As a smaller, more character-driven piece, the original is my favourite of the X-Men movies to date. First Class aims to recapture that vibe, being primarily the story of how the friendship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr was torn apart by ideological differences. Yet for those noble ambitions, it falls short due to a screenplay that tries to cram too much into too little time and has the attribute in common with all screenwriter Jane Goldman’s work of having never so much as met a line of natural dialogue.
It’s certainly not a bad film, but one I suspect was hampered by the fact that positive early word of mouth meant I went in quite looking forward to it. If you can remember how you felt after seeing all those abysmal early posters and questionable trailers, it will probably be easier to pick out the positives, of which there are a fair number. It’s just a shame that First Class can only stabilise a series in freefall, rather than restore it to greatness.
The opening act is the movie’s most engaging, taking the time to establish the independent storylines and relationships of three sets of characters before bringing them together. The opening is a tip of the hat to the original X-Men, whose first scene (of the young Magneto’s first demonstration of how power as a child in a concentration camp) is replicated and then built upon by the introduction of new villain Sebastian Shaw. It’s a clear statement of director Matthew Vaughan’s intent to build new layers around the characters established in Bryan Singer’s first turn, rather than performing a full reboot.
Anyone going into the movie with a keen eye for continuity will find themselves confused though. While the basic framework remains similar, details are adjusted to fit the needs of the writers. For one, the characters’ ages seem all wrong, with token attempts to explain away the more egregious examples (‘Your genes only age at half the normal rate,’ etc) only bringing more questions. The kinship between Xavier and Raven/Mystique seems an odd addition, given how bar her one attempt to poison him, the they barely acknowledge each other in later movies. Still, it gives Xavier a friend to bounce his fears and excitement off early on, with their personality differences clear enough to foreshadow how they come to take different sides by the end, despite their apparent closeness.
Magneto’s story is the strongest of those early plot threads, filling in the gaps between his incarceration and subsequent transformation into Ian McKellen. (Quite a leap). As many critics have noted, there’s an early Bond vibe about the scenes where he tracks down the Nazi officers who were responsible for his torture and mother’s death, with his sneaking onto Sebastian Shaw’s boat particularly recalling Thunderball. The short showdown in the Argentinian tavern, on the other hand, has more in common with Sergio Leone’s use of delaying tactics to build tension ahead of a short burst of violence.
The third of the early stories belongs to the distinctly not-Scottish CIA Agent Moira MacTaggart and her investigation of Sebastian Shaw’s Hellfire Club. Though the link with Lensherr’s story was a tidy lead-in to the characters’ later unification, as well as defining Shaw’s role within the wider geopolitical context of the Cold War, it’s here where the first signs of trouble that plagued the rest of the movie began to emerge. The Hellfire Club is an idea introduced, then done away with in barely a minute. I’m no expert on comic book continuity, but my impression is that it should be more important to the X-Men universe than merely a casino front for one of Shaw’s many Bond villain lairs. Emma Frost, too, is relegated to the role of sparkly henchwoman: January Jones may look fine wandering around in leather Emma Peelers, but doesn’t come across as the brightest rock in the jewelers. (Her ‘diamond form’ doesn’t exactly live up to its billing, given how easily Magneto begins to break it during an interrogation) It’s a classic case of an element from the comics being brought in for the sake of it, despite not having a place in the story.
Once these strands come together, the movie starts rushing to cover all the ground it has set out, including Shaw’s plot to incite nuclear war and Destroy All Humans (the plot collapses under the gentlest scrutiny, but clearly isn’t the movie’s main focus), Xavier and Lensherr’s budding friendship and differences, the discovery of fellow mutants for a crack CIA division, their training and subsequent break-up. Given how First Class is *sigh* reportedly planned as the first in a trilogy (there’s no post-credits scene though), it’s odd how the writers felt the need to end the movie with every character exactly where they need to be as though moving straight into Bryan Singer’s original.
That mad rush to the finish results in some big tonal shifts, from something approaching high camp in the recruitment and training sequences (taking the form of two montages, which should tell you everything you need to know), to the more somber ideological debates between Xavier and Erik over highly symbolic games of chess. The scenes would have more power if the dialogue weren’t so explicit, but then better that than the horrible exchanges where the young mutants choose their ‘codenames’, or Xavier and Moira muse over what to call the newly assembled team (“We’re like G-Men, but without the G…” – I WONDER WHERE THIS IS GOING). I’m not even going to get started on all the ‘Xavier might go bald in the future’ gags.
The performances are generally strong, with James McAvoy’s more jovial and improvisational Xavier making an enjoyable contrast to the worldly wisdom of Patrick Stewart. Michael Fassbender plays down the slight whiff of ham which Ian McKellen brought to the character and instead emphasizes the righteous fury burning under the surface, which he at once seems to hope that Xavier can talk him out of, while knowing deep down that he could never allow humanity to get away for a second time with the crimes he witnessed them commit in his youth. Even though they’re obviously playing younger characters, the shadows of Stewart and McKellen still loom, with that sense of grave life experience sorely missed in their friendship, but it’s a credit to the two actors that they manage to hold their own regardless. The rest of the cast do passable work, but are underwritten (MacTaggart in particular vanishes into the background for the second half) and only have the awful dialogue to work with.
I suspect that the movie will satisfy most people who going in without expectations for anything more than two hours of superpowered mutants getting into large-scale scrapes. Despite obvious CGI, the action is well-staged and the new characters bring variety to the standard set of powers. (Shame they don’t mix them up as in The Incredibles though). If you can enjoy it as a purely visual spectacle, an excuse to turn off your brain following a hard day at work, it does the job. Ignore the groan-inducing dialogue, paper-thin plot and occasional continuity compromise (two old cast members make cameo appearances, one of which is amusing but neither makes any sense) and you’ll find a movie which sits above the woeful Origins: Wolverine and X3, but well below X-Men or its sequel. Or to put it another way, middle of the class.
Sam Membrino: For ages, Hollywood films have “wet down” city streets and alleys by covering them with water. The idea is to make everything “pop” on screen and present more movement and information within each frame. The source of this aquatic addition does not matter, we expect perhaps it rained recently, or there was a broken hydrant that covered the asphalt with water. In X-Men: First Class, director Matthew Vaughn wet down the inside of a covered parking lot at a secret CIA facility, presumably to make things look more interesting. I can’t guess as to where all that water came from, and within this seemingly innocuous mystery we may see a reflection of the movie itself. Style has triumphed over substance, and perhaps the spectacle becomes the main act, but after all, style is the hallmark of this director-franchise combo.
If the trailer piqued your action-effects appetite, there is plenty to chew on here. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender put on good performances as Charles Xavier and Magneto, and fans of the comics, and the other films, will have plenty to chuckle and cheer about. Vaughn knows his audience, and helps newcomers feel welcome all the while taking care of the series veterans that expect something new. A few new faces and a few old ones help keep the film flitting along, but this high-octane mockingbird darts too often into predictable, easy-to-digest set pieces that we’ve seen before. Better than Last Stand, not quite as good as X2. 71 – Good.
Geoff Henao: I’ve seen all of the X-Men films, stayed current with every X-Men title for years, and can honestly say this is one of the best films of the franchise. However, the problem keeping it from taking the top spot is its continuity to the original trilogy (and, to a lesser extent, the Wolverine spin-off). Lines were stretched to make everything fit that made things awkward. Professor X and Mystique are pretty much siblings? That’s a bit of a stretch. Beyond storyline problems, the pacing is very off. It can be at times both slow moving and too rushed. While they didn’t pack as much into it as X-Men 3 did, there was still too much to push through. The acting was great, but my main accolades go to Michael Fassbender as Magneto. Let’s give this guy the years-long rumored Magneto spin-off. He deserves it. 67 – Okay.
Alec Kubas-Meyer: I don’t know how, but X-Men: First Class failed on pretty much every level. Not only does it feature the worst CGI I have seen in a modern film, but it somehow managed to turn a Michael Fassbender performance into something merely acceptable. None of the performances are outstanding (and many of them are awful), the writing is middling at the best of times, and it is so. goddamn. ugly. The editing is hugely distracting (especially during the training montage), the direction is middling, and the CGI is completely unacceptable. Had I seen this movie before writing my tirade against CGI, this film would have been my prime example. Nothing looked good. The action, the powers, the everything looked horrible. For a film that focuses heavily on action and mutants, the lack of quality is beyond belief. The film had its moments, but they were invariably ruined by the visuals. A huge disappointment. 35 – Bad.