Should I Watch..? X-Men: First Class
What's the big deal?
X-Men: First Class is an action sci-fi superhero film released in 2011 and is a prequel to the first X-Men (1) movie, the fifth in the series overall. Based around the Marvel series of the same name, the film was directed and co-written by Matthew Vaughn. The film stars Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy as young versions of Erik Lensherr and Charles Xavier, respectively, who come into contact with other mutants as international tensions threaten to spill over due to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The film's cast also includes Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Bacon, Zoë Kravitz and Jason Flemyng. The film, largely seen as a reboot after the disappointing X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2), was greeted with a positive reception from critics and became a success at the box office with global takings in excess of $353 million. A sequel with an alternate timeline - Days Of Future Past (3) - was released in 2014 while a third film - Apocalypse (4) - was released in 2016.
What's it about?
The film opens in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944 where scientist Dr. Klaus Schmidt witnesses a young boy named Erik Lensherr bend metal gates with his mind and immediately begins to investigate. Across the Atlantic in New York, telepathic child Charles Xavier meets the shape-shifting Raven and invites her to join his family, where her natural blue-skinned form would be accepted. Fast forward to 1962 and while Lensherr is tracking down Schmidt in South America, Charles graduates from the University of Oxford with a thesis on mutation.
After witnessing first-hand the power some mutants possess at the Hellfire Club in Las Vegas, CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert tracks down Charles and Raven seeking their advice. Meeting up with Erik and fellow mutant Hank McCoy, Charles uses an invention called the Cerebro to locate other mutants in order to bring the leaders of the Hellfire Club Emma Frost and Sebastian Shaw (an new alias used by Dr Schmidt) to justice as the world moves to the brink of nuclear annihilation. But Charles and Erik have very different ideas about how mutants should interact with humans...
Erik Lensherr / Magneto
Professor Charles Xavier
Raven Darkhölme / Mystique
Dr Klaus Schmidt / Sebastian Shaw
Dr Hank McCoy / Beast
Alex Summers / Havok
Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn *
Release Date (UK)
1st June, 2011
Action, Sci-Fi, Superhero, Thriller
What's to like?
If, like me, you're cynical about reboots and prequels then you might think that this infusion of young blood is going to feel cheesy. Amazingly, they pulled it off - First Class lives up to its name by being a thrilling and exciting reinvigoration of the series. I absolutely loved the Sixties vibe of the piece, making it feel like a mutated Bond film or episode of The Man From UNCLE. The young cast do a fantastic job - McAvoy and Fassbender are, of course, a bit older than the likes of Till and Kravitz and they both do a great job of bringing the characters out from behind their respective superpowers - and crucially, out of the shadows of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.
Opposite, Bacon is a surprisingly effective villain and one of many characters in the film that non-comic readers won't be familiar with. The story is another of the film's real strengths which cleverly blends real-world events with the classic 'origin tale' of one of the most popular teams of heroes in the movies. The film has learnt lessons from some of the other movies released since 2000 when X-Men first appeared - there are little nods to the likes of Batman Begins (5) but the film works hard not to repeat the mistakes of some of the lesser quality films in the series. It feels like a quality product once again instead of another bloated instalment of an increasingly creaky franchise.
- The uniforms the X-Men wear are yellow and blue to match the original outfits worn when they debuted in the comics in 1963. Ironically, the uniforms worn by the cast of X-Men inspired the comics to change their appearance to black leather.
- The film was the beginning for two relationships - Lawrence and Hoult began dating during the shoot while Fassbender and Kravitz began a short-term relationship as well.
- Hugh Jackman accepted the part for his brief (and very rude) cameo after being told he would be allowed to swear. This makes him the first actor to play the same superhero character in at least five films.
What's not to like?
One thing did become very apparent while I was watching the movie and for me, it's a crucial difference between the X-Men series and Marvel's own cinematic universe (the MCU). When you settle down with the likes of Iron Man (6) and Avengers Assemble (7), you understand who the characters are because most of them are fairly recognisable - it will be the hero against either their most persistent nemesis or one of their most recognisable. With some fifty years of comics and literally hundreds of characters to select, the X-Men films have already used by their big guns and now have to use some of their more obscure characters. Basically, you lack the instant familiarity you get with the MCU unless you are a certified geek.
First Class also suffers from the same issues that always dogs a prequel in that it has to arrive at a certain point. Because the ending is obvious to even the most comic-adverse viewer, the film doesn't quite generate the tension you hope it might and this does weaken the story a touch. Lastly, and I admit that this is purely a perspective thing, I wanted someone to provide a costume for poor January Jones who seems to spend a large portion of the movie wearing nothing to white lingerie. As a male viewer, it does distract from what's happening in the scene somewhat but also, Frost herself is a ridiculous character - the comic version frequently appears in the sort of clothing that is impossible to get away with in real life unless you're a cos-player. Couldn't someone have proposed a solution to her appearance - surely some halfway house exists?
Should I watch it?
After a couple of lacklustre efforts, it's a minor miracle that Vaughn has crafted an exhilarating and intelligent film that brings the series back up to date. McAvoy and Fassbender reclaim the characters from their illustrious predecessors and insert them into a gripping tale with plenty to offer hardcore fans of the series. Newcomers might be thrown by the sheer number of characters on screen but it would seem that there is plenty of life left in this franchise for the time being.
Great For: fans of the comics and previous movies, action audiences, nostalgic viewers from the Sixties
Not So Great For: anyone wondering where Hugh Jackman is, anyone who preferred the third and fourth movies
What else should I watch?
Until now, the best films in the X-Men series were undoubtedly the first two. X-Men was a genuine game-changer along with Spider-Man (8) which suddenly made superhero films viable investments for studios looking for a franchise and would ultimately pave the way for Marvel to become the entertainment juggernaut it now is (if you'll forgive the pun). X2 (9) is just as good, seeing the mutants come together to defeat a vengeful human general looking to wipe them out. Personally, X-Men: The Last Stand (10) isn't as bad as some have suggested but it is a definite step back. X-Men Origins: Wolverine, however, is a full-on face plant with a double twist and pike.
Since this film, the series have been enjoying a remarkable renaissance. Even the stand-alone film The Wolverine (11) has its fans with its greater emphasis on character development. The cream of the crop would appear to be Days Of Future Past which does for the X-Men what Avengers Assemble did for the MCU - uniting the old cast with the new in an epic time-travelling romp against the mutant-destroying robots known as Sentinels.
© 2016 Benjamin Cox