Movie Review: X-Men: First Class
By Matthew Huntley
June 9, 2011

Putting the X in X-Men.

I have a feeling X-Men: First Class will be a major crowd-pleaser. In fact, it’ll probably help fans forget all about The Last Stand and Wolverine, neither of which sat well with audiences. And while I’m technically a fan of this reboot/prequel, I hesitate to praise it too highly. Don’t get me wrong; this is a very well made film, with some strong writing, direction and performances, but it lacks an essential punch and excitement. In the context of the X-Men movies, it’s among the best, but it’s also the fifth one to come out, and because we already know so much about these characters and what will eventually come of them, it seems the movie, almost by default, can’t have as great an impact as I was hoping.

Am I wrong to hold this movie to such a high standard, especially when the last two movies set their bars so low? X2 was another great entry in the series, and First Class is along the same lines with its involving plot and drama, but that’s just the thing: too much of it feels along the same lines, especially when compared to other superhero origin stories. While interesting tidbits about the characters and world of X-Men are revealed, nothing blew me away and most of the developments were already suggested by the other installments. What this movie feels like is a gap-filler, one that sets out to reaffirm things we already know or assumed. Granted, it does all of this very well, but the lack of surprises makes it somewhat limited and inconsequential.

If you’re an avid follower of the previous films or the comic books by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, then you know this one is about the beginnings of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a.k.a. Professor X and Magneto, who eventually become the leaders of two opposing X-Men factions, each made up of individuals with genetic mutations that give them superpowers. Charles is a highly trained telepath with the ability to manipulate people's minds, while Erik can create and control magnetism. They start out as friends and are united in defeating Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a corrupt mutant who can absorb and control energy.

Shaw first introduces himself to a young Erik during the Holocaust and, in ways I won’t reveal, causes him great pain and suffering as a means to uncover his mutant ability. Years later, during the 1960s, Erik seeks vengeance and goes on a Nazi killing spree. Meanwhile, in England, Charles is finishing his thesis at Oxford and is called upon by a CIA agent, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), for his knowledge on genetic mutation. At the height of the Cold War, she discovered Shaw and his team of mutants - Emma Frost (January Jones), Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and Riptide (Álex González ) - are working to incite a nuclear battle between the United States and Russia. Shaw assumes if the world’s two superpowers destroy each other, then he and his fellow mutants will be free to rule the world.

Like the previous X-Men movies, this one boils down to a big mutant/human face-off, and while this part is always fun and action-packed, the best moments are those that show the mutants training and coming to accept themselves. Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), a.k.a. Mystique, is, like most teenagers, pre-occupied with her looks. Though she can take on the physical qualities of anyone she comes into contact with, she prefers having normal-looking white skin and blonde hair over her naturally blue, scaly skin and red hair. And Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who eventually becomes Beast, hates that he has to hide his grotesque feet in order to feel accepted. He and the other mutants, whom I’ll leave you to discover, have all been conditioned to feel shame about who they are, but Charles mentors them and teaches them to control their powers, including the reluctant Erik. In the movie’s best scene, he tenderly opens a door in Erik’s mind, “between rage and serenity,” so Erik can harness his gift. The moment is quite beautiful.

The movie is actually made up of many calm, patient scenes like this and the characters are given room to talk and develop. They are not merely functions of the plot, but fully-realized individuals sharing their concerns, feelings and fears with one another. It’s remarkable how the screenplay is able to introduce us to so many people, develop them, and weave a plot that cleverly mixes in real-life history. The observant screenplay is equally matched by the strong performances, especially McAvoy and Fassbender, who are remarkable as the two iconic X-Men leaders. They don’t just dress or fit the looks of Professor X and Magneto, but really embody them, going beyond our expectations and making them their own. Kevin Bacon is good, too, as the sinister villain, proving he still has a strong screen presence.

But the way I see it, X-Men: First Class is a movie whose individual parts work better than their sum. As a whole, the movie just felt underwhelming and standard. Granted, director Matthew Vaughn raises it to a heightened standard, but it mostly walks a path the other movies have already treaded, or at least looked down. Maybe it’s the structure and conventions of the superhero origin story I’m growing tired of, which is conceivable given that Hollywood has indoctrinated us with so many.

I’m sure many people will defend First Class to no end, but if this movie was truly exceptional, it would have excited me in spite of its formula. Still, I applaud the filmmakers and actors’ efforts, and if it’s any consolation, I wish this had been the very first X-Men movie. Had the sequels and spin-offs been forced to live up to this one, and successfully done so, the whole series would have really been something.