Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Jason Flemyng, Alex Gonzalez, Nicholas Hoult, Lucas Till, Caleb Landry Jones, Edi Gathegi, Oliver Platt
There is no denying that we live in a golden age of comic book adaptations. Since 2008, there has been a constant stream of movies, TV shows and games which tap into those stories, and this is only growing as we see 4 or 5 big films a summer with our favourite heroes trying to one-up the last film.
Although the studios now know that almost anything they put on the big screen will make money, it does mean that the creative talent have to try to come up with different and unique ways of making their franchise standout.
In that sense, 2011 was an interesting year as it saw two films use a technique that, outside of The Rocketeer, we had not yet seen before; setting the story in an earlier time period. Both Captain America and X-Men: First Class used this trick to good effect, and with the theatrical release of Days of Future Past, quasi-sequel to the latter, shortly upon us I thought it would be a good idea to check out the retro mutants again to refresh my memory.
As a reminder, First Class shows us how the X-Men came to be formed by Professor X (McAvoy) and Magneto (Fassbender), and how those two mighty mutants first became friends, before they became enemies. Set during the 1960s, this all takes place at the same time mutant Sebastian Shaw (Bacon) and his Hellfire Club are trying to destroy humanity as he perceives mutants to be the next step in evolution, by using the Cuban missile crisis to his advantage.
The X-Universe is quite an interesting one when compared to other superhero properties. In almost every other hero iteration, we are given an origin story right at the very beginning. I mean, how else are we supposed to know why Peter Parker can climb walls, or Clark Kent can fly, if we aren’t given yet another version of their elaborate back story? *Yawn*
But oddly enough, even though there are tiny snippets for some of the characters revealed in the original X-Men, on the whole we are just given the story and expected to accept it. A refreshing approach, to be sure, however given the tendencies of Hollywood, it is perhaps surprising that it wasn’t until the fifth X-related movie that we get to see how the team was initially brought together.
When we do finally get that origin film though, I am happy to say it is a treat to behold.
Firstly, let’s examine the cast. Although this is an ensemble piece, it is fair to say there are four lead actors in James McAvoy (Charles “Professor X” Xavier), Michael Fassbender (Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven / Mystique) and Kevin Bacon (Sebastian Shaw).
Given the relationship between Charles and Erik, it is perhaps no surprise that the best performances here go to McAvoy and Fassbender. Both have shown over the years that they have the diversity to adapt to almost every role they are given, but whilst I was confident Fassbender was a great casting choice, I had no such faith in McAvoy.
I was worried that his youthful look, and usual charming demeanour, wouldn’t be a good fit for the leader of the X-Men, and that he lacked the gravitas so perfectly embodied by Patrick Stewart in the original trilogy. That said, the Xavier we see here is, quite possibly, filled with even more hope and faith than the older, slightly more cynical version, and this plays into McAvoy’s innocence. Not only this, but the Scot also steps up a gear with a level of confidence and leadership we have not seen from him before.
Unlike most people, I am not overly enamoured with J-Law as an actress, however here she does turn in a decent performance as the socially awkward shape shifter Mystique. Although a big part of the original trilogy, Mystique never really had much personality and was used more as a tool. Here, it is great to see one of my favourite characters actually given a bit of depth by the writers and the actress. I am not sure whether she is faithful to the comics, but I enjoyed watching her struggle to cope with her appearance and question her morality when faced with the choice of humanity and mutants.
Kevin Bacon is probably the weakest link of this quad, which is more down to the character choice than anything. Although Shaw’s power is fairly devastating (being able to absorb energy and then expel it), his human side is fairly generic. He wants to take over the world, thinks mutants are superior, yadda yadda yadda. Haven’t we done this already?! Ok, it gives Magneto the incentive to break away from Charles and go on his own path, but it doesn’t add anything new to the pot. Bacon does ok with what he is given, but never feels a credible threat, more of a stepping stone to bigger things.
The rest of the supporting cast is a bit of a mixed bag, ranging from the one-dimensional (January Jones) to the surprising (Caleb Landry Jones) to the downright weird (Hoult), but overall they are all serviceable as pawns allowing the movie to move forward at a decent pace.
What I found most impressive about First Class, both on the initial watch and subsequent rewatches, is how much story it managers to compress into its 130 minutes. As well as the main story of Shaw trying to destroy humanity, we see Magneto’s attempts at getting revenge on the Nazis, Xavier’s realisation that there are far more mutants out there than he believed, their interaction with the US government, the mutant recruitment and the training of the first class of X-Men (and women), together with a few other throw away sub-plots.
Any and all of these story threads could have been developed and made into a film alone in their own right, but they are compressed excellently by director Matthew Vaughn, without the feeling that they are being skimmed over.
Speaking of Vaughn, he again shows here that he is one of the best younger directors out there (if 43 qualifies as younger). First Class is only his fourth feature, and yet he manages to handle the various characters and stories with a deftness which belies his relative inexperience.
Going back to where we began, many new superhero franchises feel the need to place the story in the present day, regardless of when the comics were originally released. Here, the retro setting is used perfectly, as it allows the film to at least attempt to be cannon with the other movies, but isn’t played up to the point it becomes cheesy. It does a great job of feeling authentic as a period piece.
X-Men: First Class is a fine example of what can be done with this rich universe, and certainly takes away some of the bad taste left by the films that came immediately before it, The Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine. With Vaughn departing, and Bryan Singer returning to the X-director’s chair for the sequel, let’s hope we don’t look back at this film as the days of future passed.