I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… I love a good origin story… and X-Men: First Class is one humdinger of a tale! Although I’ve never picked up a single X-Men comic, I had watched the cartoon in the early nineties with a roommate who was a fan of the comic and informed me with as much backstory as is possible (this particular series has been running for decades with various reboots and redesigns) and enjoyed watching the first two X-Men films (the third left such a bad taste in my mouth I couldn’t bring myself to even see Wolverine), but never considered myself an “X-Men fan”… until now.
The film opens with a scene lifted almost frame by frame from the first Bryan Singer X-Men movie, that of a young Erik Lehnsherr, the future Magneto, in a World War II Nazi concentration camp discovering his power in a heart wrenching revelation. This film places all of this story against the backdrop of real life events giving a certain sheen of veracity to all of the fantastic things happening within this world. In this world, an evolution of sorts has occurred and there are some people who were born with mutations, giving them extraordinary powers unique to each individual. Erik has the ability to manipulate metal with his mind. In England, a young wealthy boy named Charles Xavier, the future Professor X with the ability to read minds and to place his thoughts into the minds of others, meets a young starving mutant who can shape shift at will, Raven… soon to become Mystique. You get the idea… we are introduced one by one to the characters who make up the current X-Men universe.
Jump forward to 1962 and a young dashing doctoral student, Charles (James McAvoy… who I shan’t mock as being Mr. Tumnus anymore) is found hanging out in pubs with his “younger sister” Raven hitting on women with cheesy lines that don’t seem to be working so well, which is another call back to the first film… his pick-up line is what is said by Patrick Stewart in the opening of the film (I took my 8 year old to see this last night… she flipped out and loved it, so we were watching the first film this morning and we both cracked up when we heard that particular line). The point though is that he is a brilliant genetics student who understands what he is and doing his best to inform others of the reality of what they, particularly himself, is. Not a freak per se, but a natural progression in what it is to be a human. Mutant and proud. A theme that will reverberate throughout.
At the same time we follow an older Erik (Michael Fassbender) as he hunts down the Nazi’s responsible for the source of his pain and anguish in life… Munich style. Here are some of my favorite scenes. Well paced and filled with tension. I was immediately reminded of Fassbender’s work in Inglourious Basterds and his ability to squeeze tension out of each frame. Every scene he appears in is that much better for it. How Charles and Erik meet, I will keep spoiler free… let’s just say Charles is spending some time with a CIA agent, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), and is in the process of recruiting other mutants with the help of a young and fur free Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult, the kid from About A Boy)… his story arc is stupendous. And it is not a spoiler to say that they, Charles and Erik, are friends at this point in time, that was the main thrust of the first film. And of course, is the point of this one.
Who are some of the mutants who appear? Obviously Professor X, Magneto, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, who I am extremely anticipating seeing in the up-coming film of The Hunger Games) and Beast… but we are also introduced to Sebastian Shaw, Kevin Bacon in a fiendishly wonderful character for him to chew some scenery with; Emma Frost, January Jones in a bit of a stiff performance as Shaw’s sexy right hand woman; Azazel; Havoc; Banshee; Angel, a hot stripper played by Zoe Kravitz, the daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet, and others, including one great cameo.
Other call backs to the first film and to the later known story lines involve Charles’ hair and future lack thereof, how he ends up in the wheelchair and a proto Cerebro. This film, however much it pays reverence to what came before it, is very much it’s own movie. The story is riveting, well paced as I mentioned before and most performances are spectacular. McAvoy and Fassbender work like gin and tonic together… a perfect pairing. Director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Kick-Ass) knows how to create a well crafted action movie. Rarely, if ever, dull… an interesting story that unfolds in revealing and organic ways… amazing cast choices and top rate performances that go with it, I mean, he managed to get an incredible performance out of Nick Cage in Kick-Ass… if he can do that, he is a god.
I don’t believe I will say anything more about the story itself… I believe watching it unfold is most of the fun. There are a number of wonderful scenes involving discovery of powers and teenagers being teenagers and some good laughs mixed in with the pseudo seriousness of what is going on. This may be a superhero story, but like all of the best ongoing series, whether they be comics, television or film, there is more often than not some commentary on something larger… in this case, the story is very much informed by that opening scene in Nazi Germany (actually Poland I believe). When there are people who are different, the majority will always marginalize those persons and sometimes, to horrible consequences. The arc of X-Men is ultimately an examination of that very human condition of riding that fine line between integration and ostracism. Do those of us who are different hide and try to integrate into society at large, or do we place pride in who we are above the expectations of that same society that would shun us? Do we try to educate the ignorant, or punish them for their ignorance? And for me, this is the heart of the franchise and why it has been as successful as it has, for as long as it has, and in so many media.
X-Men: First Class is an exceptional addition to the franchise and possibly my favorite thus far. Of all the various superhero franchise reboots and rejiggerings, this manages something difficult… it stands out. Very much rooted in the newly juggernaut-like Marvel Universe yet still very much it’s own brand. I cannot recommend this film enough for those of you interested in great summer movie and a great story. If superhero movies continue to have the quality output of late, I will have no choice but to stand tall and declare myself a superhero fan… in fact, I may just have to do so now.
Your superhero fanboy,
Cornelius J. Blahg