X-Men: First Class takes us back to the origins of two of Marvel’s most iconic and important characters; Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The evocative and heart-wrenching moment that a young Erik was separated from his parents in a Nazi concentration camp, originally portrayed in X-Men, is the leap off point for First Class. The film begins briefly in 1944 – expanding upon those familiar events and echoing Charles’ vastly different childhood on the other side of the word until it fast-forwards to the peak of the Cold War and the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis. The nuclear age’s most iconic standoff between the world’s two ‘figurative’ superpowers plays host to the dawn of the mutant age.
The setting is the key for this film. It informs the motivations of Charles and Erik in a way that both aligns and irrevocably keeps them apart. Erik (Fassbender) is infused with the pains of the holocaust; his mother’s murder and torture at the hands of Nazi Scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) send him on a quest for vengeance. His power is governed by his capacity for rage and pain and he’s lost in the cycle of revenge. Erik comes from a world without hope and the twisted rationale of the human psyche. Fassbender brings the fragility of a man lost and the determination of a conflict oriented freedom fighter. There's a moment as Fassbender finds some former Nazi lackeys that associated with Kevin Bacon's Sebastian Shaw that you get a glimpse into the depths of his sociopathy. He deals out murder and torture with the calm of someone stepping on a bug. Fassbender's the kind of performer that can nurture that darkness while gaining your empathy; seeing what he'd been exposed to twist him into this weapon.
Charles is the complete contrast. He’s scholarly, measured whilst being fanciful and cheeky and it is in some of the incidental moments of the film that McAvoy’s portrayal really shines. In the midst of his graduation celebrations where Charles uses a strategically planned pick-up line (that we’re hearing him use for the second time) that you get an entirely new dimension to the character. There’s a gregarious and flirtatious young man at the heart of the grave and powerful teacher from the previous films. The progress of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.A and particularly J.F.K; inform Charles’ future philosophy and his intent to develop relationships with the government and broadly 'humans'.
Bridging the gap between both men is Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique, who in this story grows alongside Charles, requiring to portray his philosophy of cloaking their differences from humanity. Until she encounters the reactionary Erik who wants to reveal to humanity that they're (the mutants) 'already the better men.' All three leads stepping into the shoes of super, best friends Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Patrick Stewart and Rebecca Romijn (who played Mystique in the original X-Men series) set off the chemical reactions that eventually result in eclipsing their older counterparts.
Apart from the superb performances by McAvoy and Fassbender; the ever reliable Oliver Platt is on board as an optimistic government agent excited for the prospect about working with mutants; Nicholas Hoult, who plays Hank with such a sweetness (and genius), eventually surrendering to his furry side.
The story co-written by Bryan Singer and Sheldon Turner and scripted by Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Ashley Miller and Zach Stentz is great at integrating ‘X’ mythology into literal history while appreciating and drawing upon elements of the mythology created in the first two films. Fortunately Vaughn formally and aesthetically distances it from the original films to give it all a flavour of its own and it has a rich back-story of multiple characters to hold our interest. There’s a great pleasure being caught up with an aesthetic nostalgia with proto–type ‘Cerebro’ and the yellow and navy vintage X suits. This writing group also balances the right amount of levity with the more serious content so that you're not consumed by hopelessness. The pre-Watergate 60s still swells with hope for the future.
There are definitely flaws. Rose Byrne's completely unfulfilling Moira being a major one. The assembly of the early X team leaves a bunch of characters walk on/walk off parts that devalues their inclusion. The structure and casting of the U.S.A and USSR characters in the film's climax are straight faced caricatures.
Vaughan, Singer and their team bring together a new X-Men holy trinity (McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence) and turn the tide on a franchise that had delivered two point blank shots to fans heads with The Last Stand and Origins.
[rating=3] and a half
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Matthew Vaughan Written by: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Ashley Miller, and Zach Stentz (screenplay) from a story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer Starring: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Rose Byrne