There are two forces at play in Matthew Vaughn’s prequel to the X-Men series, X-Men: First Class. There’s a smolderingly good film about adults seeking revenge for personal atrocities, weighing what it means to be a mutant, how that level of evolution fits into greater society and the ramifications of forced immersion into that world. That film is anchored by grown-ups, talented actors like Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Rose Byrne, and Kevin Bacon, who know how to bring the cultural metaphors underlying a comic-book story to the surface, and who can add a layer of sophistication and complexity to a tale of superheroes and villains.
The other film, which can best be described as Mutant Spy Kids, is led by the serviceable Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Raven, the young woman who would become Mystique. That film is a lighter, more superficial coming of age story about teenagers dealing with their insecurities and showing off their ill-formed mutant powers. It’s mostly silly and frivolous, and there’s not much weight or dimension to the young characters. They’re gnats buzzing around a much better film, and it’s hard not to want to shoo them away.
Fortunately, it’s the adults who own X-Men: First Class. The kids attempt, valiantly at times, to chip away at the more textured story, to bring it down to their more cartoonish level, but like Darwin — the X-Men Mutant — the adults in First Class adapt and survive, and ultimately it is Vaughn’s film that survives to stand with X2 as the best in the series.
Eleven years ago, it was Bryan Singer who brought the X-Men to life onscreen, gaining a level of box-office and critical success unseen outside of the three major superheroes, Superman, Batman, and Spider-man. In 2003, Singer kicked it up a notch, creating a smarter, more ambitious installment, a riveting action flick that broadened the emotional spectrum of comic-book films. In 2005, after Singer passed on the third installment to direct Superman Returns, Matthew Vaughn — who had only one film, Layer Cake, on his resume — signed on to direct the X-3. He had to withdraw at the last minute, and the film passed on to Brett Ratner. Were it not for the Ratnerfucking of X-3: The Last Stand, there may have never been a need for an X-Men prequel. Unintentionally, First Class may be the one thing in Ratner’s career for which we can all be thankful.
First Class opens in 1944, where we get our first glimpse of the future Magneto, Erik Lehnsherr, a teenager in a Nazi concentration camp who discovers — after his family is taken away from him — that he can move metal with his mind if he’s sufficiently pissed off. It is the deliciously evil German-speaking, chocolate-eating Sebastian Shaw who, in an attempt to harness Erik’s mutant powers for his own gain, murders Erik’s mother, revealing Magneto’s true power. That same year, a young Charles Xavier — a telepath who can read other people’s minds and implant his own thoughts — meets for the first time young Raven, a homeless blue shape-shifter foraging through his refrigerator and carrying with her some deep insecurities.
Cut to 1962, where we discover that Sebastian Shaw, played by the original Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, is not only attempting to collect mutants but also manipulate Russia and the United States into World War III knowing that the destruction of humanity through nuclear means will leave the mutants as the only standing inhabitants. A CIA Agent, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), stumbles upon Shaw’s plan, as well as his power to absorb kinetic energy and transform it into strength. She subsequently enrolls the help of a womanizing Charles Xavier, an academic expert in mutants, to stop Shaw. In the process of doing so, Xavier saves Erik’s life when an attempt by Erik to kill Shaw goes awry. For Erik and Charles, it’s the beginning of a rich, but conflicted, friendship.
With the reluctant help of the CIA, Xavier, Erik, and Raven seek out and collect a number of teenage mutants — Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Darwin (Edi Gathegi) and Havok (Lucas Till) — to form an alliance against Shaw and his mutant sidekicks, Emma Frost (January Jones) and Riptide (Álex González). Eventually, the two mutant coalitions do battle against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a plot turn that’s equally inspired and absurd. Who knew World War III was averted by mutant superheroes whipping around over the ocean manipulating the minds of military commanders and the direction of their weapons?
There’s a certain tediousness to the first act of First Class, as introductions have to be made each time a mutant meets another mutant, and obligatory ONE OF US speeches must be meted out. Emma Frost, who is Shaw’s right-hand (wo)man, also has entirely too much screen time in the first half of the film, only to all but disappear in the last act. She feels almost superfluous to the story, and though it befits her character, Jones’ acting is so wooden as to actually distract from her lingerie ensembles (Byrne does the more admirable job of providing the film’s fleshy eyefuls).
Jennifer Lawrence, the Oscar-nominated star of Winter’s Bone and all the rage now that she’s been cast as the lead in Hunger Games, gives a fairly benign performance as Mystique, no more or less remarkable than her older counterpart, Rebecca Romijn. On the other hand, Nicholas Hoult — the adorable child in About a Boy who had a splendid turn in the UK series, “Skins” — does an outright injustice to Kelsey Grammer’s Beast. The rest of the teenage actors, likewise, feel as though they were pulled from the CW lot and thrown onto the set of First Class to whoop it up while displaying their Crest white-stripped teeth. (There are also a couple of cameos, and while I won’t spoil them, I will say that Vaughn makes superb use of the one F-Bomb the film’s PG-13 rating allows.)
But it’s James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and, to a lesser extent, Kevin Bacon, who control and elevate the film, deftly patching up the uneven spots left by the supporting cast. You can sense, in McAvoy’s character, the thoughtful optimist who would go on to be played by Patrick Stewart. Bacon’s Shaw starts out strong, but his character unfortunately wavers into evil caricature by the final act. Fassbender, conversely, steals this movie from the first frame to the last, and though we know who he becomes, he’s so magnetic a performer that his is the plight, driven by rage and anguish, that’s most sympathetic and his choices that feel most natural. With his backstory revealed, the motivations of his older character are better understood. Indeed, Magneto may not be the better man, but he is the one most of us would choose to be.
Ultimately, Vaughn’s film does exactly what a prequel should be capable of: It stands on its own as an outstanding entry into the franchise, but it also adds context that enriches subsequent films. There are some small cannon inconsistencies (many of which conflict with Wolverine: Origins and The Last Stand, both of which most would just assume not exist), but First Class also goes a long way toward explaining the backstories of Magneto and Xavier, deepening the franchise’s mythology and creating in Xavier and Magneto even more compelling characters. In a retroactive sense, there’s considerably more substance and meaning now to conversations between the two old friends in subsequent films, and First Class creates a desire to revisit them.
Yet what’s most remarkable about First Class, the fifth in the series of X-Men films, is that it’s the first one since the original that inspires a want for more. There are 35-plus years between the events of this film and X-Men, and with Matthew Vaughn at the helm and McAvoy and Fassbender involved, there’s a lot of gaps I can’t wait to be filled.