When I was younger, I remember receiving a back issue of Giant Sized X-Men #1. Originally printed in 1975, it was the first appearance of now longtime favourites Storm, Colossus, and Nightcrawler among others. More importantly, it brought Wolverine (who was mildly known for battling the Hulk) into the mainstream. The issue was a comic version of a reboot — a kick in the ass, if you will — to a franchise, that while only twelve years old, was battling stale stories and lukewarm reviews.
The jump start was a huge success, with the X-Men titles (and there were a shload of ’em) hopping off the shelves. The franchise never looked back, eventually spawning multiple television shows, action figures, and four feature length films. It was a big rush when X-Men (2000) and X2: X-Men United (2003) finally hit the screen, all my most beloved characters expanding from the page to the screen. Then X-Men: The Last Stand came along and not only did the shit hit the fan, but it was set to high, and it splattered back in our faces many times over.
In many ways X-Men: First Class is the film equivalent of Giant-Size X-Men. A chance at redemption aimed at the diehards, while also a way to attract some new viewers. To shake it up, the plot was sent back to the 1960’s, in the height of JFK’s reign and in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Magneto and Professor X are back, albeit in much younger forms (Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, respectively). The film begins as the original X-Men did, with a flashback to 1945 as a young Erik Lensherr rips a fence to shreds, first realizing his magnetic prowess. Simultaneously, across the pond, a young Charles Xavier stumbles upon, and later reads the mind of a cachéd Raven Darkholme (later Mystique) who has taken refuge in Xavier’s vast Westchester, New York mansion.
In one of the film’s strongest sequences, we’re shown a now adult Erik (Fassbender) on a personal crusade to murder all the Nazis that were behind his capture and the subsequent killing of his parents. Fassbender has seen a meteoric rise since his breakout role in Steve McQueen’s Hunger. Since, he has starred in Fish Tank, Inglourious Basterds, and the most recent adaptation of Jane Eyre. There are whisperings of the German born actor taking over the mantle of James Bond after Daniel Craig leaves the perch. We should be so lucky. The range that he shows, in a character that could very easily come off as cartoonish, is electrifying. Personally, I would have loved to be a longer guest on Erik’s hunt for the men who destroyed his life. As it is, what we do see is a man broken. He fills the void of his lost innocence with the blood of those that stole it.
The man at the top of his hit list is Schmitt, later Sebastian Shaw: a mutant with the ability to absorb energy. This not only allows him to eat grenades (not a joke), but also grants him prolonged life. Shaw (a surprisingly great Kevin Bacon) has it in his mind that those with special gifts should be the one who inherit the earth, while us lowly humans should bow at their feet. His team consists of Riptide, who can create mini-tornados from his palms; Azazel, a demon teleporter (and a severely underused Jason Flemyng), and finally Emma Frost, a telepath with diamond-encrusted skin. She is played by January Jones whose more apparent power is to wear revealing outfits and act monotonously. Jones is more than capable as the conflicted housewife Betty Francis (formerly Draper) in television’s Mad Men. She does Class no favours however… Unless you count her cleavage – which is ample.
I’ve mentioned Fassbender, but his counterpart in McAvoy is just as formidable. Charles Xavier is a brilliant mind, one of the brightest in the field of genetic mutations. As a young man though, he is brash and irresponsible, using his faculty to read women’s minds for the strict goal of bedding them. His longtime relationship with Raven is something that differs from the source material, but nonetheless flows seamlessly with the story. Charles sees her as only a friend; Raven wants something more. Ultimately, the conflicting viewpoints set the stage for the turmoil that encases their future selves.
The tricky thing is that we know how these players and events end up. Professor X and Magneto become unfortunate enemies, and the nukes never fire; that part is certain. What Class does is light the way of how they get there. It is through the capacity of director Matthew Vaughn and his writing team that we are able enjoy the foreseeable ride. After a failed attempt on Shaw’s life, Erik and Charles meet and form a bond from particular needs. Here the narrative speeds up, when it’s determined that more superpowered recruits are needed to foil the villain’s plans. They pick up Havok, Banshee, Angel, and Darwin* with help from Dr. Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) – a young scientist, who’s afflicted with enormous feet and an even larger intellect.
*I actually have a huge problem with the way he was handled. Darwin is named as such because he has the mutant power of adaptation, meaning that whatever the circumstance, his body will adjust to allow him to survive. Some examples: growing gills underwater, increasing his body mass in a fight, being able to float around IN SPACE. The dude is literally indestructible, probably immortal. So yeah, the way Darwin is treated really upset me. You’ll see why.
First Class develops into the inevitable battle between good and evil, and although the lines aren’t necessarily blurred, there are points of contention on both fronts. The CIA joins the fun, led by Rose Byrne and Oliver Platt, who inexplicably have stumbled upon the existence of mutant-kind on an arbitrary stakeout of a posh nightclub. They spend the majority of the film looking dumbfounded and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A few tense moments occur as the US and Russians stare down with aircraft carriers and nuclear warheads.
This is not groundbreaking in any regard, but provides quality entertainment throughout and is certainly a massive leap in the right direction for this Marvel property. There were some (valid) rumblings during production, when Vaughn (Layer Cake, Kick-Ass) had less than a year to complete his vision. He has confidently quieted all the naysayers. The real world events seamlessly weave into the lives of the extraordinary. It’s everything that a comic book movie should be (along with having the single best inclusion of the word ‘fuck’ in a PG-13 rated work). I’m curious once more to see what lies in store.