The X-Men film franchise was largely responsible for kick-starting the superhero movie resurgence of the 2000s. And with X-Men: Days of Future Past coming out this year, and X-Men: Apocalypse already announced, Sony’s ongoing adaptation of the popular Marvel Comics property isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Of course, it’s had its rocky moments. Neither X-Men: The Last Stand nor X-Men: Origins: Wolverine were particularly well-received.
So in 2011, a semi-reboot was released. Not a complete reboot, as for the most part it contradicts nothing major about the previous films. There are a few continuity glitches here and there, but nothing that would even rate a “blip” compared to the changes and evolutions in comic book storylines. But with The Last Stand bringing most of the story to a close, Sony chose to go back to the opening with X-Men: First Class, and to bring in director Matthew Vaughan to helm the film.
Somehow I’d never pictured Charles Xavier as a barfly.
The story is set in the 1960s, in the days leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis; in fact, a large part of the story is the Cuban Missile Crisis, with mutant villain Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) looking to cause nuclear war to eliminate the mundane humans before mutants are even known to the public. There may be a few flaws with the long-term viability of this plan — certainly nobody among Shaw’s followers seems to realize that only he, as an energy-absorber, has a power which would allow him to survive nuclear fallout — but these flaws can easily be forgiven in light of the dramatic tension that this element adds to the narrative. Meanwhile, there’s the fun of seeing Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) meet his friend and future foe Erik “Magneto” Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) and begin organizing his team of mutant heroes.
This is, as with the original three X-Men films, an ensemble film. Sebastian Shaw has a trio of mutants helping him out, and Charles and Erik assemble a half dozen of their own. And, as with some of the previous films, many of these characters are here simply to act as living props, showing off their powers but getting only a scintilla of character development or personality. The actors do well, but there isn’t much for them to work with aside from an occasional look of concern or excitement, and the inevitable changes of allegiance that take place do so without much in the way of explanation beyond the charisma of the leaders.
Those characters who do get more of an individual treatment allow for some of the actors to stand out, mostly for good. The veteran Kevin Bacon is easily the most entertaining actor on the screen, and makes for a villain who is clearly (to the audience) in the wrong, yet believable in how he gets others to follow him and accept his point of view. Similarly, McAvoy and Fassbender are both good at playing leaders of different sorts; the open and encouraging leader, and the stern would-be general. Fassbender does especially well, as Erik undergoes a greater character arc, starting off as a loner and gradually developing into the leadership role. Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy and especially Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique bring the emotional concerns of obvious mutants to the fore without wallowing in it quite as much as X-Men: The Last Stand did. The one negative performance that stands out is January Jones as Emma Frost; her performance is fairly stiff and rigid. This isn’t entirely her fault, as it’s not a very good character. Emma Frost in the comics can mostly be described as “acts imperious while wearing underwear”, and the scriptwriters didn’t bother to work any further in translating her to the big screen. There isn’t enough depth to the character for her imperious tone to have any counterpoint, so it’s left entirely on Jones to add nuance to it, which she does not do.
Could be worse. As far as I can tell, the writers didn’t even bother to give this villain a name.
Is First Class a fantastic film, best of the franchise? No. It has its flaws, primarily in characterization, and falls a bit short of the first X-Men and arguably the second as well. But it is a good film, and better than either of the other two films to precede it in the franchise. It’s a reasonably entertaining action film, with a few light laughs and provides a good spectacle. It leaves me with optimism for Days of Future Past.