The Latest X-Men Adventure is Indeed “First Class”
Before heading into X-men First Class, I was told be several people that it was the best in the series. I honestly wasn’t sure that I’d like it better than X2, but I can now safely say that I was mistaken. Perhaps slightly clouded by the filmmaking disasters that were X-Men 3 and Wolverine, I feel mostly comfortable in saying the First Class is my favorite of the X-Men films. Read on after the jump to find out more about my thoughts on the film, but be warned. Here there be spoilers.
X-Men First class has marketed itself somewhat vaguely as a reboot of the franchise, but it’s clear now that this effort was only for those who had been soured by the last two theatrical outings in the franchise. First Class opens nearly identically to the original X-Men, with an almost shot-for-shot recreation of a young Erik Lensherr being unceremoniously separated from his parents . It’s almost as if Director Matthew Vaughn and Producer Bryan Singer are saying to the audience, “Remember how good this was? Well, we’re going back here again. Welcome home.” From here, the film takes us along the most humanizing X-Men story yet delivered to the big screen.
The core of the film is undoubtedly the journey of Erik Lensherr. Michael Fassbender’s depiction is full of depth and intrigue. Fassbender’s Lensherr speaks several languages fluently, travels the world, and by adulthood is extraordinarily adept – and deadly – with his powers. Consumed early by revenge, Fassbender gets plenty of chances later in the film to soften Erik Lensherr before ultimately taking him down the road that leads to Magneto, and he does so convincingly. The things that make Magneto the villain in previous installments are given more dimension here, and as the audience it’s easy to believe and even relate to.
Opposite this more human portrayal of Lensherr is an unbelievably likable Charles Xavier, played so charmingly by James McAvoy that I frankly enjoyed him more than I did the amazingly-cast Patrick Stewart in the first three X-Films. McAvoy’s Charles Xavier is warm and friendly, and he’s not bound to the iconic wheelchair in the way that Stewart was. It’s this literal freedom of motion that allow the films’ creators to show Xavier in a light we’ve never seen. He gets plenty of opportunities to show his compassion instead of talk about it. He goes to great lengths on many occasions to help those around him. We see in this film the beginnings of a great leader.
The supporting cast was only relatively interesting to me, and they didn’t hold up as much of the film as the cast of the first three X-films did. These young, wide-eyed new X-cadets all played their roles solidly, with the possible exception of Zoe Kravitz. Only Nicholas Hoult truly stood out for me as Hank Henshaw. Hoult’s Henshaw was downright Clark-Kentish, and nearly had me rooting for this tall skinny kid to put on tights for the next Superman. Kevin Bacon played the role of Nazi-scientist-turned-independent-supervillain Sebastian Shaw perfectly ominously, though ultimately his role was truly secondary to those of Charles and Erik. Shaw’s gallery of villains was largely throw-away. Azazel is the epitome of Darth Maul in that he is both completely exhilarating to watch in combat and completely undeveloped as a character. And January Jones’ Emma Frost was so forgettable that Director Matthew Vaughn appears to have forgotten her entirely during the second half of the film. She shows up again at the end just in time to remind you how insignificant to the plot she actually was.
But ultimately, none of the supporting cast matters here. This is a film about the two most important men in the X-Men universe, and as such, it is a story that is appropriately set against the backdrop of the Cold War between the United States of America and Russia. Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr are propped up as two Super-powered Superpowers, both of whom ultimately want to preserve their own way of life, but are separated ideologically with regard to how best to accomplish that goal. Standing between them is a nuclear threat in Sebastian Shaw, a mutant who can literally absorb and redirect energy – even nuclear energy – to destroy nearly every living thing on Earth if he is allowed to. Much as the Nazis were the last great threat that saw the United States and Russia working together toward a common goal, the ex-Nazi Shaw represents the last time that Xavier and Lensherr will be able to stand side by side. When Shaw is removed from the picture, mutant-kind’s own cold war is afoot, and sides must be chosen.
X-Men First Class has excited me about the X-Franchise in a way that I haven’t been excited in years. Back when Bryan Singer and his writers were working on X2, they discussed plans for a full franchise that involved both sequels featuring the X-team and origin stories for Wolverine and Magneto. When the team signed on to create Superman Returns for Warner Brothers, those plans were left in less-than-capable hands, and the films suffered for it. I’m not sure how much of First Class is Director Matthew Vaughn or how much is Bryan Singer (he produced and wrote the story), or if it’s the combination of the two, but whatever it is, I sincerely hope that they continue with this newly redefined team of X-Men.