By Managing Editor Michael Nakan
We have it in us to be the better men.
These words, said by James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier to Michael Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr (better known as Magneto), perfectly reflect not only the meditative philosophy of the X-Men but also serve as something of a metaphor for this fantastic retrospective into the early lives of the X-Men. In a summer laden with solo superheroes, this is a brilliant supergroup film which juggles the multitude of mutants that comprise its cast with an almost surprising adeptness and ease while simultaneously wiping away the bitter taste of X3 and its Wolverine spin off.
The film opens in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944 as a young Erik responds to being separated from his mother by almost tearing apart the metal gates which separate them using his mutant ability to control metal. A rifle butt to the face later, Erik finds himself face to face with the so-calm-its-scary head of the camp, Herr Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), who promptly provides Erik with a compelling reason to hate him for the rest of his life. In the meantime, Charles meets a young Raven Darkhölme (Mystique, played with nothing even resembling panache by Jennifer Lawrence) masquerading as his mother in his posh Westchester mansion home – naturally, the two become lifelong friends, something never even alluded to in the chronologically later films.
That raises something of an interesting point: While a great X-Men movie in its own right, First Class struggles to fit into the established chronology of the previous four films. As an X fan who cringed every time the previous films (particularly the last two) screwed things up, that doesn’t faze me too much. Regardless, seeing an adult Emma Frost appear in a film set ten years before the events of Wolverine, where we were introduced to a teenage “Emma” with literally the exact same powers, is still quite disconcerting. Believe me when I say that anyone at all concerned with continuity will be lost trying to reconcile these age differences (we also have a young Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) who apparently has hardly aged in the 45 years between this movie and X3).
But the film does what it does with such bravado that it is easy, even preferable, to forget about the events of the previous movies. For the most part the film is set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis as Herr Schmidt (under the more American moniker Sebastian Shaw) leads his exclusive Gentlemen’s Society “The Hellfire Club” (for all intents and purposes made up of him and three other villains) to manipulate both the United States and Russia into nuclear war so mutants can take over the post apocalyptic world which remains. Fighting that threat is Charles and Erik, along with Mystique, Banshee (Caleb Laundry Jones, who peculiarly forgets that his character is supposed to be Irish and instead takes cues from the taller guy in The Lonely Island), Havok (Lucas Till), Angel (Zöe Kravitz), Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Darwin (Edi Gathegi). With so many characters in a comparatively short movie compared to many summer behemoths (running at 105 minutes compared to Pirates 4’s140), the film runs the risk of having too much breadth and not enough depth; luckily for fans, the main characters are developed and believable in a way that even their comic book origins weren’t.
The brotherhood formed between Charles and Erik is almost palpable on the screen and even Erik’s transformation from a government approved good guy to villainous asshole is actually well developed and believable (George Lucas take note). The “first class” of X-Men have their own sets of romances, friendships and rivalries. Even seemingly peripheral characters like Moira manage to have a purpose in the overarching themes of the story.
Director Matthew Vaughn rides his wave of success from Kick-Ass well, creating a more serious superhero endeavor which deals with prejudice far more effectively than many of the earlier films (“You didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell,” quips a mutant when his employer finds out his true nature). At the same time, he retains a certain style with the camera which is probably as close to the comics as one can get without veering too far into the unrealistic. It does lack some of the youthful energy which Kick-Ass had in spades, but that may simply be a mark of the more serious subject matter and a desire to conform to the style of the previous films.
With so many characters it is perhaps inevitable that some are less developed than others. The most heinous example of this is Angel, who defects to Shaw’s side early on for no apparent reason other than she used to be a stripper and thus fits in with the crew that Shaw runs with (January Jones’ scantily clad Emma Frost springs to mind). Shaw’s other henchmen, Azazel and Riptide (whose names I only know because I searched them on IMDB), are literally that: Henchmen. The pair speak no lines throughout the film and we’ve even seen Azazel’s powers through his son Nightcrawler and Riptides' courtesy of Storm, making their inclusion somewhat perfunctory.
But these niggling character and continuity problems aside, First Class stands as proof that the X-Men are versatile and diverse enough to compete in the new age of superheroes in their own right – even without Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Now, where is that Deadpool spin off?