Published on June 11th, 2012 | by PJ Montgomery0
X-Men: First Class – A Movie Flashback
It’s probably a fair bet to say that no one was expecting much from X-Men: First Class. After the crushing one-two punch of The Last Stand and Wolverine, X-Men films were far from a by-word for quality. Then there were rumours that First Class was going to ignore everything which had come before (or after, depending on how you look at it), and the disastrous promotional material released before the film came out. First Class was fighting a losing battle from the start.
It’s a battle the film ended up winning in style. Let’s get one thing clear right from the off though. X-Men: First Class is not as good as X2. It tries very hard, it’s a lot of fun and it tells a great story, with some great characters, but it’s not without its flaws. We’ll come back to those later. For now, let’s start at the start. Director Matthew Vaughan opens First Class with a shot for shot (mostly) recreation of the opening scene from X-Men, where a young Erik Lensherr (this time played by Son of Rambow’s Bill Milner) first uses his powers at a German concentration camp. It’s a brave move, to stage this scene again, but it also sends a message. Vaughan, and screenwriter Jane Goldman, are committed to this being firmly tied to the other X-Men movies. It’s not long before the film jumps to the early sixties, and we’re introduced to Michael Fassbender’s Erik Lensherr, and James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier.
It’s these two who are the real focus of the movie, and they are both absolutely brilliant. Fassbender plays Erik as a man obsessed with vengeance, hunting down as many former Nazis as he can, working his way towards a final confrontation with Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the man who killed his mother. Fassbender never lets you forget that Erik is a tortured individual, even during his lighter moments, and brings a real sense of power to the younger Magneto. Likewise, McAvoy is a wonderful Professor X. At first seen using his powers to help him hit on women, he transforms over the course of the film into the confident and authoritative man we all know and love. The friendship between the two men is also played perfectly. It’s utterly believable, and the chemistry between the two is present right from the off. It makes it all the more tragic when their friendship is, inevitably, ruined during a genuinely moving scene at the climax of the film. It’s easy to see these two men becoming the Ian Mckellan and Patrick Stewart versions of the characters we’re already familiar with, and they are a huge part of the films success. Even if Fassbender’s accent does occasionally wander into his natural Irish brogue.
With the main focus of the film being on Magneto and Xavier, not all of the supporting cast feel particularly well developed. Sure, Havok (Lucas Till) and Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) both get their moments to shine, and the actors are perfectly good in the parts, but we never really get a proper sense of who they are beyond the surface. Likewise, while Kevin Bacon’s deliciously villainous Sebastian Shaw gets a chance to shine, most of the rest of the Hellfire Club are merely grunting henchmen. Jason Flemyng as Azazel and Alex Gonzalez as Riptide are both fine in their roles, they just don’t get much to do. The only other bad guy of note here is January Jones as Emma Frost, and she’s just bad. It’s odd, as Jones is very good in her role as Betty Draper in Mad Men, but put her in anything else at all, and she suddenly seems to completely forget how to act. She’s not Halle-Berry-as-Storm bad, but she’s still pretty poor. It’s a shame for the character, as Frost deserves much better.
There are two more performances in First Class which need to be mentioned. First of all, Nicholas Hoult as the younger Hank McCoy. Hoult is perfect as the young genius trying to come to terms with what he is, playing Hank as a somewhat awkward scientist with a bestial side. And when the Beast does come out to play, he’s just as good. Like Fassbender and McAvoy, you completely believe that Hoult is destined to become the Kelsey Grammar version of Beast we saw in The Last Stand. And then, there’s Jennifer Lawrence. If you didn’t see Winter’s Bone (and a lot of people haven’t), then Lawrence is a revelation here as Mystique. There’s a reason she scored the lead role in a film as huge as The Hunger Games, and it’s the same reason they’ve changed the shooting schedule of the next First Class film just to accommodate her. She’s simply fantastic, making Mystique far more sympathetic and rounded than Rebecca Romijin managed in her previous films (though the Romijin cameo is a nice touch). Mystique is by far one of the stand out characters of First Class, and full credit for this has to go to Lawrence.
One of the things which really works about X-Men: First Class is the sixties setting. The film embraces this, with the sets, costumes and tone coming across more than once like a classic, sixties Bond film, in particular Magneto’s scenes at the beginning of the film. Anyone who doesn’t think Fassbender headlining Erik Lensherr: Nazi Hunter after watching this is an amazing idea, is a fool. The period setting is half the fun of the film, and make no mistake, First Class is a fun film. The training montage in the mansion is of particular note, as is the recruitment montage, in which Charles and Erik attempt to form their team (including a wonderful cameo from Hugh Jackman as Wolverine), and the climactic action sequence (set around the Cuban Missile Crisis) is simply astonishing, with Banshee and Angel (Zoe Isabella Kravitz) chasing each other through the skies above the ships while Beast and Havok take on Azazel, who teleports the trio from ship to ship. It’s a bravura set piece, and one which really makes the most of its wide, open setting.
So, yes, X-Men: First Class is an excellent film. Sure, the continuity with the other films doesn’t quite work. In The Last Stand, Moira McTaggert was the same Scottish doctor we knew from the comics. In First Class, she’s an American CIA agent played by Rose Byrne. The two just don’t match up. And the Emma Frost shown here is completely different to the Emma Frost we saw in Wolverine. And then, there’s the fact that The Last Stand showed us an older Xavier and Magneto going to invite Jean Grey to join their school, with Xavier still able to walk, which is completely contradicted by the events in First Class. But then, when you think about it, you realise that it’s really only The Last Stand and Wolverine which First Class doesn’t match up with, and we’d all like to forget those films anyway, right?
That’s not to say there’s nothing wrong with First Class. There’s some clunky dialogue here and there (whether it’s a script issue, or simply the delivery, is hard to pin down), some parts of the storyline make no sense at all (Hank develops a serum which he says will remove his physical mutation, but leave his abilities intact. How does that work when his abilities essentially ARE his physical mutation?), and bits of it feel like it was rushed to meet the required release date. The effects don’t always hold up either (in particular, Angel and Banshee’s flight chase, while great fun to watch, doesn’t really look natural for either actor). All of this goes a way to explaining why First Class can’t quite reach the highs of X2. Still, it’s definitely the second best X-Men movie to date, and I, for one, can’t wait to see more when the sequel is made. Ya know, once Jennifer Lawrence is done with the sequel to that small, indie feature she did. The one about playing games for food or something? I forget.
1. X2, 2. Captain America: The First Avenger, 3. X-Men: First Class 4. Thor, 5. Iron Man, 6. X-Men, 7. The Incredible Hulk, 8. Daredevil, 9. Iron Man 2, 10. X-Men: The Last Stand, 11. Ghost Rider, 12. X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 13. Elektra
Recommended Reading – X-Men: Children of the Atom
This mini series, written by Joe Casey with art from Steve Rude, Paul Smith and Esad Ribic, deals with Professor Xavier, with the aid of FBI agent Fred Duncan, finding and recruiting his original team of X-Men. We see Angel, already acting as a superhero, getting in over his head, Cyclops being forced to work for a criminal, Beast as a star highschool quarterback and Iceman as the shy school loner. Jean Grey does feature, but more as a bit player, which makes sense given she didn’t join the X-Men until X-Men #1, and of course, Magneto is an ever looming presence. The storylines for the characters are all things we knew about before, but this was the first time we had actually seen these events. Casey and his artists (especially Steve Rude on the first three issues) nicely evoke the tone and style of the X-Men comics from the sixties, without it feeling forced. It’s not the greatest X-Men story ever told, but if you’re looking for a good version of the team’s origins, then you could do a lot worse.
Next week, Hulk.