To say that X-Men: First Class is the best X-Men movie is slight praise. That’s not a particularly high bar. To say that it’s the best Marvel movie since Spider-Man 2 is a little better, but still lowballing. To say that it’s the best superhero film since The Dark Knight is nice, but it’s untrue. I liked X-Men: First Class more than The Dark Knight (we can save arguments over objective qualities for later). The best praise I can give X-Men: First Class is that it’s a wonderful movie, not just a wonderful X-Men movie or a wonderful Marvel movie or a wonderful superhero movie. It’s a damn good film, full stop, all other genres and ghetto-izations aside.
X-Men: First Class is a great pop adventure movie. It’s bright and fun, and it takes itself just seriously enough where it matters - which is with the characters. The script, credited to Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz and Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman, with story by Bryan Singer and Sheldon Turner, takes the characters and relationships seriously and makes them the driving center of the film. There’s a good, if a bit shaggy, story of international intrigue and globe-threatening villainy, but that’s the frame on which is hung a a bunch of great, engaging characters.
The film begins where the first X-Men movie did, with young Erik Lensherr being dragged away by Auschwitz prison guards and exhibiting his budding mastery of magnetism. But First Class keeps going from there, and we see how his powers drew the attention of a sinister camp scientist, played by Kevin Bacon, and how that scientist discovered the key to Erik’s ability is pain and anger.
Meanwhile, in America, we meet a young boy living in an enormous mansion. He discovers someone who seems to be his mother in the kitchen, but his psychic powers tell him she’s not what she seems. Charles Xavier meets a young, homeless and hungry shape changer named Raven and the two become fast friends.
That’s the first major change from canon, and it might be one of the best. The relationship between Charles and Raven is incredible and totally unexpected. They grow up to be James McAvoy, who is studying genetics at Oxford, and Jennifer Lawrence, who has tagged along and is waiting tables. They’re like brother and sister, but Raven feels something more for him - something Charles just can’t see. This is the basis for Raven’s eventual turn to a bad guy (although to be fair, this film doesn’t shade these characters so broadly as good or bad - we’ll talk more about that when we get to the relationship of Charles and Erik), but the movie plays it wonderfully subtly and quietly.
McAvoy completely reinvents Charles Xavier - and vastly improves him. His Charles spends his nights at pubs, hitting on pretty girls using a line of bullshit about mutations. He’s young, fun and full of enthusiasm. He’s an optimist, but not an unbearable Pollyanna. We see not just the young man but the seeds of the mentor and the father figure, and Charles automatically wants to help people, to make them better.
But there’s another side to him that McAvoy nails. He’s got blinders on, assuming that whatever he thinks is the right thing truly is the right thing. He casually outs other mutants, and he doesn’t understand the privilege his mutation grants him; unlike Raven he can walk through a crowd unnoticed. In retrospect it’s interesting that the X-Men were a bunch of good looking mutants while the Brotherhood had plenty of weirdos and deformed types; Vaughn’s movie jumps right into the heart of this, showing how Xavier never truly grasps the pain non-passing mutants feel.
Jennifer Lawrence, meanwhile, is stunning. She gives Raven’s story so much nuance that would otherwise be lost, pitching her pain at just the right level and keeping it usually slightly underneath an exterior of bravado and sarcasm. Just as Raven hides her blue form at almost all times she keeps hidden her true feelings of insecurity; is it any wonder she ends up on Magneto’s team when Erik is the only person who ever tells her that her blue form is perfect and beautiful?
Good and evil are concepts too simple for these characters (although not for the film. The villain’s plan is cartoonishly evil, but it’s part of the fun). Erik isn’t evil. He’s angry. And understandably so, as the film immerses us in the horrors he’s experienced right at the start. And Michael Fassbender, playing the grown up Erik who criss crosses the globe like a mutant James Bond, picking off Nazi war criminals, understands that anger completely. And makes us understand it, allowing us to see how pain and rage are inextricably intertwined in Erik’s psyche.
What’s great is that the dichotomy between Magneto and Professor X isn’t good and evil but love and anger - not even hate, just consuming anger. These are the choices that the mutants see before them, the naive love of Xavier or the wounded anger of Magneto. A lot of lip service has been paid over the years to these two being Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, but every movie has made me think the people making the films believe Malcolm X to be an asshole. In Vaughn’s film the Malcolm X position is understandable, and can even be condoned.
Of course there is evil. Kevin Bacon’s Nazi character reappears in the film’s present day (1962) as Sebastian Shaw, the leader of a mysterious group called The Hellfire Club. It turns out that Shaw and his companions, fellow mutants Emma Frost and Riptide, are blackmailing world leaders into escalating Cold War tensions between the US and the USSR. His eventual goal: WWIII, which he believes will allow the mutants to dominate the Earth. They are, after all, the children of the atom.
Xavier, eager to prove that mutants can live with humans, volunteers to help police his own kind; eventually he meets up with Erik, who has been hunting Shaw, and together they begin working with other young mutants. It takes some time to get there, but who cares? Every step of the journey is a joy. Fassbender is awesome in his early Nazi-hunting scenes, and if that’s what X-Men Origins: Magneto was going to be about then I demand that they make that movie immediately. Matthew Vaughn has long said he wanted to do a James Bond film, and he gets that feel in these great scenes.
This movie is about Erik, Charles and Raven, so it should come as no surprise that the other X-Men are very much supporting characters. They all get nicely sketched out, though, with Hank McCoy, aka the Beast, getting the most time. There’s a delightful Silver Age quality to this movie’s version of The Beast in that he seems to spend all of his spare time inventing whatever the team is going to need in the next scene. Hank, played by Nicholas Hoult, comes squarely between Xavier and Magneto’s philosophies; I actually wish that the film had more room to diverge from canon because knowing that Hank would always be at Xavier’s side undercut some of the tension that comes from his arc.
Of course even in this arc there’s no way that Hank could truly end up with Magneto; he’s so ashamed of his oversized feet that he spends half the film trying to come up with a serum that will allow him to keep his abilities but look normal. He’s able to pass - just - but the film plays his eventual serum-induced transformation into a furry cat man as a punishment for his desire to be normal.
In Bryan Singer’s X-Men films the glumness was laid on thick. Being a mutant was a curse, it seemed, especially since the first film introduced us to the world of the X-Men through Rogue, whose powers are completely debilitating. While X-Men: First Class has Raven and Hank who want to be normal it’s mostly filled with characters who actively love their powers. Even Havok, who is afraid to use his power because he can’t control it, is ecstatic when Hank’s super science helps him harness his ability. One of my favorite scenes in the film has the young recruits hanging out together and showing off their powers for each other; to me this sums up the movie’s rambunctious energy and general sense of fun.
There are scattered action sequences throughout, but most of the bang is saved for the third act, when the Cuban Missile Crisis happens. This is the stuff you’ve seen in every trailer, and it’s good stuff, although it doesn’t rise to the level of greatness. The FX work in the movie tends towards the acceptable, but the action choreography is very nice. Vaughn juggles a number of battles in the climax, battles that range from big dogfights to teleporting fist fights to a personal, psychic struggle. These parallel action scenes don’t rewrite the book but they’re well staged and exciting and fun.
Again, fun. The movie’s not stupid, and it doesn’t short change the characters and it doesn’t rely on huge chunks of exposition (for a long film with a meandering plot First Class is really economical with its storytelling), but it’s still fun. It feels like a summer movie should feel - thrilling and big and entertaining as hell. I’m sure the budget wasn’t high, but the film has a sense of scope that makes the story feel large and important. The movie looks nice, with just enough cool 1960s ambiance to capture the Mad Men glamour. I might nitpick that the characters have anachronistic attitudes - I think teens in the early 60s would like to dress up in space age uniforms, but here they think the costumes look stupid (because of course modern audiences will think they’re silly and if the characters didn’t agree we would think the characters were square) - and that maybe a haircut or two is too long, but otherwise the period details feel like understated bits of seasoning.
If I have any serious complaint about the film it’s that the last fifteen minutes shoe horn in a bunch of developments in order to get the characters to the accepted status quo. I would have been perfectly happy waiting another film or two to see the Erik/Charles schism truly rupture, if only because McAvoy and Fassbender have incredible chemistry. There’s a sense at the end of First Class that nobody knows if they’ll make another story set in the time period, so they want to move all the characters into the positions they were in during the Singer years. Normally I’m against movies hedging their bets, holding stuff back for sequels, but in this case I think there was still a lot of great ground to cover.
But even that serious complaint is minor. I love this movie, flaws and all. It’s a movie that proves you don’t have to be po-faced and grim to make a great superhero film. It’s a movie that proves that you don’t have to be stupid and have paper thin characters to make a fun summer movie. And it’s a movie that proves that the X-Men, in all their big, weird, science fiction glory truly work on screen. Imagine if Grant Morrison rewrote a classic Stan Lee/Jack Kirby X-Men story and had Chris Claremont come onboard to work on the characters; that’s what gets you closest to the amazing energy of X-Men: First Class.