X-Men: First Class is the fifth installment in the franchise and quite possibly the best one so far. The story follows the meeting of a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), who are destined to become Professor X and Magneto, as they form a team and try to prevent Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) from starting a nuclear war between Russia and the United States. The concept of mutants dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis is certainly a fun one, as it hearkens back to the kind of action found in classic ‘60s comics, where many super heroes had to deal with the Red Scare.
While much of the appeal is found in the plot and setting, the strongest element is from the two protagonists. James McAvoy plays Charles as a much more human and interesting character. Though he certainly has his ideals developing about a peaceful way for mutants to become part of society, he's not above using his vast mental powers to pick up women. His strongest scenes are definitely those in which he helps others use their powers better, be it the X-Men or Erik. Michael Fassbender is an especially memorable part of this movie, making his intense version of Magneto so much more realised and developed than ever before. His anger drives him and it feels more relevant to a character so much younger, with the mental and physical scars still fresh in his memory. His scenes with Charles are highlights and their clashing ideals make for a great dynamic between the two of them. I wish there had been more scenes devoted to their discussions. Unfortunately, the events of the central plot span a only few weeks, so it’s a bit of a stretch to buy that Erik and Charles develop their lasting friendship and camaraderie in such a short period of time. Director Matthew Vaughn, who previously directed Kick-Ass, gives the entire movie a rapid and fairly erratic pace, as within the first several minutes we are shown multiple time periods and what feels like a dozen different locations. There’s also a flashy training montage that apparently only chronicled the events of about a week.
|Michael Fassbender as Magneto|
Although some of the characters are a bit different here than seen in previous films in the franchise, there are many references to its continuity. There are a few familiar cameos and this movie even opens with an almost shot-for-shot remake of the opening scene of the first X-Men movie, showing Magneto using his powers as a child in a Nazi concentration camp. This continuity is more of a detriment to the film than it is an amusing nod to the fans because there are several glaring inconsistencies with what is shown in the other X-Men movies. For instance, as seen near the beginning of X-Men: First Class, it’s revealed that Charles Xavier and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) lived together since childhood. This creates a relationship that's never mentioned nor even implied in the other movies. There are other smaller examples such as the origin of the Cerebro (and based on the way this movie ends, I have to assume certain plot points in X-Men: The Last Stand were completely ignored), but overall they’re minor complaints.
While the characters of Charles and Erik are engaging and well developed, it’s difficult to say as much for the rest of the large cast. There’s Agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), who becomes sort of a love interest for Charles (still not sure when that happened) and, with the exception of Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Mystique, the rest of the X-Men aren’t really characters as much as they are special effects. They each have their distinct abilities and that pretty much defines who they are. Havok (Lucas Till) is found in a prison when he’s recruited but it’s never explained why he was in there in the first place, and he never seems like he’s especially angry or troubled. Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) can fly and scream. That’s about all I can say for him. There's another mutant who joins the team, but his only contribution is his death. The best example I can think of for having a paper thin personality comes in the form of Angel (Zoë Kravitz). She’s a stripper who has insect wings and can spit fire. While there’s never any reason to think she’s more or less likely to join the villains than anyone else on the team, she does so almost instantly. The same lack of characterization can be said about the villains working for Shaw. There’s Azazel (Jason Flemyng), a red teleporter, Riptide (Álex González), who doesn’t even speak, and Emma Frost, played by January Jones (though her performance is somehow less stiff when she turns into a CG diamond). Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw is a pretty amusing villain, albeit one who isn’t especially threatening. Despite all his deadly powers and ability to speak several languages, it's just impossible to ignore the fact that Shaw is being played by Kevin Bacon.
Even though the side characters are barely developed, I would argue that this is still a better X-Men movie than its predecessors. For one, the side characters seem to have been chosen more for their abilities than their popularity or place in the comics. This is actually a good thing since, during the action packed finale, each of the X-Men gets his moment to shine due to the way they’re written into the action. This is much better than seeing certain characters in the previous films simply have nothing to do on-screen; their presence being merely to meet what's expected from fans of the comics. The fact is this franchise has always been plagued with having too many characters and seeing this one with a more specific focus on the relationship between Charles and Erik, the entire film benefits. X-Men: First Class is a significant improvement over the previous films and an entertaining super hero movie with great special effects, some impressive action sequences, and strong performances from the lead actors. As far as X-Men movies go, it feels like a step in the right direction.