Review: X-Men: First Class

It’s amazing to me that the first X-Men film came out over 10 years ago. It’s truly a landmark film, one that garnered both popular and critical acclaim, and really set off this current superhero/comic book movie trend. As a fan of the genre, it will always hold a special place in my heart. While that film may now feel a little dated or muted, considering our comic book movies have gotten bigger and brighter in the past 11 years, it is still a great introduction to the franchise and brimming with possibilities. X-Men: First Class echoes this sentiment, though the film has it’s share of problems.

While Wolverine is the most popular X-character, and the first film trilogy focuses on him, the most interesting relationship in those films is that of Professor Xavier and Magneto. Brought to life in the first three films by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, their friendship-turned-rivalry has always been a part of X-Men lore. I don’t think I’ve ever read the comic book telling of this relationship, so I was excited to see a film take on the backstory of these beloved characters. I think setting the film up to show their relationship was a fantastic idea, and was originally the purpose behind the proposed (and horribly titled) X-Men Origins: Magneto spinoff. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender do an amazing job with their performances, using Stewart and McKellan’s takes to inform, but not dominate their idea of the younger versions of these characters. During preproduction this was combined with an idea for a spinoff film focusing on the younger mutants.
Now I am not such a comic book fan hard charger that I am going to complain that this character lineup isn’t the “real” first class, because all of those characters have appeared in other films. The X-Men character pool is so deep that if you’re going to make one film, you’re not going to want to waste time with anything less than the most popular characters, right? I think they made some of the right choices, and picked characters old and new to form a great first class.
And this is what X-Men: First Class is: a mash-up of these two threads, with mixed results. I want to say that overall, I really enjoyed this film, and for a fifth movie in a franchise, it’s quite excellent (only Harry Potter and James Bond come to mind as having great fifth installments). As I mentioned, this is two movies rolled into one, and while I enjoyed both threads equally, the film suffers from having to focus on both.
The first thread, of course, is the Xavier-Magneto dynamic, and their quest to stop Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) from inciting a nuclear war between the US and USSR. Bacon is an inspired choice for Shaw, and thankfully the film leaves some of the weirder elements of the Hellfire Club in the pages of the comics. We see Xavier at college, using his knowledge of genetics and his psychic abilities to pick up coeds, and Magneto after Auschwitz, hunting down former Nazis.
The second thread involves Xavier and CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert recruiting and training the first young mutants, and helping them to master their powers and personalities. My favorite parts of the other films usually involve the student mutants, and this one is no exception. The recruitment and training montages are delightful, but left me wanting more. I also like this film’s take on mutant powers: There is no denying that powers are part of who you are, and some powers you need to learn to focus and control, and some just come naturally, and you must learn to accept either your physical looks or just your very nature.
Other notable things for me: I very much enjoyed Rose Byrne as MacTaggert, and Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, but Caleb Landry Jones steals every scene he’s in as Banshee. On the flipside, I really didn’t care for January Jones’ performance, which feels flat.
All of these things are wonderful in their own right, and Michael Vaugn’s direction is quite capable, though not as stylish as his work on Stardust or Kick-Ass. However, Everything in this film feels rushed, and here is where the character portrayals suffer. Xavier and Magneto go from strangers to friends to enemies in what feels like a couple hours, when a relationship of this depth should feel like years. There simply isn’t enough time in the film to set up where the characters end up.
Overall, I really enjoyed it, and it’s easily the most fun of the X-Men films to date. Were I to rank it, I’d put it about even with the first film, but behind X2, still the best entry in the series.
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