Of all the Marvel comics universes that exist and, more importantly, that have experienced translations to the silver screen, it is that belonging to the X-Men which interests this movie fan most. The thematic undertones of acceptance and rejection of what one truly is, the struggle involved in helping the humans despite the latter group’s hatred of mutants, and of course the wonderful imagination that goes into thinking up all the mutant superpowers that each individual character is blessed with. There is a ton of fun to be had with these films, even though not all of them are equal in quality. After two unmistakable hits, X-Men and X2:X-Men United, these series went on a bit of a creative snag for a short while with X-Men: The Last Stand and X-MenOrigins: Wolverine (till this day the latter is a guilty pleasure of mine but never would I attempt to argue that it is a well made film). Now, acclaimed British director Mathew Vaughn tries his hand at the franchise with...what exactly is still not entirely clear. Is it a reboot or a prequel? We are talking comic book stories, which seem to do both all the time, so in the end it might not matter much.
The series now goes back in time a few decades to the early 60s, when the United States and Soviet Union were in the midst of a suspenseful and possibly mutually destructive arms race. It is made clear early in the film that the increase of the mutant population has as its source the advent of the nuclear age, but at this point in time, mutants are not as widely recognized as they were in the original trilogy. A young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Laurence) are intercepted by a CIA operative named Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) who requires Charles’ special powers in tracking down a wanted mutant criminal, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who is playing both the Americans and Soviets against each other. His goal is simple: to create a nuclear war that shall liquidate humanity forever and lead to a new age of mutants. Another mutant is on the prowl for Shaw. It is Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), whose past is connected with that of Shaw’s through the WWII concentration camps when he was a mere boy. Fate has it that Erik and Charles meet and form a team to stop Shaw, but each is doing so for vastly different reasons.
I recall the opening credits to Wolverine and how interesting it was to see mutants partake in major historical events. The contemporary fictional stories told in the original trilogy were very good, but I kept wondering what it would be like to have an X-Men film where the heroes and villains played a major role in a large scale, well documented event. X-Men: First Class operates on that exact level, offering a revisionist take on history in which mutants were not only the cause for the Cuban missile crisis, but also those who prevented a nuclear war from happening. It makes for some really interesting drama in that for this film’s interpretation of the Cuban Missile crisis, the event still carries the same weight as it did in real life, but is given a comic book spin. Shaw envisions human genocide and what better way to execute such an ideal than with the most powerful weapons in the world at the time? It was very enjoyable to see how Vaughn and the screenwriters would play with the facts. The fear heading in was that things would get too bogged down in details, rendering the overall story too slow in terms of pace and too heavy with regards to its tone. What the viewer is given is something that feels like it fits into history well enough and is brisk, the latter always an important aspect to comic book movies. The film demands a bit too much time in setting the story up though. The first 30-40 minutes had the author worried that we might be in for a bit of a slog, but once all the pieces are in place, the sense of adventure picks up nicely and never lets go. Case in point is the film’s climax, a truly impressive feast, both from a narrative and special effects standpoint. Kudos to Vaughn and his team for not dropping the ball, something a couple of their predecessors might not be forgiven for.
The film’s reliance on setting up the alternate history version of the Cuban Missile crisis could also have caused it to forsake proper characterizations of everyone involved, not to mention that First Class features tons upon tons of mutants, thus forcing the picture to perform a difficult juggling act. Understandably, not all of them earn major scores in terms of impact (the Hispanic chap who can control the wind was arguably the least impressive of the villains), and in some instances the film wants to make certain character actions and reactions feel more impressive and important than they really are (Angel’s decision to switch sides felt like a hollow move on the part of the filmmakers), but as for the main cast, most of the story runs rather smoothly. Of course, Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr take center stage. Both emerge as significant players in the story’s events, but each has come from vastly different backgrounds. Erik, as a young Jew, already witnessed the merciless brutality of man while in the concentration camps all those years ago, and his status as a mutant did not help once the war was over. Charles, on the other hand, is from a wealthy family, is well educated and, as an academic, has had the privilege of living and working among humans in relative tranquility. This is what makes their partnership so fascinating. Each wants to stop Sebastien Shaw, which is a fantastic goal, but the motivations are totally different. Charles knows deep in his mind and heart that co-existence with the humans can happen at some point in the future. For Erik, who has received enough pain already from the humans, the mission to quench his thirst for revenge before quenching another thirst: domination over the humans. Charles invests his best efforts into making Erik understand why he need not wage war on the humans and why bloodthirsty revenge is never the answer, and while Erik does appear to calm his sense from time to time, there is always a rage that lurks within. It makes for good drama, this despite the fact that anybody familiar with the X-Men universe and the previous films in the franchise should know how all of this will turn out.
When the casting announcements were made, many fans grew excited, and for good reason. Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan offered excellent performance as Professor X and Magneto respectively, thus putting a lot of pressure on the two new actors’ shoulders. Not only are the performances from both very good, but what impresses most of all is how they make the characters their own. Neither really ever impersonates or truly channels the attributes of the previous actors. Rather, they find new yet familiar identities to each character. This is, first and foremost, a testament to the rich dramatic tapestry that make up Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. It is reminiscent of the various interpretations the character of James Bond has experienced over the years. There is always enough there to fall back, but enough room is given to the actors for them to bring something to the table. Such is the case with Charles and Erik, and the actors playing them, McAvoy and Fassbender, do not disappoint. The former brings a sense of great, youthful charm to Xavier. He is witty and bold, but obviously the intellectual the viewers know him as. Fassbender’s task is maybe a bit more difficult, because he must portray an evil character before he ever becomes truly evil. There must be something about Erik that we can latch onto even though the audience knows that in a short time he will comes to blows with Charles and his X-Men. While the senses of great injustice done to the character of Erik works well enough, it is mostly Fassbender’s complex and powerful work that sheds this new light onto the mutant who eventually becomes known as Magneto.
The X-Men film franchise has come a long way. From its beginnings in 2000 when none of us really knew whether comic book inspired films could be any good, to this latest installment which plays the role of revisionist for history all the while embracing the fun to be had with such bizarre yet relatable characters. There are a few hiccups here and there, such as the dialogue, which is too ‘on the nose’ at times to the point of being cringe-inducing, but overall the series has taken a major step in the right direction.