Prequels can be tricky. I can’t always work up the interest, like for instance, in the upcoming Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I mean, why? I know what’s going to happen. Do I really need to watch two hours of just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should do it moralism? Or even I’m making ethically and actively dangerous decisions, but it’s to benefit mankind, so that makes it a-okay, right? I could just watch Jurassic Park or Deep Blue Sea again if that’s what I wanted. Dinosaurs and sharks trump mean chimpanzees, every time.
However, I HAD to watch X-Men: First Class in theater. I didn’t grow up reading the comics, but I was completely devoted to the animated series as a child, and so I’ve been an X-Men fan long before Bryan Singer came out with the first film back in 2000. And I’ve maintained my X-Men fan status through some dark periods in our history, X-Men: The Last Stand, for instance, or X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I was more than a little afraid going in of what First Class was going to deliver.
Thankfully, it was pretty damn incredible.
Before Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr were enemies, they were buds. This is the story of how they became friends, how their friendship fell apart, and how mutants were discovered by the rest of the human race.
1. X-Men: First Class is a mostly wonderful film with a few small problems . . . and one problem that I find considerably more significant. First, however, let me talk about what works really well, in fact, what works so well it’s a little ridiculous: Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto.
I am so much in love with this man right now, it’s not even funny.
Michael Fassbender is the most compelling, the most heartbroken, and the most badass version of Magneto I’ve ever seen or could have possibly imagined. He commands such rage and such power in this film; it’s really kind of incredible to watch, and he easily steals the show from everyone else involved. There’s something . . . heh . . . magnetic about his performance. I mean, apologies for the obvious pun, but it’s true: no matter how many mutants are on the screen at any given time, you’re always drawn to Erik.
I first saw Fassbender in 300, where he played my favorite character, Stelios. I really enjoyed him in that, but I kind of forgot about him later, not realizing that he was also my favorite character in Inglourious Basterds until much, much later. I thought I’d fallen in love with him as Lt. Archie Hicox. I was wrong. I was so, so wrong. The truth is, I’m sort of a vengeance junkie, and Michael Fassbender?
He has sated my lust for vengeance.
2. Of course, where there’s Magneto, there’s also Charles X, played in First Class by James McAvoy.
I’ll be honest: at first, I wasn’t terribly wowed by McAvoy’s performance. I was interested in seeing a younger, flawed, and frankly sleazier version of Charles Xavier (“groovy”) but he just didn’t seem like X to me for some reason . . . at least, until he met up with Erik and started training the other kids on how to use their powers. Then I started to like him a lot. His scenes with Fassbender are the backbone of this movie. Also, the heart. Also, the kidneys, the lungs, and the skin.
Do not be fooled: this movie is not about mutants. This movie is about a bromance, a wonderful, lovely, tragic bromance.
3. Filling out the Triumvirate of Acting Awesomeness is Kevin Bacon as Supremo Evil Bad Guy, Sebastian Shaw.
I know that Kevin Bacon is a sort of an underrated actor (I couldn’t believe he didn’t get an Oscar nod along with his costars Tim Robbins and Sean Penn for Mystic River) but sometimes I still forget how awesome he can be. He’s extremely effective here at being both creepy and ruthless, and the scene where you first meet him? My God, that’s a good scene. He nails evil glee perfectly.
4. Now, where I think this movie starts to fall down is how it deals with the women. There are four important to semi-important female characters in this movie, and I think X-Men: First Class fails all of them in some regard. I will take them one by one.
4A. January Jones kind of sucks.
I’ve always found January Jones to be vaguely annoying, but since the only film I’ve ever seen her in is an exceptionally bad horror movie called Taboo, I was willing to give her a chance. You can’t judge everyone for their bad horror movie pasts, or else Renee Zellwegger would never have gotten an Oscar, and anyway, Jones gets such acclaim for Mad Men—there’s gotta be a reason, right? (Although, it must be said that Jones is pretty atrocious in Taboo, even for the kind of shit movie that it is.)
But Jones’s Emma Frost is just so . . . BLAH. And I don’t even care about Emma Frost; I didn’t have any kind of preconceived notion about her character going into the film because I don’t really remember her from the cartoons. Apparently, she popped up somewhere in the Phoenix saga, and I’ve long since tried to shut that out of my brain because it lasted for fucking EONS . . . but, dammit, she could have been so much cooler in this movie. For God’s sake, she’s just supposed to be kickass eye candy. That’s it, that’s all. It’s not supposed to take that much talent. Rebecca Romijn did it better in the first X-Men film, and she had one line.
I’m starting to doubt how good January Jones could possibly be in Mad Men because what I’ve seen of her so far is wildly underwhelming.
4B. Angel has some very questionable decision-making skills.
I can’t actually discuss this much outside the Spoiler Section, but let’s just say that there’s a point where Angel makes a decision that, in my opinion, makes no godamned sense. Maybe if we knew a little more about her backstory, got a better sense of her character that would somehow make this decision understandable . . . but Angel’s a relatively minor character. And honestly, I’m okay with that—some of the criticism I’ve seen of this film so far has been about not giving enough to depth to smaller characters like Havoc, Darwin, Banshee, and Angel. But I figure, you only have so much time to work within a feature film, and some people are going to get the short shrift. It’s the reason that every TNG film is about Picard and Data, and it’s the reason I’m a little concerned about The Avengers (cause you know “lesser” heroes like Hawkeye and the Hulk are going to get overshadowed by bigwigs like Thor and Iron Man).
And so I wouldn’t mind Angel not being as fully developed as other characters, I really wouldn’t . . . except that she appears to have no valid reason to make the decision she makes, and I have a problem with that, one of which I will spend some time ranting about in the Spoiler Section.
4C. What the hell did they do to Moira MacTaggert?
Look, I expect a film to change some backstory, I do, and I was perfectly okay with most of the changes made for this film. (Havoc not being Cyclops’s brother, Mystique and Charles being childhood friends . . . well, at the least the idea, anyway. We’ll get to my problems with execution.) But to change a Scottish doctor into an American CIA agent . . . why even call her Moira? If you needed a CIA agent, just make up a new character. No one would have cared. No one would have said, Oh no, she’s an original character, so screw her all to hell. I won’t even look upon an original character. I mean, that’s just silly.
More importantly, though, Moira starts out as a strong woman, ready to do what needs to be done, investigate on her own, strip down to the sexy garters that she apparently wears under every outfit . . . but almost the very second you put her with the mutants, she just fades away from the story. I think she disappeared for a good twenty minutes of the film, and when she popped again, I thought, Oh right, you’re still alive. I forgot all about you.
I know mutants are more exciting, but it would be nice if the one main non-mutant character had something to do past the first act of the film.
As far as the last female mutant character, well, my problems with her are so vast that she gets her own note.
5. WHAT IN GOD’S NAME DID YOU DO TO MYSTIQUE?
It’s hard to know exactly who to blame for this. I don’t think it’s all acting—possibly not even mostly acting. After all, I love Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, and it’s clear that the director had a different vision in mind for this character . . .
. . . but what the holy hell? Look, I appreciate that Mystique is supposed to be a young woman in this story, wanting people to appreciate hers for who she really is, wanting people to think she’s beautiful while simultaneously wanting to feel normal for once in her life. I get that, and it’s a good arc, and I want to sympathize with her for it . . .
. . . but it’s all she has in this entire movie, even though she’s a major player, and even though they invented this whole silly backstory with her and Xavier—she has no purpose in this film but to whine over and over again, not even showing a glimmer of her kickass potential, not once in two whole hours. I wasn’t expecting Young Mystique to be a kung fu master or anything, but I thought they’d show at least a hint about how unbelievably badass she is or is going to become. For Christ’s sake, what was her section in the training montage, anyway? Weight-lifting for like a second? Even if you wanted to emphasize that her powers are mostly subterfuge and therefore not as useful in battle as, say, having a power to control metal, why not give her the gun that she’s famous for having?
I like the idea of seeing a younger, more vulnerable version of Mystique, but to strip her of every single badass moment and just leave her a girl with a crush who wants someone to say she’s pretty . . . this is a problem for me. I also have a problem with her relationship to Charles. I don’t mind the idea of it, but the execution bothers me. I’ll talk in greater detail about this later, but the basic gist is this: Vaughn seems to focus so much on the bromance between Charles and Erik that he forgot he created this special relationship between Charles and Mystique for a reason. The way it’s depicted, honestly, I’m not really sure why they bothered with it at all.
6. I do like how the story inserted so nicely into the 1960’s. Since X-Men has always been first and foremost about civil rights, seeing it in this particular decade is actually kind of neat. And while it’s been some time since history class, I kind of like how the story became a sort of a revisionist history with the Cuban Missile Crisis. I thought that was cleverly done.
7. I wasn’t crazy about the very opening scene because it’s almost a shot-by-shot remake of Magneto’s childhood from the first X-Men . . . except not nearly as good. The scene in the original film has always stuck with me for some reason. I remember it very clearly, and watching this less impressive copy did not start me out on the right foot with this film. Thankfully, the next scene with Child Magneto is so awesome that I forgot all about the opener for the rest of the film.
8. There are a shitload of people in this movie, just tons of actors I know from movies or television popping up for tiny, frankly thankless roles. Actually, I kind of loved it, wanting to know who I’d recognize next. I’ll mention names in the Spoiler Section, including a couple of the more important cameos, one of which I (and probably everyone else) totally called, and one which I didn’t see coming at all.
9. This movie has a couple of nice, light-hearted moments to balance out all the fanboy angst, including a couple of shots at Xavier’s impending baldness. The first one made me laugh. The second one, unfortunately, was painfully obvious and made me cringe. I can’t blame James McAvoy here. I’m pretty sure nobody could make that line work.
10. Finally—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—there’s one thing that X-Men: The Last Stand does better than X-Men: First Class: Beast’s makeup.
X-Men: First Class is easily the superior film—even with my serious problems with Mystique, it’s really a damn good movie and I’d go see it again in theaters—but Beast’s face? Yeah, it totally sucks in this one.
Spoilers from here on out. Anyone who hasn’t see this movie, go watch it instead of reading further. I’ve knocked X-Men: First Class for some things that I think it deserves to be criticized for, but I don’t think I can properly express to you how great Michael Fassbender’s and James McAvoy’s scenes are together, and their friendship really does outshine anything else that might be wrong with the movie.
All right. I am now going to talk about almost every single thing that happens in this film. Get comfy.
First, there’s the scene where we meet Sebastian Shaw. He’s sitting in this cozy little office with Child Erik, talking about how the Nazis are all a bunch of brutes and whatnot and how sorry he is for what’s happened to Erik and his family . . . but then points out that the Nazis are, at the very least, effective in getting results. Then you flip and see the other side of the office, where there is a room with pretty much every tool that you’d find in the Hostel or Saw movies. It’s an awesomely brilliant and creepy shot.
See, Shaw is very interested in mutants, and he saw Erik’s little display with the metal gate at the beginning of the film. Now he wants a repeat performance, and if Erik can’t manage to move this coin with his mind in three seconds, Shaw’s going to shoot Erik’s mother dead. And when, unsurprisingly, Erik can’t quite do it . . . yep, Shaw shoots the poor woman down.
This enrages and devastates young Erik so much that he tears the fucking room in half and kills the two Nazis in the room by crushing their heads with their own helmets. Awesome. Shaw is gleeful, congratulating Erik with seemingly no concern about his own life—something that makes a touch more sense later when you realize he’s a mutant himself. Kevin Bacon’s performance in this scene alone is spectacular. There was awhile there where it seemed like Bacon was only playing bad guys, and now I know why: cause he’s great at it.
When Erik grows up into the smoking hot Michael Fassbender, he’s on a quest for revenge, killing old Nazis on the way as he tries to hunt down Shaw. Seriously, I was on Magneto’s team in the first twenty minutes of this movie. There’s one scene where he awesomely takes out two Nazis somewhere in South America, I think (I can’t exactly remember where). Then, there’s another scene where he’s interrogating this guy and uses his power to pull out the guy’s fucking filling. I like to think it takes a bit to make me seriously squirm, but I’ve definitely got a teeth hangup, and I think all my friends and I were cringing at this scene during the film. So fucking AWESOME.
Meanwhile, Child Charles and Child Mystique meet when Mystique tries to steal food from the mansion he lives in, and he tells her that she doesn’t have to steal anymore and that they’re going to be fast friends and so on. As they grow up, however, you see that Charles—as powerful as he is and as kind as he can be—is both kind of obtuse and a little arrogant when it comes to his younger sister’s conflicted feelings about being “mutant and proud”. (This sentiment, while obviously important, is used way too many times during this movie, like, thanks screenwriters, but I got it the first 16 times you said it.)
And like I said before, I like that Charles is flawed, and I don’t mind that he’s completely missing the point most of the time when Mystique talks to him, but even with them heading in opposite directions, their relationship shouldn’t feel utterly superficial. But, honestly, it just does . . . they’ve supposedly adopted each other as siblings for so many years, but you never get any real sense of them as siblings except for a couple of forced bits (he says he feels protective of her, etc., etc.) All the depth they put into Charles and Erik’s friendship—and, admittedly, these scenes are wonderful, particularly the scene where Charles helps Erik remember this nice memory he actually has of his mom and they both cry simultaneously—none of it can be found between these two characters who have been each other’s touchstones for at least a decade.
This is readily apparent at the end of the film, when Mystique chooses Erik over Charles about thirty seconds after Erik is directly responsible for Charles getting shot. And not like shot in the arm or something, either, shot in the freaking back. She’s teleported away before she even knows if he’s going to live. Sure, he’s talking and all, but again, he’s been shot in the back. Even if he hasn’t said, “I can’t feel my legs,” yet, you’d think she’d be smart enough to understand that he might not be a-o-freaking-kay.
It’s just, this should have been such a huge moment, you know, when Mystique chooses Erik, chooses mutants first and living proud, over her own adopted brother. This should have been a gut-wrenching scene, just freaking rife with emotion, and instead, it’s more like, Yeah, I’m sorry you got shot, but Magneto just GETS me, you know? Take care of yourself, okay?
At least Mystique’s reasoning for choosing Magneto makes a little more sense than why Angel switches sides and joins Team Sebastian. See, while Moira, Charles, and Erik are out in Russia, Shaw and his cronies attack the facility where all the young mutants are being kept. And after they brutally kill every single officer and suit there (including Oliver Platt, poor, poor, flattened Oliver Platt) Shaw tells the mutants that while he’s not going to hurt any of them now, there’s a war coming, and if they aren’t with him, they’re against him. And Angel’s like, “Sorry, kids, but I’m going with Badass Shaw here.”
If Angel’s purely trying to stay alive, figuring that nobody can beat Shaw, so might as well join him—you know, I’m okay with that. But the reason she gives to the other mutants is this: “We don’t belong here.” See, the soldiers haven’t been super nice to the young mutants, staring at them, calling them freaks, teasing them through big glass pane windows, etc, and sure, that sucks. I’ve been teased before myself. However.
The mutants that you’re aligning yourself with just brutally murdered about fifty men. You saw a few of them die with your own eyes. I’m pretty sure they made some nice SPLAT noises as they fell to their deaths in front of you. So, your plan is to implicitly place your trust in a band of mass murderers that you’ve never met before simply because they’re also mutants and therefore must be better than a few mean guys who made faces at you outside a fucking window?
Gosh, with stellar decision-making skills like that, it’s amazing you’re even alive, Angel.
Let’s see, where was I in the actual plot . . . well, Shaw’s trying to start a nuclear war, under the belief that the radiation will kill all the humans while making all the mutants stronger. The good mutants manage to avert the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Shaw has his own bomb, and the only way Charles can stop him is if Erik can break whatever’s protecting Shaw from Charles’s mind control. Erik eventually manages to do that, and Charles freezes Shaw temporarily. Unfortunately for Charles and his “be the better man” philosophy, Erik takes the opportunity to slide his coin . . . yes, the same coin from the beginning of the film . . . through Shaw’s head, killing him while he’s completely helpless. Have I mentioned that Erik is awesome enough yet?
Erik comes out, wearing his new special, telepathy-blocking helmet that he somehow manages to pull off despite it still looking ridiculous. He tells the others that the Russians and Americans are no longer concerned about each other; they’re planning on killing all the mutants on the island. Charles scans the humans and confirms that this is true, right before the non-mutants fire a shitload of missiles at them. Thankfully, Erik manages to stop all the missiles, and Charles tries to stop him from retaliating, but, unfortunately, he chooses his words exceptionally poorly: “They’re just following orders.”
Obviously, Erik sends the missiles back the non-mutants way, and Charles tackles him. They scuffle around for a bit, and when Moira (oh, hi Moira!) tries to shoot Erik, he deflects the bullets and one of them hits Charles in the back. Thankfully, this ruins Erik’s concentration, and the missiles all just blow up in the water, but sadly, Charles is still shot.
Erik blames Moira instantly and tries to kill her, and Charles has to point out that she didn’t do this to him, Erik did. This takes a little of the righteous wind out of Erik’s sails, and he tries to tell Charles that they want the same thing. James McAvoy’s best moment in the whole film, I think, is how he laughs sadly at this and says, “I’m sorry, my friend, but we do not.” Man, these guys are good together.
So, this is where Mystique joins the bad guys and leaves Charles behind (Charles gives his permission, so I guess it’s all okay) and Charles tells the good guys that he can’t feel his legs. Cut to Charles in a wheelchair outside the Mansion, talking to Moira about starting up a school. They kiss (not that they’ve really had any scenes building up their romantic chemistry, but whatever) and Moira promises never to reveal what she knows. Charles agrees that she won’t because he erases that knowledge from her memory.
And the movie ends with Magneto in full costume, rescuing Emma Frost from imprisonment because . . . well, who knows? Hopefully, if there’s a sequel to this prequel, she’ll get killed off somewhere in the development process. Or, at the very least, recast.
Anything I left out? Oh, right, the small parts and cameos. Well, like I said before, just dozens of people in this movie: Oliver Platt, Brendan Fehr, James Remar, Ray Wise, Boris from Snatch, Michael Ironside (Smiley!), etc., etc. As far as the two big cameos go: Rebecca Romijn, who I did not expect at all, and Hugh Jackman, who I did expect but loved anyway. He got to say, “Fuck off” just like a proper Wolverine should (instead of, say, a freaking speech about working together as a team or whatever the hell he talks about in The Last Stand.)
And . . . that’s about it. If there was a bonus scene after the credits, I didn’t wait around for it because, honestly, there’s never been an after-the-credits scene that I can think of that wasn’t a total letdown.
I came out of the theater thinking, This is the best X-Men movie I’ve ever seen. I had to sit down and think about it to realize how disappointed I was with certain elements. Still, even with my serious problems with Mystique, I think the chemistry and the scenes between Fassbender and McAvoy more than make up for what I felt the movie was lacking. The relationship between Charles and Erik is the glue that holds this film together.
Kind of depends who you side with, I guess. Here are a few to choose from:
Be the better man. Vengeance will not bring you peace.
Be proud (and never ashamed) of who you are.
Fear leads to hatred. Hatred leads to giant missile strikes.
Don’t fuck with Magneto.