X-Men: First Class is the superhero movie I didn’t even know I’d been waiting for. A hybrid of prequel and reboot, it’s most successful in borrowing the elements that worked best from each of the previous X-Men films and consolidating them into one fluid story. Inspired casting, solid acting, a terrific script, impressive effects, and really great action: what more could you want in a superhero film?
In the recent pantheon of superhero movies – since Bryan Singer’s X-Men hit theaters in 2000 – I’d place First Class under The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, Iron Man, and possibly X2: X-Men United. Considering there have been over 40 superhero movies released since 2000, the high placement of First Class should obviously be taken as a testament to its superior quality. Director Matthew Vaughn not only infuses the film with an inspiring style desperately lacking since Singer turned the director’s chair over to Brett Ratner in 2006, but Vaughn also contributed to the script with his Kick-Ass co-writer Jane Goldman. (Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz, the duo behind Marvel’s most recent effort, Thor, co-wrote First Class as well.) Also impressive is Vaughn’s ability to jump from deconstructing superhero tropes in Kick-Ass to effectively utilizing them here in First Class; more importantly, he handles both approaches with equal amounts of skill, able to slide around within the same genre from parody to a more traditional (yet still outstanding) entry.
The casting in First Class is stellar from top to bottom. James McAvoy is the perfect young Charles Xavier. Strong-willed and powerful, he’s easily imaginable as one day growing into Patrick Stewart’s iconic representation of the character. Michael Fassbender continues his slow rise to member of the Hollywood elite as Erik “Magneto” Lensherr, imbuing the character with an intensity and smoldering rage coupled with a willingness to keep an open mind…until his inevitable shift. That’s what’s awesome about this movie: they didn’t stretch out the character development over three films (ahem, Star Wars prequels). By the end of this movie, I was rearing to go for a sequel right then and there, and that’s a rare feeling for me in a big budget blockbuster franchise movie these days. Jennifer Lawrence is splendid as Mystique, pulling a complete 180 from the dirty noirish heroine of Winter’s Bone to the beautiful shape-shifter we see here. Even Kevin Bacon (what’s he doing here?!) was fun to watch, playing it relatively straight – after his Nazi intro – as the villainous Sebastian Shaw, hellbent on nuclear war and complete with a harebrained scheme involving mutant domination of the fallout.
The secondary cast members were also impressive, led by the wonderful Rose Byrne as CIA agent Moira MacTaggert. She’s an actress who’s basically been the real life Hollywood equivalent of Mystique lately, disappearing into vastly different roles in Get Him to the Greek, Bridesmaids, and now this. January Jones was the only weak link, although her stiff and lifeless acting was perhaps more apt here since she’s playing ice queen Emma Frost than in other roles she’s inhabited in her career. Don’t get me wrong, she looked spectacular – she’s just a terrible actress. The rest of the young mutant cast was fine, but not worth mentioning (aside from the technical point that Scott Summers’ brother Alex – aka Havok – is involved in this movie even though this makes no sense in the overall series timeline). One of the largest successes of this film is that Vaughn and his crew were able to assemble the best cast of military character actors ever committed to film. All these guys are in the same movie: Glenn Morshower, James Remar, Matt Craven, Ray Wise, Michael Ironside, Olek Krupa, and Rade Serbedzija.
The main triumph of First Class is the way the writers were able to fit the best elements of each film into one cohesive story. There are the uncertainty issues of growing into one’s powers featured in the first movie, Magneto is essentially a stand-in for Wolverine from X2 (the loner badass of the group), and there is a “cure for bizarre outward appearance” subplot featured heavily in X3 that arises between the smitten Beast and Mystique this time around. The seamless integration of these elements makes me wish Vaughn would have written and directed X-Men 3, but he left the project before Ratner ultimately got his hands on it. Some may argue that this movie makes too many references to what will eventually come in the series (Charles and Erik play chess! Cerebro is built! The Blackbird appears! Charles is paralyzed! Magneto’s helmet! Two famous cameos!), but I didn’t find these as distracting as they easily could have been. I think that’s the clearest sign that this is a really solid script – there are so many winking moments to the fans, but none of them get in the way of the film’s legitimately interesting plot, which invokes historical situations (here, the Cuban Missile Crisis) in a way that no other superhero movie outside of Watchmen has attempted.
X-Men: First Class is a fantastic example of how to breathe new life into a dying franchise, and I’m really hoping Vaughn and the rest of the cast can bring the same magic if they decide to make a direct sequel in the next few years. But even if they can’t recapture the same glory, we can be thankful they’ve already brought us one of the best superhero movies of the past decade. Until next time…