I was beginning to think I’d never get to see another great X-Men movie!
I’m a big, big fan of Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films. I think they’re pretty much perfect, the first two steps in what seemed like an epic cinematic saga. When the final shot of X2 tantalized viewers with the promise of the Dark Phoenix saga (probably the single greatest X-Men storyline ever), I was overcome with gleeful anticipation. I think I’m still recovering from the disappointment at how badly the film series fumbled things from there. The studio rushed X-Men 3 into production with another director, as a big up-yours to Bryan Singer, who had been hired to direct Superman: Returns. X-Men 3 has a decent first 45 minutes or so but then things totally collapse, and the brutally awful handling of the Phoenix storyline was crushingly disappointing. And in the years since, the only new X-Men movie we’ve gotten is the abysmally terrible X-Men Origins: Wolverine (share the pain and read my review here).
When I heard that they were finally putting together a new X-Men film, and that it was a prequel, I was not pleased. I really hate prequels, as readers of this blog are probably aware. I think it’s a lazy approach to story-telling, and I’d always rather see a story move FORWARD rather than circle back upon itself. That we’ve been so deluged with prequels these past few years makes me absolutely crazy. Why do I want to see the young versions of characters I love? I want to see the experienced versions of these characters, in their prime, kicking ass and going on new adventures. Why has that seemingly been so difficult for the masterminds behind the X-Men film franchise? Can no one in Hollywood think past a trilogy? X-Men 3 was flawed, but it still made a TON of moola. Hire some new writers and get to work on X-Men 4! Of all the franchises in the world, the X-Men seems like the easiest no-brainer in the bunch. There are SO MANY great characters and story-lines in the comics to choose from. Is Patrick Stewart getting too expensive? No problemo! The comics were constantly writing Professor X out of the stories for long periods of time. Let’s see the films adapt some of the great X-Men stories from the eighties, in which Prof X was gone and Magneto tried to reform and take over the X-Men. That would be awesome! It just seems so simple to me — we should be getting brand new X-Men films every 2-3 years, like clockwork.
But, obviously, that hasn’t happened. Just one god-awful Wolverine solo flick and a prequel. Going into X-Men: First Class, I was not terribly optimistic (despite the positive buzz the film had been garnering in the weeks leading up to its release.)
So, say halleluyah — the film might not be the movie I wish they’d made, but it’s still pretty damn good!
The film begins further in the past than I’d expected — in the ’40s, in fact, as we meet a very young Erik Lensherr (in a shot-for-shot recreation of the early scene in Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film, in we see the first manifestation of Magneto’s mutant powers in a concentration camp), Charles Xavier, and a girl named Raven. But the bulk of the film is set in the 1960′s. A brash, twenty-something Xavier (James McAvoy) discovers that there are many more mutants out there in the world than he’d initially believed, when CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) taps him to help her investigate a sinister organization called the Hellfire Club, which seems to be run by several mutants with nefarious plans, including Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Moira and Xavier’s investigations put them on a collision course with Erik (Michael Fassbender), who has been hunting down Shaw for years in search of revenge for the atrocities Shaw perpetrated him on him in the camps. Xavier and Erik form a brief and fruitful partnership, as Erik begins to learn that there can be more than just pain in his life, and Xavier learns to temper his youthful exuberances and focus on the seriousness of what will become his life’s work. But the threat of nuclear armageddon grows during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a crisis exacerbated by the machinations of Shaw and his Hellfire Club, and soon Xavier and Erik will find that their two worldviews can find little common ground.
The beating heart of Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film — and the key ingredient, to me, in it’s working so well — was the bitter, broken relationship between Charles Xavier and Magneto (Erik). It helped, of course, that the two characters were both embodied by such magnificent actors (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan). The scenes between the two — and the potent, emotional battle-of-visions between the two men — gave X-Men a narrative weight that brought depth and resonance to the super-heroics and feats of derring-do. Here too in X-Men: First Class, it is the Charles-Erik relationship that provides the emotional spine to the film, and that this relationship works so well is a key reason for this film’s working as well as it does. With James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, they’ve captured lightning in a bottle, as once again two pitch-perfect actors have been cast in the lead roles. The scenes between these two men — so similar and yet so different — are the best scenes in the film. I love the sequences, in the middle of the movie, in which we get to experience the friendship between Charles and Xavier, and the eventual breaking of that friendship is appropriately tragic.
The film breaks dramatically from the comic-book continuity by postulating a third key player in the relationship between these two young men: Raven, the shape-shifting girl who would one day take the name Mystique. Raven is played by Jennifer Lawrence (who was so amazing in the little-seen Winter’s Bone — read my review here), and I must say I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this reinvention of the previously-established backstory. Raven’s story works like gangbusters, and her struggle to find herself — as she finds herself torn between two men she adores — had a surprising richness. Since we know what she’s going to eventually choose, and with whom she’s going to end up, from the earlier X-Men films, there’s a powerful sadness that shadows her story. (This is when a prequel, when done right, can be effective — the tragic elements of a tale are ratcheted up as we watch a character’s inevitable path towards the end we know is laid out for them.)
Ok, I’m going to start moving a bit into spoiler territory, so readers beware from this point on.
The film takes an interesting middle-ground stand in regards to the continuity of the first three X-Men films. This is clearly a prequel, not a reboot. This film is without question meant to fit in with those films, and in a million clever ways, it really does. I was intrigued, right off the bat, by the shot-for-shot recreation of the Magneto origin sequence from X-Men (even accompanied by some familiar strands of Michael Kamen’s score!), and there are a couple of exquisitely wonderful cameo appearances by some familiar faces. But the filmmakers were also clearly not afraid to jettison the established continuity whenever it suited them. The most notable example is the appearance of Emma Frost, which totally contradicts the appearance of a teenaged Emma in the later-in-the-timeline-set X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I guess the filmmakers decided to do what I try to do: forget that excerable film ever happened, and to that I say bravo!
In all seriousness, I’m thrilled that the filmmakers felt the freedom to occasionally deviate from continuity, if it was for a good reason. Emma Frost’s appearance certainly fits into that category. It makes FAR more sense to see her at Sebastian Shaw’s side — as she originally was all those years ago when she was introduced in Chris Claremont & John Byrne’s X-Men stories — than her random insertion into Wolverine’s origin. On the other hand, there were some moments where I wondered why the film chose to avoid making some connections to the earlier X-Men films. Since the filmmakers seemed unafraid to reference the score from the first X-Men film in the concentration camp scene, why didn’t we get to hear some of the heroic X-Men theme from those movies in the climax of the film when Xavier’s young team springs into action? (Now’s probably also the time in my review where I repeat the same complaint I’ve had about so many super-hero films of the last several years. Where the heck is the rousing super-hero theme? Why do all of the makers of modern super-hero films seem so afraid of a great, hummable main theme? Would Richard Donner’s Superman have worked as well without John William’s theme? Would Tim Burton’s Batman have worked as well without Danny Elfman’s theme? I think not! Sigh.) I’m also having a hard time squaring just where the terrific opening scene of X-Men 3 (in which a young but much-older-than-they-are-in-this-film Xavier and Magneto, still friends, visit the home of a young Jean Grey) fits into the timeline of this movie. (And I must also confess to have missed the way the “X” in the Fox logo used to linger on-screen, for just an instant, at the start of all the earlier X-Men films!)
The film also falls into the trap into which I see so many prequels stumble — the need to over-explain every little thing from the original films. X-Men: First Class doesn’t just show us the origin of the X-Men, it shows us the origin of cerebro, the blackbird, Magneto’s helmet, Xavier’s underground facilities, and even (in one of the film’s worst scenes) the name X-Men. When the film is subtle in its references to What Came Before it can be very poignant or very funny (like Xavier’s quick “don’t touch my hair” line when Hank suggests they shave his head before he tries using Cerebro). But when the film makes that hair joke again (at the end, when Xavier comments that now that he’s a professor, he might as well be bald), it comes across as obvious and flat. And that scene in which Moira has to oh-so-casually coin the name X-Men is weak in the extreme. We all know they’re the X-Men — Professor X, the X-Gene — we get it!! No need to hit us over the head.
Fortunately, 99% of the time the film doesn’t, and in all honesty when I think about it my problem with the film’s origin-of-everything isn’t so much the idea of explaining where all of Xavier’s awesome tech came from, it’s more that I hate the film’s answer: that Hank McCoy built everything. I mean, seriously, in the film Hank builds the blackbird, he builds Cerebro (which I found particularly disappointing since I always loved Xavier’s bittersweet recollection in the first X-Men film that it was Magneto who helped him build Cerebro), he designs all the costumes, etc. etc.
But now I’m harping on complaints when, really, there is so much that the film gets right that I should focus on. Despite all of my grousing about the film’s being a prequel, I have to comment on just how damn awesome it is that they actually went and made a period X-Men film! The X-Men were created in the 1960′s, of course, and it is so much fun seeing these fantastic characters in groovy 1960′s settings. And I absolutely loved the way the narrative of the film was woven in and out of real-world events. That was very clever, and helped ramp up the fate-of-the-world stakes to the conflict.
It’s fun (though also a little frustrating) to get to see Xavier (and Erik)’s initial group of X-Men. The group is a bizarre hodge-podge of characters. The comic book fan in me LOVES the appearance of the Beast and of Banshee (two great fixtures from the early X-Men comic books — and Banshee is so out-of-the-spotlight today that I NEVER though I’d see the character realized on film), while that same comic book fan really doesn’t like the random other characters included. I want to see a young Scott Summers and Jean Gray! But instead we get Angel Salvadore and Darwin (two not-exactly high-profile characters created in the last decade of X-Men comics) and Alex Summers (Scott’s brother). But here again the film’s terrific casting and sharp script wins the day, as all of these characters were brought quite memorably to life, and each get a decent amount of characterization and some time in the spotlight.
Kevin Bacon is terrific as Shaw — again, great casting, and he’s able to pose a real threat to Xavier and Erik’s team. January Jones absolutely looks the part as Emma Frost, though she doesn’t have much to do in the film. But she looks phenomenal is Emma’s usual skimpy all-white outfits, and the realization of her diamond form is spectacular. Here too my inner geek is astounded that we actually got to see Shaw Emma Frost and the Hellfire club realized on screen. They’re terrific X-Men villains from the comics, but they’re also so weird it was hard to imagine the characters would ever work on screen. But work they absolutely do. (Though I wish we’d gotten to see a little bit more of the sleazy sex-club aspects of the Hellfire Club. The Club was tamed more than I expected it to be.)
Shaw’s other minions are a bit more of a mixed bag. Jason Flemyng is unrecognizable under a lot of red make-up (I didn’t realize it was him until the end credits!) as the teleporting Azazel. I’ve been reading X-Men comics my whole life, and even I have to say Azazel is a pretty obscure character to have appear in the film. (And since even I think the character is not much more than just an evil red version of Nightcrawler — tail, teleporting powers and all — I wonder if mainstream audiences won’t be confused and think he IS Nightcrawler, who was introduced in X2). Then there’s the other villainous character, whose name (to the best of my recollection) is not ever mentioned in the film, and who doesn’t really deliver any lines, and whose powers seem to be the same as Storm’s. So… again, weird choice for a character to use — I’d have preferred the film to have stuck to some of Shaw’s established henchmen from the Hellfire Club.
There are a LOT of characters in the film (you might be starting to notice!) but somehow (other than that evil weather-manipulating dude I just mentioned) the film manages to balance everyone, and give every character some depth and some fun stuff to do. I haven’t even mentioned the curiously-unnamed friendly CIA agent played by Oliver Platt, who’s a lot of fun on his few scenes. (But why the heck isn’t this important character given a name? There are so many characters from X-Men comics continuity that he could have been! For such an important character in the story, I laughed to read in the credits that he’s just identified as “Man in Black Suit.”) I was surprised to see Oliver Platt in the film, since I had no idea he was in this movie! I was also stunned (pleasantly so!) to see Michael Ironside as the American naval captain commanding the ships blockading Cuba. It’s a real wonder WWIII didn’t begin right there, with crazy, war-mongering Michael Ironside in command!!
I don’t think you have to be well-versed in X-Men comics lore to enjoy the film, and it certainly works as a stand-alone tale. (I was wondering how far the story would go, and was somewhat surprised that the film didn’t make us wait for future installments to see the breaking of the Charles/Erik friendship. That’s good and bad, actually. On the one hand, I hate when films are designed as nothing more than set-ups for future films — cough Terminator Salvation cough — and I respect X-Men: First Class for not making us wait for potential sequels for the story to get to the Good Stuff. On the other hand, this film is so good, and this story so rich, that I wouldn’t have objected to see Xavier and Erik’s friendship extended, and for their split not to have happened until a future film. That would have fit better with the backstory in my head. I’d always imagined — and I think the comics and movies always implied — that Charles and Erik were friends and partners for YEARS, not just weeks.)
Speaking of what I had imagined about the Xavier/Erik backstory (and story points I wondered whether the film would get to or not), this brings me to another quibble with the film. (I mean it, SPOILER alert here, folks.) The accidental nature of Xavier’s crippling really bugged me. I would have liked to have seen Erik be more directly responsible for Charles’ paralyzation. As they were fighting on the beach, I was sure Erik’s mounting rage would cause him to do something rash, and I was bummed that didn’t turn out to be the case. I think what we actually got was a bit anticlimactic. Speaking of anticlimactic, I was also bugged by the resolution of Moira’s story, in which Charles borrows a page from Clark Kent’s Superman II playbook and lays an amnesia kiss on Moira. Urgh, I hate amnesia and other memory-wiping reset-button narrative devices even more than I hate prequels! It makes it feel like the whole story we just watched was meaningless, AND it doesn’t make sense with the established back-story this film is theoretically laying the groundwork for. We KNOW that Charles and Moira will eventually have a long and fruitful partnership searching for and caring for mutants. How will that ever happen if she has no memory of all of her interactions with Charles in this film?? And while I’m complaining about story points, let me lay one more log on the fire: Shaw’s plot for world domination/destruction was pretty stupid.
Ok, X-Men: First Class isn’t perfect. But it’s a rousing adventure story that I found very entertaining from start-to-finish. The film is packed to the brim with great action (I haven’t talked about the action and visual effects at all! Suffice to say the action climax off the coast of Cuba is fantastic, and there’s a stand-out yacht-attack sequence in the middle of the film that I really dug) and rich, fascinating, fully-realized characters. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and it’s got a strong emotional core at the heart of its story. It’s a widescreen super-hero story told on a huge canvass. What else do I need to say? It’s great, go see it!
I wonder where the X-Men film series will go from here! For years I’ve been aching the series to move forward, with X-Men 4 and beyond, but I must say I would not object to seeing the further adventures of this cast and group of characters as well! (Dare I dream for BOTH…?)