Release date: June 3rd, 2011
Written by: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, and Jennifer Lawrence
The comic book film genre owes a huge debt to the original X-Men film. While it wasn’t the first film based on a comic book franchise, it was the film that really started the comic book boom. In spite of all the comic films that have come since, the first X-Men still holds up well, as does it’s sequel, X2. The rest of the films in the series…not so much. X-Men 3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I’d like to pretend they never happened. In the series, only half of the films are worth watching, but now First Class has come along to change that.
Of all the comic book films coming out this summer, this has always been my most anticipated. The first two X-Men films are great, and the second is among the best films in the genre. As bad as the most recent films were, it was clear a new direction was being taken with First Class. Plus, it had Matthew Vaughn directing, and I really enjoyed his last film, Kick Ass. Then the reviews started coming in, reviews calling it a great film, and one of the best, some even saying it was as good as The Dark Knight. My expectations were high, extremely high, but could First Class live up to that?
X-Men: First Class takes place in 1962, and shows how a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr, A.K.A Magneto, (Michael Fassbender) came together to form the X-Men. After graduating from Oxford in England, Xavier is recruited by the CIA due to his expertise revolving mutation. He ends up having to track down mutant Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his team of mutants. Shaw plans on starting a nuclear war between the Americans and the Soviets so mutants can rise from the ashes and take the world for themselves. Meanwhile, Lensherr is hunting down Shaw for experiments Shaw performed on him when he was a boy. The two attack Shaw on the same night. While Shaw gets away, Charles and Erik meet for the first time. They then begin to recruit other mutants in order to stop Shaw.
While there is quite a lot going on in terms of plot, the movie really boils down to the relationship between Erik and Charles. This relationship has always been a highlight of the series, and I was curious to see how First Class would handle it. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender play Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, respectively. Both are fantastic in their roles, and stand shoulder to shoulder with the previous actors to play these parts (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen). The Xavier here is a different one then we’ve seen in previous films. He’s a much younger man, and we get to see a side to him we never have before. We see him drinking, partying, chasing women, the typical things someone his age does. Through all this, we still see the wise Xavier, and it’s clear this is definitely the same man who we know and love from the original films. McAvoy does a great job with all this, as he’s really likable, yet also commands your respect, despite being so young.
Just as good is Michael Fassbender as Erik Lensherr/Magneto. Magneto is one of my all time favourite comic book villains, and Ian McKellen did such a great job I didn’t think anyone else could pull it off. Michael Fassbender proved me wrong. He really captures the pain and torment of Magneto’s character, and you really sympathize with him. Also, like Xavier, you see how this Erik becomes the Magneto we know from the other films. Despite are eliciting the audience’s sympathies, Fassbender still evokes the same sense of terror and menace that McKellen brought to the part. McAvoy and Fassbender are both so good in these roles, I’d argue they surpass Stewart and McKellen’s original interpretations of the characters.
Whenever the two are on screen, they command it. Their scenes together are the highlight of the film. From little things such as the two playing chess with each other (which was in the original films) to the scenes where their ideologies are clashing, it’s all so well executed. Throughout the film, there’s a real sense of dramatic irony. We know how things end up, we know Xavier and Magneto are destine to be in conflict. Even knowing this, you can’t help but want things to be different. There is a strong friendship between Charles and Erik, and you want them to stay friends even though you know it won’t happen. The final scene between the two is especially good and is extremely emotional.
The rest of the cast is also very good, even though none of them reach the same level McAvoy and Fassbender are on. Jennifer Lawrence brings a new depth to Mystique as she is caught between both Charles and Erik. On one hand, she’s a long time friend of Xavier (an angle of the story I loved), but she really sees things from Erik’s point of view. I wasn’t too impressed with Lawrence in her Oscar-nominated role for Winter’s Bone, but she really impressed me here. The rest of the new mutants are all good. They aren’t given much to do, but all of them leave a good impression. In fact, this is the first X-Men movie where you really love the whole team. Where all of them are really likable and memorable.
The villains in the film are good, but not great. Sebastian Shaw’s overall plan is very generic and taken right out of a Saturday morning cartoon. Now, Kevin Bacon does a lot with the role and makes him far more intriguing then he should. Plus, Shaw is somewhat a reflection of what Erik will eventually become, which also adds to him a bit. He’s mutant allies were also solid. My favourite is Azazel. Think Nightcrawler, but red, with a sword, and a bad guy. He didn’t have a single line of dialogue, but damn he was awesome. The other two, Emma Frost and Riptide, were alright, nothing special.
The film is well written, and the it integrates the villains plot, history, and human prejudice together very well. Some history buffs may take issue with how the film deals with the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I liked it. The movie is also very well paced, balancing comedy, drama, and action perfectly. Of all the X-Men films, this one is easily the most fun. It’s definitely a dramatic film and there are plenty of weighty moments, but it’s still a lot of fun, and probably the most fun I’ve had in a theater all year. The main reason for this is because of the team they assemble, and how much you like them. It also helps that they’re young people, and have this youthful energy to them that’s easy to get behind.
Vaughn handles the action very well, better than Bryan Singer even did. The climax is awesome, with a lot of mutants dishing it out with some awesome fight choreography, camerawork, and special effects utilized. There’s also a lot of fantastic scenes involving Magneto’s powers, including using a chain to destroy a boat, raising a submarine from the ocean, and stopping a wave of missiles. There’s also some smaller yet just as effective scenes regarding his powers, like Magneto using his powers to torture Nazis.
Matthew Vaughn has done a lot with X-Men: First Class. He’s made a film that surpasses his last one (Kick Ass), he’s made the best X-Men film to date, and finally, he’s made the best Marvel film to date. X-Men: First Class isn’t quite on the level of say, The Dark Knight, but it’s not too far off either, and it’s certainly the best comic book film since The Dark Knight. It’s fun, action packed, dramatic, and features two great performances from young actors I can’t wait to see more of. I don’t care who you are or what kind of films you like, you don’t wanna miss this.
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