When I first heard that Fox was making another X-Men film I didn’t really get too excited about it. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the series up until this point (especially X2), but after the slightly disappointing Wolverine, time seemed to be right for a break in the series. My thought was do audiences really care to see another one of these films?? With my excitement level down and expectations low, I ventured to see this prequel over the weekend and I have to say that it really surprised me…on many levels. The idea of getting into the backstory of these humans with superhuman abilities was really the only route to go with more live action films. Yes, a Magneto film would have been cool and possibly even a Professor X stand alone film would be decent, but a prequel to answer many of the characters questions, was a nice direction to go in. First Class tries to pack a lot of information into a 2 hour plus film and it really succeeds in not spending too much time on characters that don’t require much of it.
Credit must be given to director Matthew Vaughn. The guy is really making a name for himself in the industry and this film should catapult him up a few notches. He did great things with 2010′s critical hit Kick-Ass and is currently prepping the sequel, Kick-Ass 2: Balls to the Wall (great title!!). Vaughn handles this material much better than I anticipated. From the opening sequence, the audience gets a taste for what they are in for. Lots of detailed information about the future X-Men class members is not necessary. Honestly, there are only a handful of characters that require heavy backstory – Magneto, Professor X, Wolverine, Jean Gray, and Storm. The other characters fit the role of filler for the multiple character films quite well. In First Class, Michael Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr (aka Magneto) gets more screen time than any other character and rightfully so. Since plans for the standalone Magneto film fell apart, it was nice to see how Erik once was as a hero and what fuels the anger that leads to him becoming Charles Xavier’s archenemy. Fassbender does quality work here and even more than James McAvoy as Charles Xavier, he fits what we know and expect from Magneto. His ability to show a range of emotions is the key to making the audience feel his pain when he loses his parents and feel his joy when he finally gets payback for it. I thouroughly enjoyed his performance and the way Magneto/Erik was written.
Now, onto the others. James McAvoy (probably best known for Wanted and Atonement) portrays Charles Xavier aka Professor X, with a certain charm that we haven’t seen thus far. Of course, Charles is much younger in this film and in one of the film’s funniest sequences, we get a glimpse of him using his powers to obtain of all things – women. McAvoy’s X is a man who really hasn’t had to use his powers for much more than ‘fun’ up until this point. When Charles is forced to turn of the serious, McAvoy does well with it. However, unlike Fassbender, who I could see as a young Ian McKellan, I had a difficult time seeing McAvoy becoming the Professor X we all know, portrayed by Patrick Stewart. It’s not really a big issue though as I enjoyed McAvoy’s performance. The other members of the first class are also well cast. The standout in the group is Jennifer Lawrence as Raven aka Mystique, who received great reviews for her performance in the drama Winter’s Bone and recently landed the much sought after lead in the upcoming Hunger Games series. Jennifer has a commanding screen prescence and truly is stunning to look at. Her Mystique is the best we’ve seen thus far. Nicholas Hoult also gives a solid performance as Hank McCoy aka Beast. Although his backstory is perhaps the least effective of the ones shown in this film, Hoult does well with what he is given. If I do have a couple of gripes about the film, it is with this character. I wanted more attention paid to Beast. It is the one character in the film that seems a bit underwritten and a bit forced – when I say forced, I mean as to how he becomes Beast. The reasoning is simple – but almost too simple, and not to mention out of a film filled with amazing effects and quality makeup, Beast looks a bit silly. Possibly due to the fact that he is in such a young body…but silly nonetheless.
Another performance I really enjoyed was that of Kevin Bacon’s. Bacon does the bad guy thing well (Hollow Man and Sleepers come to mind) and his Sebastian Shaw is a man that you hate from the very opening sequence. A mutant, Shaw possesses the ability to absorb kinetic energy and transform it into raw strength. He is the leader of the New York branch of the Hellfire Club, an exclusive secret society bent on world domination, although to the public, he is a legitimate businessman and ordinary human. Shaw is the force that propels Erik’s anger. He robbed Erik of his parents and in this sequence we see just how powerful Erik can be when his anger triggers it. Bacon is pure evil in this film and his Sebastian Shaw is a worthy advesary to the first class of superhuman mutants.
January Jones does fine as Emma Frost, as does Zoe Kravitz as Angel and Lucas Till as Havoc. The best parts of the film, for me, was the interaction between Charles and Eric. Their instant on-screen chemistry provides the drive and ammunition for the plot to carry itself forward. Both characters have differing ideologies and their constant clashes due to this aspect allow the script to be brought to life. Instead of simply infusing their relationship with formulaic violent clashes, Vaughn has instead opted for more articulated verbal battles between the two characters regarding their stance within the society they are now becoming a part of. Charles is an intellectual being who believes that humans will eventually be accepted within society as equals alongside humans, while Erik believes that mutants will always be hunted and unable to live peacefully side-by-side with the human race, his evidence for this resides in the anti-Semitism and hatred he received at the hands of the Nazi party during the holocaust. This heavy-set contradiction in ideologies allows their relationship to be imbued with pessimism, while they may be shown as friends and fighting together initially, fans of the comic books and films in general know this does eventually turn into a bitter rivalry and it’s this development which drives the plot forward.
Other highlights of the film include an appearance by Rebecca Romijn as an older Mystique and the funniest line, which is delivered, by Hugh Jackman – pre-Wolverine. He wants absolutely nothing to do with the assembling group of mutants and he let’s everyone know this with a firm statement. It’s a truly great, unexpected moment in the film. As mentioned before, the effects are top notch, and even though the film is more character/story driven rather than action heavy, the few sequences are incredibly well done. At the end of the day, this is a near perfect X-Men film and perhaps the best of the series. It’s neck and neck with X2: X-Men United. I highly recommend checking this out as it is one of the best surprises of the summer…not to mention, the year. Fans of the comics might cringe at some of the details that have been skewed a bit, but the average moviegoer who knows very little, or nothing about these details won’t be bothered at all. This One of the best superhero films…ever.