The initial announcement that Fox would forgo a third X-Men sequel in favor of a Muppet Babies-like reboot wasn’t met with much enthusiasm. A rushed production schedule, a director coming off the divisive Kick-Ass, and some highly suspect early marketing images didn’t help matters any, but now that the movie is actually here it can be judged on the only thing that matters… the movie itself.
And goddamn is it great. Maybe even the best of the series…
X-Men: First Class opens with an almost shot-for-shot remake of X-Men’s opening scene… young Eric Lehnsherr is being hustled through a concentration camp in 1944, and after a brief display of his special gifts triggered by the loss of his mother he’s taken under the cruel wing of Nazi scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Elsewhere in Europe a pre-teen Charles Xavier has crossed paths with a blue-skinned mutant named Raven, and the two become like siblings.
Twenty years later Xavier (James McAvoy) is wooing the ladies with talk of “groovy mutations” while Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) cock-blocks out of unrequited love. Eric (Michael Fassbender) meanwhile is on a much more serious mission hunting down Nazis hiding in South America. The two join forces when they discover they have a common enemy in Shaw whose research into mutations has developed into powers of his own and a band of henchmen with deadly abilities. Eric and Xavier fall in with a CIA agent (Rose Byrne) who helps them form a group to recruit new mutants, combat Shaw, and hopefully help avert a recently heightened nuclear situation off the shores of Cuba. But while the two fast friends are fighting the same battle their journey towards becoming Dr. X and Magneto shows they may not be on the same side of the war.
Director Matthew Vaughn has crafted one hell of a movie and a shining example of what a summer blockbuster should be. Epic action shares the screen with characters who engage and entertain, and it does it all while balancing CGI spectacle, humor, and humanity. From an early set-piece above and below Shaw’s styling yacht to a mutant assault on a CIA compound to the hyper kinetic end battle at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis the film never lets go of the audience’s attention. Themes of friendship, loneliness, and acceptance are weaved throughout the exhilarating action scenes while never forgetting the core story of two friends at the bloody crossroads of idealism.
The film is just as filled with smaller moments that excite and entertain in equal measure. From a couple fantastic one-line cameos, to some humorous in-jokes, to a training montage that actually works, to an entire scene of Byrne spying in lingerie, the movie finds memorable ways to engage the viewer in the lulls between the action and drama. There’s even a magic trick of sorts with a coin that rivals the Joker’s pen trick from The Dark Knight.
But as fun as the action and effects are it’s the actors who breath life into these characters, new and old, and with the exception of poor January Jones they all do solid work. McAvoy is normally a competent but far from exciting actor, but he surprises here as a young man bursting with more than just knowledge and psychic ability. His Xavier is overflowing with enthusiasm and curiosity, and that joyful energy spreads to the audience as well as other characters. It also makes the film’s dramatic finale that much more powerful. Bacon is never boring and seems to excel whenever he plays a villain, and his sleazy Nazi scientist is no different.
While most of the actors are solid one performance stands out for its intensity, charisma, and raw dramatic power. Fassbender owns the role of Magneto and everything that goes with it. His rage at the men who made him into this monster is palpable, especially in a tense and exciting Argentinian pub scene, but he soon discovers a dichotomy within that tears across his face like a crack in the Earth’s surface. He finds his first true friend in Xavier, a man who understands his suffering in part due to a general empathy and a psychic look into Eric’s memories, but he also finds a fearful and untrustworthy human species unprepared to give up the evolution throne to their clearly superior mutants. Fassbender is so damn watchable and makes every scene he’s in an undeniable triumph.
There are issues to be found, but they’re mostly cosmetic in nature and easily forgiven in light of everything the movie gets right. While the effects look mostly stellar throughout there are a few shots that appear to have fallen victim to the short post-production window. On the writing side it’s worth pointing out that just about every non-mutant in the film is presented as a douche of one kind or another. The film has a large cast to satisfy, and clearly audiences are here for the mutants, but just about every “human” aside from Byrne’s character is a one-dimensional ass. That same large cast issue is also responsible for some of the mutants getting short-shrifted. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for bland characters like Havok or Riptide, but more scenes with the fast and brutal Azazel (an unrecognizable Jason Flemyng) wouldn’t hurt.
X-Men: First Class’ journey to the screen has been a bumpy one, and if expectations were reality this film would be a disaster right out of the gate. The fact that it’s not and instead is a spectacularly entertaining adventure is a testament to Vaughn, his cadre of screenwriters, and a group of actors willing to immerse themselves fully into their roles. It’s not only the best summer blockbuster and comic book film of the year so far, it’s also one of the finest superhero adaptations yet. It melds the outlandish with the real world in both subtle and grand ways, it introduces exciting new characters and reinvigorates some familiar ones, and it almost perfectly balances mutant spectacle with human drama. Best of all, it’s a world viewers will immediately want to revisit and explore further. Doesn’t get much groovier than that.
The Upside: Genuinely exciting; every scene starring Michael Fassbender; strong chemistry between Fassbender and James McAvoy; great balance between action, humor, and emotion; Kevin Bacon always makes for a wonderfully sleazy villain; best magic trick since The Dark Knight; brilliantly handled cameos; fantastic score
The Downside: The occasional bit of dodgy CGI work; some characters unavoidably get the short end of the screen-time stick; non-mutants painted broadly and negatively; franchise continuity issues may bother some viewers; January Jones is allowed to speak
On the Side: The film’s IMDB page ruins at least one of the cameos in the movie, so don’t go there until you’ve seen it.