My big problem with the first three Marvel X-Men movies—indeed, with most comic book films in general—really comes down to the costumes. No, I’m not talking about fidelity or lack thereof to whatever threads the characters were supposed to wear in the comics. I’m talking about an issue of identity. In the first series of films, characters who had dimension and rich back story were reduced to visual icons, mostly defined by their suits, claws, capes and blue feathered skin. Ratner’s Last Stand was often akin to watching a Vegas floor show gone bad; these were less stories about people and more about dueling fx and sparring wardrobes. How else to explain that the star member of the team is a guy with hair like a bobcat and shish-kabob skewers popped out of his knuckles?
It is refreshing to report then that Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class actually attempts—and mostly succeeds—to tell a real story and create characters whose interest extends beyond their ability or hairstyle. First Class goes back into history to the 1960s and the Cold War, perched right on the brink of the Cuban Missile Crisis, to tell the stories of Charles Xavier (James Mcavoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender). In future days we will know them as Professor X, founder of Xavier Academy and forefather of the X-men, and Magneto, therebel who not only actively opposes mutant oppression but leads his own band ofsuper-powered youngsters against the humans. In First Class, the two men are freed up from that destiny and are seen meeting for the first time during an effort to stop the villainous Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a mutant who, we learn, can ingest nuclear power and fuel his own immortality on it. Not surprisingly, it is he and his mutants who have gone about ensuring those Russian missiles get installed in Cuba, and more importantly, fired.
What makes X-Men First Class so appealing is the way it gives a focus and presence to the concept of the mutants and their burgeoning place in mankind’s experience. Pushing backwards allows Vaughn to carve out an alternate universe where the fingerprints of this new race of people are all over our world. Then he folds in the existing Marvel cabal of characters, crafting a tale of super heroes interacting with historical events that puts to shame Matt Snyder’s limp take on Watchmen. By moving away from the stylistic hodgepodge of his own Kick Ass, Vaughn also manages to trump that film’s view of heroism sprung from life’s curve balls. He finds the human beings inside the mutants and makes their humanity the most charming thing in the entire film. Even the action takes a back seat to Charles, Erik and their dance of conflicting values.
There’s a specific attempt at realism in First Class that really pays off, and it starts with the casting. McAvoy plays Xavier as a charming and naive visionary whose big heart is often obscured by his inability to anticipate the darkness and discontent brewing in those around him. He sees it, warns against it, but never seems to take it seriously. For example, when his childhood friend Raven–she of the blue scales and shapechanging features–grows steadily more vexed by her status as ‘freak’ and the way her odd appearance affects her personal image of feminity, he has little to offer her beyond facile encouragement like ’you are a beautiful girl.’ With Erik, he’s got a whole othercan of worms, fighting against a lifetime of pain, bitterness and mistrust. McAvoy puts such a specific and grounded spin on Xavier that there’s no time at all to miss Patrick Stewart’s bald head or regal growl. He is this character at his most interesting and compelling.
Fassbender, who has been getting increasingly better with each passing role, does a hell of a job with Erik. Looking to avenge his mother’s death (which we see in an opening flashback that expands the first film’s prologue), grown-up Erik shows up on the scene hunting down war criminals in Argentina and exacting his brand of justice. This segment is terrifically exciting, mostly because Fassbender has involved us in the character’s hurt and mission. Later, when he verbally spars with Charles over the fate of mutants in a human world, the audience is finally made to understand and sympathize with Magneto’s agenda. Those few changed notes that move him from villain to revolutionary are important ones.
Jennifer Lawrence, who turned in a great performance in Winter’s Bone, is both fetching and disarmingly poignant as Raven/Mystique. She’s grown up only knowing Charles as her port in a storm, so when Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) and her CIA affiliates begin ushering Xavier into their fold, Raven finds herself thrust in a scenario she never expected; meeting others of her kind, specifically men like the smart, caring Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and Erik, whose stubborn confidence in his identity as a mutant serves as instant attractor. Lawrence is the warm-hearted anchor between McAvoy and Fassbender, and her scenes with Hoult drive home the struggle between yearning for normalcy and embracing the exceptional, a facet that the Rogue/Iceman romance from the earlier pics failed to capture. Even her moments in the ridiculous makeup resonate with feeling; she’s not model hot like Rebecca Romijn but she’s got a soulful quality that makes Mystique more than an action figure.
The rest of the cast comes and goes in various arrangements around those central three performances. There are several new mutants to savor, including Bacon’s slimy and formidable Sebastian Shaw; the actor making him just sinister enough to work without coming off silly. Shaw’s lineup of baddies is alarmingly slight; many of them, including the demon-like Azazel, have very few lines and traits. Only the alluring January Jones, as Shaw’s no. 2 and X-men mainstay Emma Frost (she’s good later, we promise) registers at all; her soft curves giving way to a hard, diamond-like exterior when she needs to avoid psychic invasion. A visual parody of the 60′s concept of a frigid woman, that glittery facade is only trumped by Jones’ penchant for long moody stares and running around in period-appropriate lingerie. The young X-men are a quirky bunch; there’s red-headed Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) who amounts to a sonic-screaming human flying squirrel, lethally angry Havoc (Lucas Till), whose still learning to channel his version of his bro, Scott’s eye-focused death beam, and runners up, Angel (Zoe Kravitz), a former stripper with dragonfly wings, and Darwin(Edi Gathegi), a clearly expendable character who can adapt to whatever his environment dictates. Among the humans Rose Byrne does nice work as Moira, Oliver Platt brightens the day as a helpful operative, and Ray Wise and Michael Ironside roll through the scenery to add geek value.
The action scenes are serviceable and techincally well accomplished, punctuated by Henry Jackman’s lyrical and steady score, and visually defined by fx artist Jack Dystra. However, Vaughn never relies upon them to carry the film and this ends up as a postive and a negative. In the early going, there are no major set pieces, simply instances of action that drive the plot forward and take backseat to the characters. When the film is developing them as people acting according to their natures, this imbalance is effective. However, when Vaughn and his scriptwriters move towards that big showdown in Cuba, they start reigning in their work and pushing everyone back into ‘costume mode’. This means that when the action brief finale arrives, we aren’t as emotionally invested and the battles aren’t rich enough to stand on their own. Only one sequence has any visceral impact, and it’s a doozy; Erik, finally discovering the balance between his cherished memories and his inflamed anger, uses his abilities to lift Shaw’s submarine out of the water and carry it. The special effects aren’t jaw-dropping, but the way the scene is staged and acted is. Fassbender’s expression does the work of ten graphic artists in the way it sets this moment in stone, both for the character and the audience.
For a time, I expected the script to allow Erik and Charles the opportunity to explore the more craggy aspects of their relationship and ideologies, testing and ocassionallygrating against one another’s respective worldviews. But, alas, they both have images to uphold, and the clunky franchise references that have sat mostly at the edge of the film grow until we know, inevitably, the credits can’t roll until Xavier is in that wheelchair and Erik is wearing that helmet Shaw keeps lugging around. That quality, the stubborn insistence that the film must work like a checklist of necessary comic tie-ins, is what ultimately prevents it from being a great adventure and leaves it only a very good summer event pic. I wanted to see more of the comraderie suggested in the early going, wanted more edgy exploration of the mutant problem, and would have gladly watched more films focused on the slowly building rift between Prof X and Magneto. That, however, will never be because despite Vaughn’s alleged desire too set this film apart from the previous ones, First Class jumps through every necessary hoop to lock down the future of these people so they closely resemble the previous iterations. There is the potential for great stories wthin this partnership, but the movie doesn’t want to follow that instinct. Unfortunately, X-Men First Class is headed on a swift trajectory down that road of good intentions that leads to ‘The Last Stand.’