What do The Dark Knight, the 2009 version of Star Trek, and X-Men: First Class all have in common? Besides the fact that they are all my favorite movies in their respective release years, they have boldly revitalized their franchises for new audiences while pleasing the old, as well as continue to raise the bar on the quality of genre films. The last two X-Men films, X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, may have been panned critically, but First Class dares to be different—and it not only is, but it outshines even the two earlier and better films carried by the likes of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, and Hugh Jackman. Up-and-coming director Matthew Vaughn did some wow-worthy work on Kick-Ass, combining a bit of satire with a gorefest, and though there is less of both in the PG-13 X-Men, he brings in the same engaging innovation with a polychromatic, character-driven action-drama. This may be your grandpa’s comics in his day and age, but this sleek prequel can still translate it on-screen for these modern times—and the level of enjoyment, hopefully, will reach out to all.
X-Men: First Class opens with a scene reenacted from the very first film, at a German concentration camp in Poland in 1944. A young boy named Erik Lensherr has been discovered with possessing superhuman powers, bending metal and moving objects with his mind. Meanwhile, in Westchester County, New York, a telepathic boy named Charles Xavier comes across the blue, shape-shifting Raven Darkholme in his kitchen, enthralled that she also has strange abilities. Almost twenty years later, Erik (Michael Fassbender) seeks revenge on the Nazis and the doctor responsible for pushing his powers to the max, and Charles (James McAvoy), who has developed a familial-like relationship with Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), becomes an Oxford graduate with a thesis on mutation. In another part of the world, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) unfoils the existence of the Hellfire Club, which includes the man sought by Erik, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), Emma Frost (January Jones), and Azazel (Jason Flemyng). Moira, Charles, and Raven meet with the CIA to warn of the threats by Shaw and along the way, they meet Erik. Charles and Erik develop a special bond and recruit other mutants to join them at their secret facility, helmed by mutant scientist, Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult). It’s up to these new brands of heroes to cease Shaw’s scheme to start another World War, and no one is going without a battle. Oliver Platt, Zoe Kravitz, Lucas Till, Caleb Landry Jones, Edi Gathegi, and Alex Gonzalez co-star.
The large ensemble of characters and the varying storylines that come with it can somewhat make X-Men: First Class a hard movie to follow. But it is in those characters, their relationships with each other, and those storylines that make up the essence of a prequel done correctly and in a fashion that truly engages the viewer, whether it’s a long-time fan of the comics, a buff of the 2000s films, or the casual summer thrill seeker. With its backdrop set on the Cuban Missile Crisis and how the X-Men would have been involved in an alternate reality, it may also be of interest to history geeks. It’s true to the period, demonstrated in everything from archive footage featuring President John F. Kennedy down to young Mr. Xavier’s repeat dropping of the term “groovy.” More than its breathtaking action sequences and its surprise cameos (Yes, they are there), there is an intrigue to how Charles and Erik realize their differences and how those differences bring them together—however, it is their reactions to how humans perceive those differences that eventually tear them apart. Then there are the younger mutants who must learn to accept their superhuman abilities and natural forms—Raven (Who adopts the alias Mystique) and Hank (Later known as Beast) are especially central, particularly with the first, who constantly seeks validation from Charles and later, Erik and Hank himself. Witnessing moments with them brings out a sense of compassion in those who have ever felt alienated, making the film a tad bit more meaningful than your average popcorn superhero flick.
That depth is simply also in the way that the cast portrays the saviors and villains. X-Men: First Class is definitely exciting and fun, but it stands out significantly with its tragedy and disturbances. From Shaw’s first ruthless encounter with Erik, he shows why there is much reason for him to be feared and hated, and why he makes the older Erik so vengeful. But when you think Shaw’s frightening abilities and overwhelming hunger for world domination encompasses all evil, Erik progressively one-ups him. Fassbender, however, gives his character complexity—not just making him relentless, but also exposing his need for a comrade in the present and future amidst his traumatic past. Perhaps that’s why he meshes so well with McAvoy’s intelligent, kind-hearted, and strong-willed Xavier.
With those actors leading the pack of talents, along with a plot that’s solid, not too expository, and walks that line between real-life and fantasy, and all the movie magic for a comic book-based blockbuster, this fresh new start to a potential new X-Men film series is certainly filled with promise, but just as well can stand alone as one of summer 2011’s best. Even if you can’t fly anywhere, you can still go First Class if you catch this one.