A dozen years ago super-hero movies seemed to be dead. Superman and Batman had each run four films, in both cases driving their franchises into the ground and exhausting whatever inspiration and goodwill they started out with. Stan Lee had been in Hollywood for the better part of two decades trying to get a movie made, any movie — Spider-Man, Daredevil, Captain America, you name it.
Then out of nowhere came Bryan Singer’s mutant ensemble movie X‑Men, and it changed everything. Well, perhaps not as much as it might have. X‑Men revitalized the super-hero movie and launch the current age of comic-book adaptations that, far from flagging, is still picking up steam. Yet few of the ongoing avalanche of Marvel and DC productions have been on a par with Singer’s sharp little film. The genre has become routine, and few entries offer any surprises.
Even prequels and reboots are becoming almost routine: Counting Mark Ruffalo in the upcoming Avengers film, there have been three different Bruce Banners in ten years, and other characters including Spider-Man, Superman and Daredevil are being or may be rebooted. Then there was X‑Men Origins: Wolverine, a tepid X‑Men prequel partly set, like X‑Men: First Class, in the later mid-20th century.
Yet, surprisingly, First Class, produced by Singer and directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) from a story co-written by Singer, isn’t more business as usual. First Class does what few franchise films do today: It takes risks, offers surprises. Consider Thor and the latest Pirates of the Caribbean: both competently pleasant films, and short enough not to wear out their welcome, but not a surprise between the two of them. First Class is comparatively long, but it feels satisfyingly complete rather than overstuffed. By the time it’s over, we know Charles Xavier, Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) and Mystique in particular as we’ve never known them before.
Casting is crucial, particularly for Professor X and Magneto. From the first scenes of X‑Men Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen effortlessly created a sense of an old kinship gone tragically awry. Happily, James McAvoy (The Conspirator; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and Michael Fassbender (Jane Eyre; Inglourious Basterds) are up to the task.
McAvoy not only commandingly fills the shoes Stewart was never allowed to stand in, he persuasively reveals unguessed youthful follies in the telepathic Xavier’s past — nothing as startling as Chris Pine’s headstrong, immature James T. Kirk in the new Star Trek, but in that direction — that nevertheless illuminate the Xavier we know from later continuity.
Even more surprisingly, the film reveals a touching history with the shape-shifter Mystique, or Raven Darkhölme, vulnerably played by Jennifer Lawrence (mesmerizing in last year’s Winter’s Bone). In this telling Raven becomes a kind of foster kid sister to Charles, though her feelings for him may go beyond that. From their youthful first meeting we see that Charles, a child of privilege, instinctively associates his privileges with responsibility, and naturally takes the initiative in helping others.
As effective as McAvoy is, it’s almost Fassbender’s film. The Irish-German actor gives a star-making performance as the metal-manipulating young man who will become Xavier’s great nemesis. Erik’s childhood, First Class reminds us by revisiting the concentration camp prologue to the original X‑Men film, was as different from Charles’s as could be. Yet when they come together, their relationship, though fractious, is at times genuinely touching.
First Class revisits that Nazi camp and reveals what happened afterward, putting Erik on a lifelong collision course with an evil mutant who may be as powerful as he is: Sebastian Shaw, played with gusto by a well-cast Kevin Bacon. A high-rolling playboy secretly bent on claiming the world for mutantkind, Shaw brings a Bond-villain flavor to the film, which, with its 1960s Cold War setting, international intrigue and spy-movie spectacle, owes quite a bit to Connery-era 007 films.
Of course the civil-rights subtext that’s always been there in X‑Men since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created them in the 1960s fits right in. (The gay-rights angle of Singer’s films also shows up in lines like “You didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell” and “Mutant and proud.”) Reimagining the Cuban missile crisis as a gambit in an evil-overlord scheme of conquest is an inspired bit of Bond-ishness that makes for a strong third act where origin stories since 1978’s Superman, and even the first X‑Men, have been wont to pace themselves for a sequel.
At times First Class owes a little too much to Bond, or perhaps it’s simply following the comic books in filling the halls of Shaw’s Hellfire Club with lingerie-clad exotic dancers. It definitely follows the comics too closely in putting Shaw’s associate, telepath and almost-literal ice queen Emma Frost (“Mad Men”’s January Jones), in gratuitous white lingerie. (Bizarrely extending the objectification of women into misogynistic territory, in a training sequence Xavier has a student use nude female mannequins for target practice.) Earlier films in the series understood that comic-book costumes don’t necessarily belong in live action, but First Class sticks closer to source, even giving Xavier’s team yellow and black flight suits echoing the original comic-book costumes.
The review is nearly over, yet I haven’t mentioned Rose Byrne and Oliver Platt as a pair of CIA agents (Byrne is Moira MacTaggart), Nicholas Hoult (Clash of the Titans) as Hank McCoy (played in X‑Men: The Last Stand by a wasted Kelsey Grammer), or a raft of other characters. Nor have I mentioned some of the missteps — some comic-book geeky (Mystique’s wardrobe, and later quasi-nudity, is a geek problem), others Hollywood cliché. (Killing off the token black man is a Hollywood cliché. Actually, after reading the character’s Wikipedia entry, I suspect we could see him again in a somewhat different form, but still.)
Despite missteps, X‑Men: First Class succeeds in doing in some measure for the X‑Men what J. J. Abrams did for Star Trek two years ago: Not only does it bring new energy to a tired franchise, it reinvents a familiar cast of characters in unexpected ways, laying the foundations for the defining relationships and conflicts of later chapters, while telling a ripping story into the bargain. That’s enough to make it a standout among recent action fare, and possibly the standout action film of the summer.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.