X-Men: First Class

Movie Information

The Story: The first meeting of Professor X and Magneto -- and the origins of the X-Men -- are detailed. The Lowdown: Solid, enjoyable superhero movie with better-than-average performances. Not up to the best in the series, but much better than the lower-tier offerings.
Score:

Genre: Sci-Fi Comic Book Action
Director: Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass)
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt
Rated: PG-13

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

29 thoughts on “X-Men: First Class

  1. trex

    I loved this movie! After some time to consider it…this is the second best comic book movie ever.
    (Second only to Dark Knight of course)
    On another subject I would love to see Michael Fassbender be the next James Bond.

    This was an excellent time to have at the cinema and I don’t understand why all the comic book fans are “nit picking” and complaining. I guess you can never please them unless your last name is Nolan.

  2. Just back from a screening at the Carolina. My first movie-going experience outside of Sydney. Very comfy chairs.

    Legitimately thrilling entertainment on a level I’ve not seen since TRUE GRIT – it doesn’t scale those heights but it’s a great deal of fun.

    McAvoy and Fassbender spend most of the film proving they’d make an ideal Watson and Holmes pairing should the opportunity arise. Fassbender has a jagged charisma and lethal look in his eyes and I understand why Ian Fleming readers are clamouring for him to take on the Bond role sometime in the future. It’s a rare actor who can wave his arms about in front of him pretending to telepathically move bits of metal around, but Fassbender is up to the challenge.

    I also buy it as a prequel to X-MEN. I could easily see these characters ageing into Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the next 38 years.

  3. Vince Lugo

    I’ve been a huge X-Men fan for most of my life and from that perspective, I think First Class is the best of the series because it does the best job of distilling the essence of what makes the story so compelling. What I want to know is why the third film gets so much hate. I liked it because it was heavily influenced by Joss Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men, which I’m a fan of. Also, as far as trilogy-ending status quo changes go, you can’t get much bigger than a cure for mutantcy. It was cool to see Colossus get a bigger role, too, even if he didn’t have much in the way of dialogue. I don’t know what anyone else was expecting, but all I wanted was another adventure and I was satisfied with what we got. Just in general, I don’t understand all the complaining that goes on among the fans whenever a new superhero film comes out. They should be happy we have these films at all because, until recently, no one was very interested in adapting comics. In my opinion, a comic book movie doesn’t necessarily have to get the details right (although it’s a big plus when they do). As long as it stays true to the spirit of the comics, that’s all we can reasonably ask. What more do you want?

  4. Ken Hanke

    As long as it stays true to the spirit of the comics, that’s all we can reasonably ask. What more do you want?

    A good movie? I speak as someone who doesn’t really care about comic books, but you’re speaking in the same mode as those on horror sites that think all horror films need support because it’s theoretically good for the genre when you take the “we should be happy we have these films at all” stance.

  5. Ken Hanke

    It wasn’t very good. The first two were, which made the third all the more disappointing.

    Raising the question would I have liked it better if the first two hadn’t been so good?

  6. Raising the question would I have liked it better if the first two hadn’t been so good?

    I suspect you would have disliked it less, but that’s a far as I would go.

  7. Ken Hanke

    I suspect you would have disliked it less, but that’s a far as I would go.

    There is a subtle, but important distinction there.

  8. Dread P. Roberts

    I guess it is all moot since this movie is the best of the series.

    I agree that it is very good, but I’m not quite sure if it’s actually better than X2. I wonder if (for some folks) it might just perhaps be a case of ‘feeling’ better, simply because it’s newer/fresher. I like it, but I’m curious how well this’ll hold up for me in a couple of years.

  9. Dread P. Roberts

    And then there are those of who believe the comic book movie peaked with The Spirit.

    I do feel a bit annoyed that what passes for summer movie blockbusters these days seems to be 75% comic book adaptations, and 20% sequels/remakes/reboots. With that said, I’m still looking forward to Rodriguez’s supposed Sin City sequels on the horizon.

  10. Ken Hanke

    You do realize that I am about 90% serious about The Spirit? I’d like to see a Sin City sequel, but who knows if that’s ever going to happen?

  11. Dread P. Roberts

    You do realize that I am about 90% serious about The Spirit?

    Oh… I was thinking you were only 86% serious. Percentages can get rather confusing.

  12. I still like X-MEN the best out of all of them, because it has the most Patrick Stewart / Ian McKellen talking portentously out of all of them. That was what initially hooked me on this franchise, and one of the worst things about X3 was knocking Stewart off half-way through the film.

    Fassbender and McAvoy don’t have the same gravitas, but are still plenty compelling as a duo in this one.

  13. davidf

    I enjoyed this movie, but I was often distracted by the nagging question of whether or not this is a prequel or a reboot. The cameos and other visual effects continuities, and the selection of a cast of characters that omits some of the most popular X-men (Cyclops, Jean Grey, Wolverine) seemingly to avoid contradicting the continuity of the other films, all suggest a prequel.

    !!!!SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!

    On the other hand, if it’s a prequel, there are some pretty significant continuity errors. If Magneto gets his anti-mind-control helmet from Shaw, why does he have to invent one in the original X-men? If Xavier’s origin story in First Class is to lead to the Professor X portrayed in the other films, how do we explain his ability to stand when he and Magneto go discover Jean Grey sometime in the ’80s?

    I enjoyed First Class on its own merits (apart from Beast’s Muppet makeup, that is), but I would have enjoyed it much more if I could have made up my mind as to what type of movie I was watching, and if I should have had the continuity of the other movies in mind at all.

  14. Dread P. Roberts

    a cast of characters that omits some of the most popular X-men (Cyclops, Jean Grey, Wolverine)

    Wolverine did make a cameo appearance, in what might’ve been my favorite part of the movie.

    I enjoyed First Class on its own merits (apart from Beast’s Muppet makeup, that is)

    I’m being completely honest here. The guy in the seat behind me started talking and laughing like the cookie monster, when Beast first showed up on screen.

  15. I enjoyed this movie, but I was often distracted by the nagging question of whether or not this is a prequel or a reboot.

    Did you have this problem while watching the Campbell CASINO ROYALE?

  16. Ken Hanke

    Did you have this problem while watching the Campbell CASINO ROYALE?

    Yeah. It wasn’t the 1967 one.

  17. This might be a good thread to talk about the summer box office, which to me looks like it is down. Only two films so far have broken 200 million and each week it looks like big films (and good ones) are having diminishing weekend box office.

    Second best X-Men btw.

  18. DrSerizawa

    What I want to know is why the third film gets so much hate.

    It doesn’t. There is a huge gap between dislike and hatred. If someone actually hated Xmen3 he would try to destroy all the copies or attack the director or start a blog against it or commit some other intense act against it.

    One can’t deny that XMen2 set the bar pretty high and that XMen3 was a huge disappointment.

    That’s one of the problems of fanboys. They can’t stand even the thought of someone disagreeing with their opinions on movies. They are doomed to a lifetime of disappointment if they don’t grow up.

  19. davidf

    “Did you have this problem while watching the Campbell CASINO ROYALE?”

    I’m not really a Bond fan, and haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment on that. But aren’t Bond films, whenever a new actor is cast as Bond, typically presented and marketed as reboots to an extent? I may be wrong about that, I don’t know. First Class seemed to be marketed as a prequel. And part of the enjoyment I get from X-men is the relationships and history between the characters, so whether or not my knowledge of the characters’ future history together should bear upon the proceedings is of some significance. Not saying I didn’t enjoy the film, but not knowing how to take it was a bit distracting when something came up that appeared to be a continuity error.

  20. Ken Hanke

    This might be a good thread to talk about the summer box office, which to me looks like it is down. Only two films so far have broken 200 million and each week it looks like big films (and good ones) are having diminishing weekend box office.

    I think it’s called overkill — and it seems to get worse every year. Theaters are full of “The Next Big Thing” on an almost weekly basis. No one pauses to consider that the original so-called blockbusters relied very heavily on repeat business. Well, when you dangle the next shiny object almost immediately, there’s no time for that. The studios may not care that much, since they’ve been tending to make up the shortfalls overseas.

  21. Ken Hanke

    If someone actually hated Xmen3 he would try to destroy all the copies or attack the director or start a blog against it or commit some other intense act against it.

    Even that may not prove hatred. Upon seeing the film version of his concept album Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, Vivian Stanshall is reputed to have attempted to stab the director. But he also claimed that he liked the movie. Then again, Stanshall was not the world’s most well-balanced man.

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