James McAvoy - Professor Charles Xavier
Michael Fassbender - Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto
Jennifer Lawrence - Raven/Mystique
Rose Byrne - Moira MacTaggert
Kevin Bacon - Sebastian Shaw
January Jones - Emma Frost
Nicholas Hoult - Hank McCoy/Beast Zoe
Kravitz - Angel Salvadore
Jason Flemyng - Azazel
Genre - Action/Fantasy/Comic Book
Running Time - 132 Minutes
Hollywood's need for reboots have been going on for a while now. While some of us may complain about the need to start over franchises that have long been established just for the sake of milking it all over again, you can't say that it's completely a bad thing. The horror genre has financially benefited from this craze, even though most critics and audiences prefer the original films. But when a franchise has reached the point where it's dried up of new stories and ideas, sometimes starting over with a different take on the original work is the way to go business-wise.
Comic book films have also been getting in on this action. 2005's BATMAN BEGINS was a necessary move for DC Comics and Warner Bros. to re-establish the Batman mythos for a modern audience after the abomination that was 1997's BATMAN & ROBIN, which turned the serious comic book character into a joke. The reboot was highly successful both critically and commercially, making other studios feel that starting over their franchises will continue to keep them afloat. Even though Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN films have broken box office records and were considered some of the best superhero films ever made [well at least the first two], Sony decided to fire both Raimi and star Tobey Maguire to reboot the franchise into THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, even though the film franchise isn't even 10 years old yet. Other reboots for FANTASTIC FOUR, DAREDEVIL, and SUPERMAN are also planned for release.
20th Century Fox, not one to turn away a trend if it'll make them money, decided to do the same to their X-MEN franchise. The X-MEN movies took a pretty nasty turn after X2 when director Bryan Singer left the franchise to direct SUPERMAN RETURNS. 2006's X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, while highly successful financially, turned a lot of fans off with The Dark Phoenix Saga story aspect not being fully realized, as well as the strong narrative and drama that the first two films held being replaced by brainless action sequences and massive amounts of CGI. A similar fate happened to the franchise's first prequel, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, which did only okay at the box office due to the fact that no one really wanted to see Wolverine's origins play out again when much of it was already revealed in X2. Plus, the use of Wolverine as the franchise's main character tends to be considered the reason why the X-MEN films never truly felt like their comic counterparts.
So Fox decided to do another prequel for the franchise, which the studio considers a reboot, yet maintaining the events of the films that came out before it. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS was hyped big time, as it would use a younger cast to chronicle the lives of the X-Men's first mission, as well as establish the up-and-down relationship between Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto. It was a bold move for Fox, as they didn't have Hugh Jackman as Wolverine to rely on here for its success - almost as a test to see if audiences would watch an X-MEN film without the character in it for much of its running time. Also, much of the young cast are unknowns and the characters used aren't considered the original First Class of X-Men [only Beast is right, as Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman, and Angel are left out], which could turn away loyal fans who would probably complain that this film isn't true to its source material. But with Bryan Singer back to the fold as producer and co-writer, as well as LAYER CAKE and KICK-ASS director Matthew Vaughn directing and co-writing the film, there was a lot of hope that the franchise would return to its more intelligent storytelling while keeping audiences entertained by cool action sequences.
And I can honestly say, without a doubt, that the X-MEN movie franchise is back where it belongs. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is smart, dramatic, action-packed, and just a great summer blockbuster that will not only feed your eyes, but will feed your brain as well. The Children of the Atom are back on top!
A young Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner) is a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. While upset at the fact that he's separated from his parents, especially his mother, Erik bends a metal gate with his mutant gift - magnetism. A Dr. Sebastian Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) has noticed Erik's powers, wanting to use them for his own personal cause. Schmidt murders Erik's mother right in front of him to see Erik unleash his mutant potential, realizing that mutants have a good chance of taking over the world when that kind of power.
Meanwhile in Westchester, New York, a young Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher) uses his telepathy to sense a young shape-shifter named Raven (Morgan Lily) breaking into his home for food. Happy that he's not alone in being special, Xavier befriends Raven to the point where Raven is adopted by Xavier's family.
Years later [1962 to be exact], Xavier (James McAvoy) graduates from Oxford University in England with a Master in Genetics. A CIA agent named Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) locates Xavier for his expertise in the subject. Before their meeting, Moira had infiltrated the Hellfire Club - which is run by Schmidt, who's real name is Sebastian Shaw. She notices that Shaw is a mutant, one who can absorb all types of energy and release it with massive amounts of power. His associates - Emma Frost (January Jones), who is also a telepathic and can also turn her skin into diamond, Riptide (Alex Gonzalez), who can create tornadoes, and Azazel (Jason Flemyng), a teleporter who would later be Nightcrawler's father, manipulate members of the United States Security Council to put nuclear weapons in Turkey. The Hellfire Club also manipulate Russia into putting nuclear weapons in Cuba, creating the Cuban Missile crisis. Shaw's plan is for the Cold War to turn into World War III, distracting the two superpowers enough for him to gather other mutants and rule the world.
While the U.S. Government reluctantly works with Moira and Xavier, Erik (Michael Fassbender) is on his own hunt for Shaw, wanting to kill him as vengeance for his mother. He crosses path with Xavier and Moira, glad that he isn't the only mutant in the world, to help them recruit a mutant army that could battle the Hellfire Club. Along with a grown-up Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), they recruit Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till), Armando Munoz/Darwin (Edi Gathegi), Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz), and Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) for the mission to stop Shaw and his Hellfire Club before World War III starts.
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is everything you'd expect an X-MEN film to be. It's interesting that the prequel is considered a reboot of the franchise when many of the elements that were in the previous films are still part of this universe. It does mess up some of the continuity in the franchise, but as its own film, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is solid and definitely a return to form for a franchise that was losing its way for a while there.
The narrative in FIRST CLASS is quite strong, as it has many layers and balances them quite well. One of the strongest elements is the time frame for the story. Mainly taking place in 1962 is a genius move by Vaughn and Singer. I loved how they incorporated the Cold War, and especially the Cuban Missile Crisis, into the narrative - especially to really give Sebastian Shaw's motives to have mutants rule the world some weight. For many who lived during this period, the world was a scary place since it was highly probable for a World War III to occur if things weren't settled between the United States and the then-U.S.S.R. The fact that Shaw wants to manipulate both Superpowers and distract them in war while he attempts a take over is just brilliant. The way Shaw goes about it may be a bit extreme, but it makes sense since the character has a huge ego and truly believes his gift makes him better than all humans. It also makes him truly evil, as he seems to not give a damn about the consequences except where it concerns his fellow mutants, who he wants alive to be his army. It's just a great use of history that actually affects the way the story moves forward instead of having it in the background just to set up a location and time.
Another reason why 1962 is great is because the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak here. But instead of the issue of segregation between whites and blacks, we have humans and mutants. Yes, we've always had this issue in the X-Men comics, cartoons, and the previous films as well. But it's more effective here because of the time period. Mutants are treated as different than regular humans. Humans see them as a threat because they don't understand them or how mutants came to be. It creates tension between the two sides, yet it never becomes a black and white issue. There's definitely shades of grey here, as some mutants want to be accepted and feel that one day they'll be able to integrate with their fellow humans, while others feel that they'll never be accepted and they might as well prove to humans that they're better. Even some of the humans see the mutants as beneficial to society rather than threats. The issue is never cut and dry here, as we see both sides of the coin. To say that all humans hate mutants and/or that all mutants are threats to humans is wrong because both sides have people who don't believe or follow that mentality.
This obviously sets up our main story - the relationship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. Charles wants to be accepted by humans, hoping to use his knowledge in genetics to make humans see one day that mutants are just the next stage of evolution and not a threat to society. Erik believes Charles is too idealistic, feeling that humans will never truly accept mutants even with all the studies and knowledge in the world. He believes Charles Darwin's "Survival of the Fittest" theory should apply for mutants - they have gifts and abilities that humans don't have; therefore, they're stronger and will survive over humans in the end. This conflict bonds the two men, while at the same time, pulling them apart. It creates tons of tension between both sides, as well as developing both characters in ways that we understand where both are coming from.
Charles lived a life of privilege, never feeling hated over the fact that he was different than others. This is due to the fact that his powers aren't visible, as he's a strong telepathic that can read and control people's minds. This makes him a bit cocky and slightly pretentious, as he uses the gift to pick up women and manipulate others in a way. He doesn't understand why mutants, like Raven [who is insecure about her blue appearance, hiding herself in human form to be accepted], are so afraid to embrace their gift. But when she decides to stay in her true form, Charles doesn't know how to deal with it, unable to accept her appearance. He ends up looking hypocritical in a way and actually looks at Raven like humans do - like a freak of nature. While his belief in acceptance is commendable, his actions at the time don't really follow, making him a flawed figure in the story.
Erik, on the other hand, was a Holocaust survivor. Shaw murdered his mother right in front of him to marvel at Erik unleashing his magnetic talents. Erik has always had to deal with the idea that he'll never fit in with society and will always be looked at as different - if not for his mutant powers, but for his ethnicity. He's driven by hate and anger, motivated by the fact that he'll never be put in a position where he'll be hunted down by those who believe their kind is better than his kind. Erik hunts down Shaw for the entire film, wanting revenge for his mother. But at the same time, he understands Shaw as well. Shaw wants mutants to be the superior race. Erik wants the same thing, just so he doesn't feel like a victim anymore. He tries Charles' way, but realizes at the end that history will always repeat itself. In fact, when the human soldiers at the end try to kill him and his fellow mutants after they have saved them all, his point is made perfectly clear. His execution to prove his point may be extreme and flawed in itself, but his beliefs are stronger than Charles' since the humans see them as collateral damage, not caring if they live or die. In a lot of ways,
I feel X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is really a Magneto story because most of what he does and says is pretty justified in context with the film. We can understand why he feels the way he does. We can understand why he does what he does. It may not be completely true or completely right, but being a victim during a time where he was persecuted just for being Jewish can't really help a person develop into a accepting human being. He refuses to hide who he is, which in turn makes others feel that way. This applies especially to Raven, who Magneto sees as perfectly beautiful when she is in her blue form. It's the first time where she feels truly accepted for who she is and ends up falling for him, and vice versa. In a lot of ways, FIRST CLASS is a tale that tells the birth of Magneto rather than the birth of Professor X and his X-Men. It's not to say that we don't learn who Charles is and why he's reduced to a wheelchair in later years [which is done in a nice way to gloss away from the whole Shadow King aspect of the story]. But it's really Magneto's movie as he's the first and last character we see in the film. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some story elements of that proposed Magneto prequel that never happened were integrated into this film. It works very well and actually drives the film forward in a believable and dramatic way.
As for the other characters, most of them aren't really as developed as they could be. This is not surprising since the X-MEN movies are more ensemble pieces than a focus on one main individual. Some of the mutants, like Riptide and Darwin, get a big shaft when it's obvious they can be so much more. Also, the human characters are pretty one-dimensional, which makes us side with the mutants quite quickly.
Still, Raven/Mystique gets a lot of screen time, as we see how insecure she is about her gifts until Magneto wins her over and embraces who she really is. She also has several love stories here, with Charles [who only sees her as a sister], Beast [who wants to change her appearance], and Magneto [who likes her just the way she is]. I wasn't sure about the whole Charles-Raven relationship aspect at first since it's so different from the comics, but it worked for me within the story. It actually made a lot of sense for these two people to bond and then separate when they couldn't accept each other. It also explains her loyalty to Erik for so many years as well.
Hank McCoy/Beast also gets a lot of screen time. Like Raven, he too is insecure about his physical features, even though he's highly intelligent. His insecurity leads him into making a serum out of Raven's DNA that he believes will make both of them look more human. Raven doesn't take the serum after Erik makes her feel accepted, but Hank does, only turning him into his true beast-like nature as the serum accelerated his mutant DNA. By the end of the film, Hank is angry about the way he looks, realizing he was fine just the way he was. It's the classic tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but done with a mutant twist.
The only other character of note that I haven't mentioned is Emma Frost, who is Sebastian Shaw's right-hand woman. We don't really know much about her really still, but we do know she's loyal to Shaw and his beliefs. She'll do anything for him, even when he treats her like an object. She's pretty cold and bitchy, but will do what it takes to get the job done. I look forward to more of her in the sequels that are planned, since I'm sure she'll be more developed and given more to do as she's a fan-favorite.
There are issues I did have with X-MEN: FIRST CLASS however. The continuity issue is a huge one here, as it will scratch heads for those who remember the previous X-MEN films. For one, Emma Frost is a woman here. In X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, which takes place after Vietnam, Emma is not only a teenager, but the sister to Kayla Silverfox. What's going on here? Also, in X-MEN, Charles says that he and Erik created Cerebro together. In FIRST CLASS, Beast creates Cerebro. Also in FIRST CLASS, Erik and Charles go their separate ways at the end. But at the beginning of X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, the two men are still friends in the 1980s as they recruit Jean Grey. Also in the same scene, Charles is walking. At the end of FIRST CLASS, he's crippled at a young age. Now I understand X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is meant to be a reboot of the franchise, but it definitely acknowledges those films at the same time. So is this an alternate reality? Are Vaughn and Singer trying to erase X-MEN: THE LAST STAND and X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE from the X-MEN timeline [which wouldn't be the worst idea]? With an X-MEN 4 coming out soon, I'm curious to see how they will go around these inconsistencies.
I also felt that the film was pretty sexist in a lot of ways. All the women, at one point, do wear skimpy outfits. They're very much sexualized, which I'm not complaining about, but I do know some females will complain about this. They're also treated as inferior to the men, even though in reality, the women are much stronger in many ways. It doesn't bother me at all that the female characters are presented in such a way. After all, the film does take place in the early 1960s and I'm sure women were treated and looked upon this way by men. But it might turn some members of the audience off.
The special effects in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS are great. There's obvious use of CGI here, but it looks on par with X2's CGI rather than the films that came out after it, which looked more cartoony than anything. The CGI does enhance the action sequences and the narrative itself, as the special effects are never the star here. Instead, they just make the story pop out more to create a visually stunning comic book movie. The make up effects are also great, especially when it comes to Beast and Mystique. I thought the film looked great and I was definitely impressed by how believable the effects were. It looked like an X-MEN film and it definitely felt like an X-MEN film. It was a really nice job by the SFX team.
The direction by Matthew Vaughn is nothing short of amazing. While the film is over 2 hours long, the pace was so good that it actually felt shorter than it was. In fact, I loved how the editing really enhanced the narrative, creating tension and drama to the film. This is due to the fact that Vaughn wasn't pushed to rush the film, instead letting him focus on the characters and drag out scenes long enough for them to register with the audience. The cinematography was great. The way things were shot and framed, like the Beast transformation moment, was smart. The action sequences were handled extremely well and I was caught up in each one of them. As much as I loved Bryan Singer's X-MEN films, Vaughn is probably the best director so far in the franchise. He really enhanced the look and feel of the X-Universe, which makes me more bummed out that certain circumstances disabled him from fulfilling his direction of X-MEN: THE LAST STAND. I could only imagine how different that film would have played out if he had made it. I hope Vaughn returns for the sequel, or even for one of the main X-MEN films.
The acting in FIRST CLASS is very good. James McAvoy plays Charles Xavier a lot different than Patrick Stewart did, but it's still a believable performance of a young man who takes his gift slightly for granted until a life-changing moment makes him realize that he could use this gift to help others rather than himself. Jennifer Lawrence was grounded in her role as Mystique. I loved her more humanistic take on the character, playing on the character's insecurities and need for love and acceptance. Plus she's a beautiful young woman and I wouldn't mind seeing more of her in anything that she does. Nicholas Hoult was also a standout as Hank McCoy/Beast. Like Lawrence, I also bought his insecurities. I also bought his anger and frustration once he's in Beast mode. He hid his British accent well too. Kevin Bacon was fantastic as Sebastian Shaw. He hams it up in the film like any great villain would. I could definitely tell he was having a blast in the role, which made me like his performance more. I always thought Kevin Bacon was an amazing actor and here it's no different. As for January Jones, many felt she was kind of cold and bland as Emma Frost. I have to disagree with that. Yeah, Jones isn't a great actress. As a matter of fact, it's like she's bored as if she's un-acting really. But for a character like Frost, it's perfect because that's how the character would behave. She's a cold woman, which Jones delivers. Plus she looks hot in her outfits, so I can't complain.
The real star of the film, however, is Michael Fassbender as Erik/Magneto. I've seen Fassbender in a couple of films before FIRST CLASS, but this really was the moment where he truly stood out for me. Just an amazing portrayal of a man whose demons have taken him over completely to the point where he refuses to be a victim again. It was probably hard to fill in the same shoes worn by another talented actor, Sir Ian McKellen, but Fassbender does it flawlessly from beginning to end. I loved how he played Erik as angry, frustrated, and vengeful rather than a man who just wants more power since he already has that power. I also love the moments he has with McAvoy, where he tries to respect Xavier's beliefs, yet he has this look which is almost doubtful in nature. It's Fassbender's film all the way and he carries it very well. I look forward to more movies from him as well. FIRST CLASS will make this actor a huge star.
The other actors were decent-to-good. Byrne was cool as Moira, even though her character could have been stronger. Plus where was the Scottish accent? The younger actors, like Zoe Kravitz, Lucas Till, and Caleb Landry Jones played their parts well with what they were given.
And great nods to the original films, with Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Romijn having cameos as Wolverine and older Mystique respectively. And nice cameos by Michael Ironside, Ray Wise, and James Remar as well as military/Government officials. Just a fantastic cast overall.
THE FINAL HOWL
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is a return to form for the franchise. With a great story, great performances, incredible direction, and visually entertaining special effects, it's a summer blockbuster with brains and heart. I'm still torn whether I like this one or X2 more, but I can definitely say that they're both fantastic and what an X-MEN film should be. I really look forward to the sequel that'll take place in the 1970s. If the same team behind this one returns, I'll definitely be there opening weekend. Marvel is having a great summer so far with this one and THOR. Let's hope CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER completes the hat trick. Until then, I'm all X'd out.