Among the year’s more pleasant surprises in terms of blockbusters and would-be blockbusters is Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class. Of course, it’s worth noting that none of this year’s big pictures have exactly been terrible (give it time, Michael Bay is on the way). It’s equally worth noting that I have no clue about what aspects the movie might or might not get right as concerns the comic-book mythology it’s all based on. Nor do I care, though I’ll be more than happy to listen to any litany of sins it may have committed.
Here’s where I stand. I liked X-Men (2000). I more than liked X2 (2003), which still gets my vote as best of the new breed (read: from X-Men forward) of serious-minded, superhero-comic-book movies. I really disliked X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). And I didn’t mind X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). The current installment I’d place about on a par with the original X-Men. It’s not quite in the same league, and it’s sure not up there with X2, but it beats the trousers off the last two. The downside to this? I really expected a little more from Matthew Vaughn.
I don’t know whether this new film is a prequel or a reboot, but it certainly takes place prior to the action of the first three films, since it deals with the origins of Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Some of this—especially Erik’s days in a Nazi concentration camp—have been touched on elsewhere. Here, however, they’ve been given prominence, and this mostly works. Placing the film against a Cold War backdrop that threatens to become anything but cold during the Cuban Missile Crisis works surprisingly well—and gives the proceedings a little extra weight. Yes, it does require the viewer to swallow a certain amount of alternate history, but considering we’re in a story that involves folks with super powers, is that asking all that much?
The central story involves Erik’s old concentration-camp nemesis (Kevin Bacon) who has resurfaced (fresh from a bracing stint in Argentina, of course) as Sebastian Shaw, a shady millionaire with aims to start WWIII for purposes of his own. Erik, on the other hand, is after Shaw for killing his mother in front of him to provoke his metal-controlling mutant powers. It is this, more than the privileged telepath Charles’ notions of right and wrong, that causes Erik to throw in his lot with the CIA and the incipient X-Men. That’s ultimately as it should be, of course, since Magneto’s aims are not wholly unlike those of Shaw—albeit for somewhat different reasons.
What the film ultimately comes down to is the believability of both Charles and Erik. My only complaint here is simply that McAvoy looks much younger than Fassbender (he isn’t actually), but I like both men in the roles in terms of performances. Fassbender—despite a tendency to drift into his Irish accent in moments of excitement—has the edge. Much of that is due to the strong mitigating factor that Magneto is simply the more interesting character and makes a stronger case for his point of view.
More of the film rings true and works than doesn’t. It helps that the film’s design cheats the era. Production design—especially involving Shaw’s gadgetry and the look of his lairs and personal submarine—has much more in common with the pop-art world of the later 1960s than the 1962 setting. Much of it looks like something out of a mid-period Sean Connery Bond movie, or even a spy spoof like Casino Royale (1967). When you realize how mundane the real 1962 looked, this is a pretty big plus. Generally, the film captures the right balance between the serious and the jokey. (One cameo goes perhaps too far in pulling you out of the movie, but since it provides the film with its biggest laugh, it’s hard to complain.) Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language.