Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne.
In this eagerly awaited prequel, director Matthew Vauhgn, Marvel and 20th Century Fox go back to the origins of the X-Men with a nod to the original issue #1 comic book and an establishment of the relationships and lines of battle that eventually play out in the trilogy we’ve seen so far. Vaughn has created a pastiche of sorts that is fitting homage to comic books, spy thrillers and 80s superhero films that is enjoyable and satisfying.
The scene opens exactly the way the first X-Men movie (Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry) began. It’s 1944, during the Second World War at a Nazi internment camp, and a young Erik Lehnsherr is separated from his jewish parents; but as he reaches out to them, held back by Nazi guards, his hand outstretched, the gates behind them rumple and warp as if drawn to Erik magnetically. A wily German doctor (Bacon) decides he wants to test Erik some more and in the process kills his mother right in front of his eyes. Around the globe in New York, a young mind reading Charles Xavier stumbles upon a shape shifting blue skinned girl with red hair who he ‘adopts’ as his sister. And thus the story of revenge and revolution begins.
Jumping forward a couple of decades to 1962 and the Cold War between America and Russia, the story leads to the inevitable meeting between ‘Professor’ Xavier (McAvoy) and Erik (Fassbender) and a young team of ‘talented’ mutants who must band together to fight the German doctor, now the maniacal Sebastian Shaw (Bacon) who can consume other mutants’ powers and use them for his diabolical plot to destroy the human race.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original comic book started off with Professor X (as he is fondly called) training the young mutants (including Ice Man, Cyclops and Jean Grey, not in the movie) in the Danger Room. They go on to battle Magneto (ultimately Erik’s mutant name) at an army base. In the film, the X-Men (including Magneto) as they’re eventually called (though according to the comic, the X has nothing to do with Professor X, rather X stands for eXtra powers!), train at Xavier’s Westchester mansion, which eventually becomes the ‘school for gifted children’. They’re mission is to stop Sebastian and his ‘evil mutants’ from starting World War Three.
I was surprised to see so many unknown actors in the cast of young mutants. Some of them with powers you haven’t seen in the other films. I felt the distinct style and tone, shot with a grainy texture and raw tone highlighting the freckles and lines on the actor’s faces was deliberate. Director Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Stardust, Snatch) wants to take us back in time to that age when you can remember Christopher Reeves as Superman flying awkwardly but yet believably on wires through the skies without any CGI to help him. There’s a distinct retro look with spy thriller elements thrown in; some have compared it to early James Bond films, and it’s quite fascinating. Henry Jackman’s score for the movie in my opinion does half the trick to elevate it from what could have been very B-movie to what it is now — slick, taut, super-paced and very fan boy.
German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender(Inglourious Basterds) plays the anti-hero with élan. His character, driven by revenge, must tread the line between anger and serenity, friendship and malice, engendering sympathy and awe. Magneto’s friendship with the charming young Xavier(McAvoy clearly more fun than Patrick Stewart but his ‘accident’ leading to paralysis probably explains his more serious nature in the later films) is crucial to the future relationship that sees them on different sides of the line. And that line, where one side fights for a misguided humanity, afraid of these mutants, and the other side fights to eradicate ‘homo sapiens’ to bring in a new world order of ‘homo superiors’ (the comic book references), is well-etched. Motives, relationships, the reasons why our heroes with a difference choose their paths are all brilliantly sketched. First Class stays true to an origins story while adapting the comic book ever so much to make it contemporary and relatable.
Of course X-Men is a comment on ‘different people’. And creator Stan Lee even confesses that when he originally called Magneto’s group ‘evil mutants’ he was wrong. Because they simply had a different point of view. But the social comment here remains, accept yourself for who you are: Mutant and proud!
Sure the weird helmet, Bacon’s character Shaw calls it ‘stupid thing’, the ill-fitting costumes and strange make-up (the character who eventually becomes Beast looks like a blue feline from the Broadway musical CATS) may be gripes but I’m convinced it’s all a means to an end: To get that comic book feel, that retro tone and old-world charm that makes X-Men: First Class stand out from a bunch of CGI heavy superhero films (like the sub-standard Thor and Hulk movies).