They get a lot right and a lot wrong in X-Men: First Class, the fifth X-Men film in 11 years and the second Marvel Comics movie in 30 days.
It’s an interesting if stilted mishmash of fantastic set pieces, dull characters and inspired casting, all wrapped up in a Cold War setting that makes the movie seem more exciting than it really is and accented by a new villain who’s overshadowed by an older, more established one.
First Class takes place in the glorious 60′s, a period ripe for a story about Mutant Freedom (what better era to explore the concept than the one of Civil Rights and Communist paranoia?). Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is a college student studying mutations, and he, along with his best friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), are both mutants in hiding. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is, too, though he’s pursuing a much less noble – but more engaging – cause: vengeance for the death of his mother at the hands of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).
Let’s call out the good things first: McAvoy and Fassbender are a hell of a team. These two deserve their own movie, as their interactions provide the movie with most of its heart, soul and interesting moments. Xavier is a perfect foil for Lehnsherr – the former’s philosophy of feeling out a situation clashes with the latter’s urge to rush readily into danger to accomplish the goal that fuels all of his decisions. Everything from their costumes to their appearance matches up with their personalities: Erik, domineering with stocky shoulders and a solid build, contrasts Charles’ more lanky frame and methodical approach.
What makes Lehnsherr more than just the hulking broody guy with a chip on his shoulder is how absolutely damaged he is. His emotions are anything but normal, as the death of his mother – and his desire for vengeance – eats away at his soul.
It’s that inner turmoil that makes his conversations with Xavier such a pleasure to watch and listen to, and it’s Fassbender and McAvoy’s performances that fuel the movie. Whereas a third of First Class is somewhat of an origin story for these two Marvel behemoths, a picture that dealt solely with them would’ve been preferable. You can’t say enough about their embrace of their respective characters, and how much their on-screen chemistry raises First Class from bad to mediocre.
If it’s one thing director Matthew Vaughn – who previously helmed the so-so Kick-Ass – knows how to do, it’s handle dark material. X-Men: First Class features the same hard-hitting (some might say exploitative) opening as the original X-Men, as we see Lehnsherr hauled away from his mother in a Nazi concentration camp, just to see him drag numerous guards through the mud with his powers of metallic-attraction.
His pursuit for retribution leads him to do some pretty horrific things, including an agonizing tooth-extraction, and when he finally catches up to Sebastian Shaw, he does something so excruciatingly awful – and slow – that you’ll never look at a coin the same way again. A few other set pieces are ambitious if poorly executed (for a $160 million film, these special effects are kind of lame), though one scene involving some random booms becomes pretty effective once you realize that the sounds are countless bodies falling from the sky.
That intolerance-fueled 60′s setting should’ve been enough of a catalyst to relaunch the franchise, but Vaughn and the four (4!!) credited screenwriters seem only interested in the Spy vs. Spy aspect of the decade. It’s certainly an idea worth mining in a concept involving an ensemble of superheroes, but it isn’t enough to propel this prequel/reboot/whatever you want to call it forward. Embracing one aspect of the decade while forsaking several others smacks of laziness – or ignorance – and it’s pretty unfortunate because the opportunity was unquestionably there.
As it stands, there’s absolutely no tension – strange, considering nothing short of the total destruction of Earth is at stake – because we don’t really care about most of these characters. They’re young, and, for the most part, dull, given that their powers aren’t very interesting and their position in the X-Men Mutant Lexicon isn’t all that important. Raven and Hank are both blue and depressed because of it, Angel is a stripper who can’t stand people looking at her weird, and Sean Cassidy (Banshee), Adrmando Munoz (Darwin) and Alex Summers (Havoc) aren’t given much to do except train, die or scream. Emma Frost (January Jones, dull and buxom) parades around in a bra and panties for most of the movie, which is a good thing, considering she’s got little else to do except block Professor X’s thoughts and turn into a giant, fake-looking diamond
None of the skillful juggling between multiple character arcs and genuine emotions that worked so well in the 5 hours or so of X-Men and X-Men 2 exists here, where characters defect with reckless abandon from their friends of 20+ years with little to no regret. It’s worth mentioning that First Class isn’t as bad as X-Men: The Last Stand, whose singular destruction of everything X-Men/X2 director Bryan Singer (who had a producing role in this one) worked for was a slap in the face to an increasingly interesting franchise.
Where that third film was all action and no soul, First Class has good amounts of both, but it’s fueled by a choppy, at-times boring narrative. It isn’t really cohesive at all, as the obnoxiously rousing music leads us from point A to point B with shoddy transitioning and all the emotional subtlety of a nuclear bomb, leaving us to wonder what, if anything, can save this flagging franchise from a continuously downhill trod.
The answer is clearly Fassbender and McAvoy, though they can’t make the rest of this mediocrity more than a polished, noisy, flawed B-movie. When Lehnsherr, fresh from his celebratory execution of Shaw, sees scores of ships firing missiles at him and his mutant compatriots, he has a quick back and forth with Xavier that demonstrates just how good their moments are. “Don’t” urges Xavier, “They’re just following orders.” At this Erik flinches, remembering that famous excuse from the Nazis who killed his mother, and replies “I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders – never again.” That raw emotion is absent from any of the other characters save Charles Xavier, and it makes First Class nothing more than second rate.
3 stars out of 5