It’s only appropriate that Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men film be the first movie I review in this year’s edition of the Summer Movie Spectacular. After all, his suitably stylish entry into last summer’s cinematic festivities, Kick-Ass, was the first movie I ever reviewed for this blog. And while Kick-Ass still managed to be a decently fun movie, it was also an ultimately disappointing one, a minor letdown from a director who’d previously wowed me with his ability to bring deft style to an array genres, from slick mobster stories (Layer Cake) to fairytale fables (Stardust). He seemed like a perfect fit for the colourfully violent world of comic books, and indeed First Class is not his first brush with X-Men lore. FOX had initially chosen him to replace Bryan Singer for X3: The Last Stand — a project he chose to walk away from when he felt the studio was rushing production without a workable script. That ultimately proved to be a wise career move, as Brett Ratner’s X3 turned out to be an awful mess with an atrocious script. So while Vaughn was unable to bring the original X-Men film trilogy to a suitable close, he has done something even more difficult with X-Men: First Class — revitalized a sagging franchise by shifting it back to its beginnings.
There is an inherent problem with prequels, in that it’s nearly impossible to make the stories compelling. No matter what happens, the audience already knows how the story will end. While there are many problems with George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels (most of which are basic storytelling issues that go beyond prequel problems), the main one is that there is just a sense of boring inevitability to everything. Young characters will grow up to be the old ones we already know, and so many story elements just seem shoe-horned in to show contrived development showcasing how these people turn into who we’re familiar with. I won’t say that First Class doesn’t have these elements, because it certainly does, but where the Star Wars sequels dragged under Lucas’s uncaring malaise, Vaughn has made these familiar faces more compelling than ever.
Set in the 1960s, First Class puts the X-Men right at the center of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Think of it as mutant-powered James Bond film, as this is a globe-trotting adventure loaded with international espionage. The story tracks the roots of the Professor X/Magneto relationship that had been the backbone of the initial trilogy. Xavier is not the wheelchair-bound bald-headed sage we now know, but a young, charming idealist with real personality, and yes, flaws. Erik Lehnsherr does not yet go by Magneto, and his bitter vengeful streak has not yet cast its gaze on humanity as a whole, staying squarely focused on the Nazi monsters who made him what he is — specifically Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, in a deliciously evil turn). The two men meet by coincidence, and unite against a common enemy. By putting the focus on a friendship forged out of necessity and fueled by debate of conflicting intellectual ideals, First Class shows us a pair of men doomed to oppose each other, but in their encounters finds the most smartly satisfying moments the series has to offer. While their debates are fascinating, it helps that the words are spoken by excellent actors in James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively.
While McAvoy is very good as the noble professor, and it’s quite a treat to see him as a young drunk womanizing man of the ’60s, make no mistake: this is Fassbender’s movie. It’s set up to be his movie to steal — his scenes have the most dramatic punch, he has all the best lines and gets to take care of most of the Action-Hero business — but it’s a testament to his charm as an actor that he steals it so thoroughly. The opening act, which pretty much amounts to Erik Lehnsherr: Mutant Nazi-Hunter, is so incredibly awesome I’d gladly pay top dollar to see a prequel to this prequel consisting of nothing but Magneto killing Nazis. Fassbender previously turned heads as a Nazi hunter in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but this is a star-making performance. His accent slips occasionally into his native Irish inflection, but really, who cares. He has a charisma that you can’t take your eyes off every time he’s onscreen.
And while McAvoy and Fassbender are the key reasons the movie is as good as it is, they’re not alone in turning in fine performances. Jennifer Lawrence follows an Academy Award nominated performance in Winter’s Bone by taking over the Mystique role from Rebecca Romijn. She’s given a lot of stilted, cliche-riddled dialog to deliver (including many mournful wishes to be “*sigh* normal”), but surprisingly pulls it off convincingly. She plays most of her scenes off of Nicholas Hoult’s Hank McCoy/Beast, and the two have a wonderful chemistry together. Hoult is very good as the nerdishly awkward Hank, even if his eventual Beast make-up doesn’t look quite right. Even the most minor characters are played by recognizable character actors like Michael Ironside, James Remar, Oliver Platt and Ray Wise. Indeed there are very few faces in this film that aren’t familiar. Of the fresh faces who make up the young recruits to Xavier’s school however, only Caleb Landry Jones manages to make a lasting impression, even if his Banshee is never given much to do.
This is a problem of the film, and this series in general: once again there are too many mutants to properly develop, so it’s tough to care much or even understand their motivation when they make potentially major decisions. Of course I understand that in a film that’s already 2+ hours long that there’s only so much screentime to go around, but some members of Shaw’s team of evil mutants are so laughably under-developed they don’t speak a word of dialog, or even have names, serving only to provide a different power-set in action sequences (IMDb informs me that Tornado Man’s name is actually Riptide. Watching the film, there is literally no way of knowing this). Likewise, Zoe Kravitz’s Angel could be cut from the film entirely, and the story would lose little to nothing other than a short but fun scene in a strip club.
These aren’t the only problems (the flying fight in the finale is like watching a poorly staged production of Peter Pan; January Jones is a terrible actress cast only for her heaving bosom), but to get into them all would simply be nit-picking. By and large this is a tremendously entertaining summer movie that manages to not just be a great comic book movie, but a rock-solid film. What makes it great? It establishes the characters in a way that brings extra drama to the original films that wasn’t once there, because seeing where these people eventually end up hurts all the more knowing where they came from. If this is the kind of magic to be found by making a superhero period piece, I can’t wait to see what Marvel does with Captain America.