1960s, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2011, action, Ashley Miller, blockbuster, CGI, comic book, Dr. Strangelove, First Class, James Bond, James McAvoy, Jane Goldman, January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Vaughn, Michael Fassbender, Origins: Wolverine, Rose Byrne, superhero, Winter's Bone, X-Men, X2, Zack Stentz
Written by: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, January Jones
To be honest, I’m hardly the right person to be writing about an X-Men movie. Sure, I’m a comic fan, but for the most part my allegiances are with DC Comics. This isn’t really intentional, I’ve just read less Marvel; I tend to find that the power of their great characters get diluted by the presence of so many on one page. I watched the cartoon as a kid, and I’ve seen X-Men (2000) and X2 (2003) and loved those films, but watching X-Men: First Class, I got the distinct feeling my limited experience with the mutants was leaving me in the dark.
That’s not to say I didn’t like First Class, in fact it exceeded my expectations and then some. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) was such an abysmal mess, I was worried all of the origin story prequels to the X-Men movies would be as shoddy. That couldn’t be further from the truth, as First Class is a clever, stylish and entertaining superhero picture. More than just telling the story of how the X-Men began, First Class tells of how Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) meet and evolve into some of the most complex enemies in all of comics.
It’s the 1960s and Charles Xavier, telepath and PhD student extraordinaire, is studying the sort of genetic mutations that have lead to his telepathic powers and to the shape-shifting abilities of his best friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). Erik Lehnsherr is hunting the man who killed his mother in a Nazi concentration camp. That same man, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) is being tracked by CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) who, upon discovering the existence of mutants, seeks Xavier’s help. This leads Xavier to Lehnsherr, and also to the beginning of Xavier’s Academy for Gifted Youngsters.
First Class director Matthew Vaughn proves himself to be very apt at juggling the many characters required for telling a compelling X-Men story, without ever getting bogged down in exposition and clunky back story. Another one of Vaughn’s triumphs is his immense style; First Class is styled in the fashion of many iconic films of the 1960s, but Vaughn never goes so far as to make his film over-stylish. Shaw travels regularly in a submarine, and the interior of the sub is styled with strong hints of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), during a discussion of nuclear weapons in Turkey, the U.S. Government’s War Room looks so much like the famous War Room in Dr. Strangelove (1964) that I wonder if it might actually be the same set? The sections dealing with Xavier’s Academy and the CIA headquarters seem to lift bits and pieces from the James Bond films of the 1960s. These references likely don’t have much depth, but they lend much to a very exciting visual experience.
Generally speaking, I dislike CGI effects, and I subscribe to the believe that filmmakers should never do with computers what they could do with props and a little ingenuity. First Class is CGI loaded, but its done so tastefully and seamlessly that it does not tarnish the experience. Fighting sequences are so impeccably timed and an choreographed, that the required computer effects enhance the experience rather than distract. The major battle sequences are stunning, and the stunt involving a submarine is one of the best looking I have seen in a major Hollywood blockbuster.
What I loved most about First Class was some of the performances. Namely, I loved performances by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender and the relationship they construct between their characters. Fassbender nails the complex morality of Magneto, displaying a sharp sense of logic as well as a deep-rooted pain that drives him. McAvoy does a great job at portraying a Professor X who is more real than the 2-dimensional man many of us think of. Xavier is a real person, and he has faults, but ultimately he’s endlessly compassionate and rigid in his moral standard. The two men have a deep respect for each other, and the way the film establishes their differences is very organic and heart-wrenching. Also worth noting are performances by Jennifer Lawrence, who was great in Winter’s Bone (2010) and will have a long and fascinating career, and Kevin Bacon who was surprisingly perfect for the role of Sebastian Shaw. One of the most glaring issues with this film was a performance by January Jones, who played Emma Frost like she based her performance on the dictionary definition of “frost.”
X-Men: First Class is so energetic and smart, it excited me to think of what may come next in the X-Men franchise. This film proves that a really subtle story can be told with such a colourful and often cartoonish cast of characters. Vaughn and his screenwriters never adhere to a black-and-white view of good and evil, and they cloud the issue by putting Magneto and Xavier on different sides of the same moral coin (as they should be) and putting them both in opposition with the absolute evil of humans with an anti-mutant opinion. First Class is stylish and fun, and shines with the sort of intelligence that comic book films deserve.