly Ian McKellen, now Michael Fassbender) met and became friends in 1962, and how, as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis, that friendship was torn asunder and they became arch enemies: Professor X, founder of the mutant super hero team the X-Men, and Magneto, hardcore mutant rights activist/terrorist leader. But before the dissolution of their alliance, Charles and Erik are united by a common enemy: Sebastian Shaw, the energy-absorbing leader of the Hellfire Club, played by Kevin Bacon, who doesn’t seem to really be stretching any acting muscles here, but nonetheless turns in an effective, fairly enjoyable performance. Shaw intends to take advantage of the rising tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and to set off a nuclear war that will ultimately leave him and mutantkind in charge of the world.
Along the way, there are side stories, as well. The blue-skinned shape-changer Mystique, played in the previous films by Rebecca Romijn and now by Jennifer Lawrence, has some great character stuff going on with the main male characters. Her long, complex past with Xavier is revealed here for the first time, and we see the genesis of her relationship with Magneto. There’s also some very strong character stuff between her and fellow mutant Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), a brilliant young scientist who is working to find a cure for mutants (and who was portrayed in X-Men 3: The Last Stand by none other than Kelsey Grammer).
There are also some wonderful in-jokes and special surprise nods to the previous films that most definitely qualify as spoilers, so I will say no more about them. Plus, it’s nice to see the return of some real substance and character development to the series, after the utter superficiality and brain-numbing video-game-level action and pyrotechnics we were subjected to in X-Men 3.
X-Men: First Class works well as a movie in its own right, and as a precursor to Singer’s X-Men films. But if you’re a comic-book purist, take note: Don’t even try to reconcile its continuity with what’s been established in the comics. This is its own separate entity, and has to be approached as such. Even the original films deviated wildly from the comic-book lore in key areas, and there’s more of that here. A LOT more. If you can accept that, I think you’ll really enjoy yourself.
For the most part, the cast is terrific, and you won’t really find yourself regretting the absence of the original cast. McAvoy is pretty much perfect as young Xavier, touching base with Patrick Stewart’s portrayal but adding his own spin as effectively as Robert DeNiro did when he played young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, or Ewan McGregor as young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels.
And as far as I’m concerned, Fassbender OWNS this movie. He is without a doubt the dominant figure and turns in probably the most powerful, touching, and committed performance. I would love to see Fassbender in another film showing Magneto’s early days and the growing antagonism between him and McAvoy’s Xavier—they have great chemistry together.
And I have to mention that Rose Byrne is great as CIA-agent-turned-Xavier-ally Moira MacTaggert.
The only real weak link in the cast is January Jones as Sebastian Shaw’s faithful companion, Emma Frost, a telepath who can turn her skin diamond-hard.
Jones is undeniably gorgeous, and she looks great in Emma’s trademark revealing outfits, but she just walks through the movie, delivering not one iota of an actual performance. If anything, she’s even colder and less emotive here than she is on the TV series Mad Men—and that’s really saying something. (I’m still shuddering from her truly disastrous guest-hosting gig on Saturday Night Live a year or so ago.)
With Bryan Singer back in the fold and helping to show once again how well an X-Men movie can be made, I think it’s time to give some serious thought to doing something unprecedented—reboot not the entire series, but one movie in particular: the aforementioned X-Men 3. Just redo it. Pretend that nothing was made after X-Men 2. Pick up where that one left off. Recast if necessary (and it probably would be), but just pick up from there and move forward. Tell the Phoenix Saga the way it deserves to be told. I know, I know—highly unlikely to happen.
Barring that, I’d be very happy with more from McAvoy and Fassbender.