In the women's restroom after a screening of "X-Men: First Class," I overheard two women about my age discussing the movie and the relative merits of their favorite female "X-Men" characters like Storm, Rogue, and Jean Grey. There's a lot of love out there for this franchise, and it pains me that "First Class" is not going to attract the audience that it should, because FOX has bungled the marketing so badly. They have a solid summer comic-book film here that established fans will adore, and that should intrigue plenty of newcomers.
"X-Men" is a property that has always had a particularly keen sense of history, mirroring many of its major events on the civil rights movement. The comics continuity has also gone through several distinct eras and reboots of its own. This means that there is a lot of material that could never be fully utilized through sequels set in the current timeline of FOX's "X-Men" films, which are set in the modern day. So it makes more sense for "X-men" to have a prequel than most, because there are plenty interesting stories to be told from the characters' shared pasts, more than enough to sustain a full feature film or three.
We begin 1944, with young telepath Charles Xavier discovering a little blue girl in his kitchen, a shape-changer who calls herself Raven. He is delighted to discover another person with special gifts like himself, and resolves to help her. In 1962 we learn they have grown up together as brother and sister, and Charles (James McAvoy) has become an idealistic young professor while Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) remains conflicted about her identity and place in the world. Running parallel is the sad history of Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender). As a child, his ability to manipulate metal is discovered at a Nazi concentration camp by a sadistic officer named Schmidt, aka Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Thanks to him, Erik grows up into a grim vigilante by the 60s, bent on hunting down Nazis in hiding.
The two cross paths when Erik tracks Shaw to Florida, who is plotting to exploit the impending Cuban Missile Crisis to his own advantage. Charles is helping the CIA at the behest of a friendly young agent named Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), who has stumbled across the existence of mutants and brought them to the government's attention to help fight Shaw. Charles and Erik become friends, and begin recruiting and training their own team of young mutants, including Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Havok (Lucas Till), Banshee (Caleb Landry), Angel (Zoe Kravitz), and Darwin (Edi Gathegi). Their interactions with increasingly hostile humans and the escalating tensions of the times lead our heroes to debate on the best approach for mutantkind to engage with human society. Do they seek to cohabitate, or is war inevitable?
I have to give credit to "X-Men: First Class" for ambition. It is such an effective origin story for Professor X and Magneto, it could easily supplant the original "X-Men." Its revisionist version of American history offers plenty of interesting thematic parallels, and the various changes to the canon timeline are well-considered and effective. Director Matthew Vaughan also takes full advantage of the 60s setting to evoke the style and energy of action movies of the period, adding an additional level of nostalgic fun. There are several sequences that could have come straight out of the older James Bond movies. The use of Mondrian-esque split-screens echoing both comic book panels and "The Thomas Crown Affair" were a great touch.
What really sells the film, however, are the performances of Fassbender and McAvoy. They're both excellent, giving "First Class" vital depth and dimension by embodying its difficult central characters. Fassbender's Magneto is especially impressive, as both a merciless avenger and later as a conflicted ally to McAvoy's Professor X. The pair's emotional rapport and the clash between their opposing ideologies adds a sense of real weight and consequence to their actions, even if the plot often feels as though it's flying by the seat of its pants. The other actors have a few good moments apiece, but none really have the same opportunity to shine.
The movie is far from perfect. As with all ensembles of this size, there is simply no way to give each character the time and attention they need. Important female figures like Moira MacTaggert and Sebastian Shaw's telepath ally, the White Queen (January Jones), feel especially neglected. There are several plot holes and character inconsistencies that could have been resolved with a few more passes on the script. All the constant angst over the mutants' feelings of persecution gets awfully belabored, and the little winks and references to future events are enjoyable at first (so THAT's how Nightcrawler's parents met!), but become too many and too obvious by the end.
"First Class" was notorious for being rushed to meet its release date, and it shows. Even though the 60s production design is gorgeous, you can see where corners were being cut. Some of the effects are noticeably weak, especially more outlandish character transformations involving the White Queen and Beast. Other scenes are outstanding though, more than enough to compensate. However I can't I can't help wishing FOX had given Vaughn more time to get everything just right. From the deft use of cameos and all the little in-jokes and homages, he clearly knows what he's doing with the franchise.
I was pleasantly surprised by "X-Men: First Class." It is undeniably a summer genre title that is best appreciated by existing fans, but there's a good amount of substance here. The analogy between the mutant struggle and other historical conflicts may be pushed too hard at times, but the film achieves several unusually effective, thoughtful dramatic moments that I wasn't expecting. Now I find myself rooting for a sixth film to follow "First Class" that would continue in this direction, or for Matthew Vaughn to skip over to another corner of the "X-Men" universe and see what he can do there.
After "X-Men 3" and "Wolverine," I admit that I had forgotten how big and how interesting the "X-Men" universe is, and how much of it remains unexplored by filmmakers. "First Class" is a nice reminder of how much this series still has to offer, and what the right director can do to revive a faltering franchise.