I had seen X-Men: First Class once before. I was really tired and the disc was damaged so I couldn’t finish it properly until the next day. When I finished it, I felt like it was good. In fact, I thought it was really good. For whatever reason, I didn’t get quite as swept up in the fervor surrounding it that first go around.
Now that I’ve seen it again, this time properly and within the context of the franchise as a whole, I freaking loved it! I rescind my remark from my X2 review wherein I said I “have a hard time choosing between X2 and First Class when choosing which title is my favorite of the X-Men franchise.” After a second viewing of First Class, it is unequivocally my favorite movie of the franchise thus far.
Within the first 8 minutes of the movie’s 132 runtime, it was made abundantly clear that Professor X and Magneto were much more deserving of an origin movie than Wolverine. As powerful, volatile and entertaining as Wolverine is, he’s not a match for the fascinating study of Singer-quality social commentary and character growth that is the backbone of Matthew Vaughn‘s Cold War mutant spy tale.
Set in 1962, First Class shows the genesis of Charles Xavier’s friendship with Erik Lensherr and how they were destined to become what we see in the first movie. The movie accomplishes this with some retconning and a fresh spy game backdrop. Unlike X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the plot inconsistencies in First Class are forgivable as they serve to improve on the story being presented.
Kevin Bacon plays Sebastian Shaw, a man who created a monster of vengeance out of a young Erik Lensherr and is busy in 1962 instigating World War III. Meanwhile, a young Charles Xavier is recruited by CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) after she uncovers a mutant threat in collusion with the Russians.
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are phenomenal as Professor X and Magneto. McAvoy plays Xavier as such a likable guy who understands the implications of the mutant gene but has yet come to bear the responsibility he will soon inherit. He’s a complex character but it’s also very entertaining to see him chase coeds.
Magneto’s intensity is played perfectly by Fassbender. The character’s backstory is riddled with an extreme pain that Fassbender commands in every second of his performance. This is also the best display of Magneto’s power in the entire franchise. The emotional subtext behind every scene involving Magneto’s power is one of the highlights of the movie.
First Class is Charles and Xavier’s movie, but there is a cavalcade of supporting mutants that are both familiar to the franchise and first timers.
Most notable is Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique. Thanks to some backstory rewriting, she’s the childhood friend of Xavier. The movie shows what led to her aligning herself with Magneto in a way that amplifies the underlying themes of identity and self-acceptance. Lawrence plays up the vulnerability of a woman who lacks identity while also maintaining the sexually malevolent villainess she’s destined to become.
January Jones plays Emma Frost in this installment. She does a fine enough job in the role. Emma Frost is essentially to Sebastian Shaw what Mystique was to Magneto in the first three movies. This makes for a bit of a lack in the character development department. Coupled with Jones’ somewhat lackluster performance, Emma Frost is the weak point of the movie. She doesn’t command enough screen time or plot importance to detract from the pace of the movie. Even still, I’m left wondering if Alice Eve (who was originally cast) would have elevated the movie.
The rest of the mutants are played well across the board. Nicholas Hoult, in particular, plays Hank McCoy/Beast as a scientist determined to find a cure to the aesthetic problem of being a mutant. This intertwines his arc with that of Mystique in a way that connects them with a thematic chemistry that’s as good as any other character relationship in the movie; maybe even the franchise as a whole.
The special effects are in top form in this movie. The scene in which Shaw “poaches” mutants from the CIA is really spectacular in its eerie tone. Bacon is menacing and the scene gives us a great, tragic reminder of why Shaw is a worthy adversary.
Likewise, the climax of the movie pairs stylish displays of mutant abilities in battle with the lavish backdrop of a beach populated with warships. The beauty of First Class is that, when the action gets going, the emotional pull of the story isn’t undercut. In fact, director Matthew Vaughn melds the dichotomy of emotion and action quite beautifully.
This is illustrated to perfection in one of the best sequences of the entire franchise as the camera pans left to right while intercutting between shots of Xavier and Magneto in the movie’s climax. It’s beautiful and punctuates the growth of these two characters. I’m really excited for Bryan Singer to return for Days of Future Past, but I really hope Matthew Vaughn does another X-Men movie in the future.
I could go on and on about First Class. Really, I could. The dynamic between Xavier and Magneto lays the groundwork for the entire franchise so perfectly. This could have been a reboot but it takes the best elements of the movies so far and repackages them into an awesome period movie.
I loved the implementation of the Cuban Missile Crisis as it gave the plot a sense of urgency steeped in real history and authentic turmoil. And the training segment at Xavier’s mansion is a perfect way to illustrate the growth of Xavier and Magneto. More so Xavier, as it lays the foundation for his destiny.
In the end, Matthew Vaughn dragged the X-Men franchise out of the pit dug by The Last Stand & X-Men Origins: Wolverine and managed to create something that actually topped the benchmark set by Bryan Singer with X2: X-Men United.