Director Matthew Vaughn has a lot of street cred with titles like Layer Cake and Kick Ass in his wake, and he’s a good choice to helm this film. He seems to know that – like the best Sci-Fi films – in Superhero flicks, the focus should not necessarily be on the FX (although they better be cool!), as it should be on the characters and how they deal with their abilities. Rather than simply focus on gee-whiz imagery, each character is defined by their power, and their special abilities are part of their personalities. James McAvoy plays a surprisingly caddish “Charles Xavier”, who has a “softer” power than, say “Erik Lehnsherr” (Michael Fassbender), and it’s reflected in their attitudes… or is it the other way around? Charles rarely uses his powerful ability to read and control minds in an inappropriate way, while Erik is almost always on the attack with his mastery of magnetism. “Mystique” (Jennifer Lawrence) is a shape-shifter, who also switches allegiances. But rather than get bogged down in such navel-gazing character studies, the movie interweaves them with effects and action sequences both big and small, which keeps the movie cooking along at a pretty fair clip. I didn’t realize until it ended that it was more than two hours long.
Motivations are well-considered and tended to, so characters do and say things that makes sense with who and what they are. X-Men: First Class doesn’t feel like a set-up movie, but it certainly does a good job of setting up all the conflict and drama that is to come – especially between Charles and Erik. The camaraderie and respect between them that was so well done in the first X-movies is given its origin here, and it makes sense. Many of the other relationships sadly do not survive as well, but again; let go of the comic book canon, and you won’t know the difference. Along that route, many changes were made from the comics, some of them being satisfying, and setting up even more conflict (most notably, how Charles becomes paraplegic).
But a comic-movie wouldn’t be complete without code names and costumes, and for my money, it’s always a tricky subject to handle. In the comics, it’s never given a second thought; but onscreen, it can all seem a bit silly. Both are well-handled here, with kids thinking up the more embarrassing names, and costumes becoming uniforms worn as protection against temperature variations and bullets.
X-Men: First Class also does well with setting up much of what is to come (and what was in both the comics and the earlier movies), again without feeling like a set up, and more just another part of the film. We have the early stages of Xavier’s School itself, complete with the mansion. We have Cerebro and the Danger Room, and even the costumes/uniforms are a nod to the early outfits, while Erik’s final look is closer to his own comic book glory. We have Charles and Erik seeking out and recruiting mutants, some who have very little control over their abilities; and the unstable relationship between both mutants and humans, as well as between “good” and “evil” mutants. Even Stryker is portrayed here, in all his paranoia. For a franchise notorious for ignoring its source material, X-Men: First Class at least gives the impression that it cares.
I guess accents are hard. Possibly instead of saddling actors with accents they can’t quite pull off, the filmmakers just left a bunch of them out; most notably (and sadly!) for “Moira MacTaggert” (Rose Byrne) and “Sean Cassidy” (Caleb Landry Jones). In any event, most everyone does well here; especially Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Kevin Bacon. Forgive the pun, but January Jones seemed a little stiff as “Emma Frost,” while the supporting cast did fine with what they had, although they didn’t have much to work with. But the principles are well in place, and the acting holds its own against a load of action and SFX sequences.
Video & Audio Production
Obviously, an X-Men movie will be heavy on FX, and they’d better be good; and they are, for the most part. One or two bits of CGI look a touch obvious and are distracting for a moment, but my biggest complaint is the make-up for Beast. Like or hate X-Men: The Last Stand, Kelsey Grammer’s make-up looked pretty good, and darn close to the comics. This Beast looks lame, although there are some action sequences where he growls or something and it looks better. Maybe in the next installment they’ll fix him by having him further mutate. I have no problems with their changing the look of Havok’s energy releases to resemble Cyclops’ optic blasts, although they’d better NOT make him his dad instead of his brother, as rumors suggest! Meanwhile the makeup for Mystique is wonderful, in that it looks a bit like Jennifer Lawrence, and somehow still allows her to emote (props to her as well, for that).
Again, if you let go much of what you know about the X-Men from the earlier movies and the comics (especially from the comics), and allow this movie to take you on a journey, you’ll likely enjoy the trip. Even at 132 minutes, it doesn’t FEEL long, and when the end approached I still didn’t want it to end just yet.
Overall Critic Score
3 1/2 out of 4 stars
Now if you grieve for the canon you grew up with, there’s plenty to complain about in X-Men: First Class, so much so that I couldn’t possibly get into them all, here. However, there are also some touches in this film to lighten that dower mood; like Rebecca Romijn showing up for a moment as an older Jennifer Jones/Mystique. Even Hugh Jackman has a Wolverine cameo that is both short and sweet. When I heard the rumor he might be in this one, I winced. When I saw how it was actually done, I smiled.
Choices for just who was going to be in both the X-men and the Hellfire Club are both strange and satisfying. Sebastian Shaw is an obvious choice, but Riptide? Beast makes sense for the X-men, but Angel Salvadore’s Angel? Why not Warren Worthington, as he was actually IN the first class of X-Men and we’re already somewhat familiar with him? The filmmakers have already shown they couldn’t care less about continuity, even with some of the previous X-flicks, so why not? Probably because they needed another girl for eye-candy, and someone with a long-range power (which is why they give her those ridiculous spit-flameballs). Ugh. Please kill her in the next one.
And poor Edi Gathegi. After getting into and being killed off in another lucrative franchise (he was the token black vamp “Laurent” in Twilight), he gets into and dies here too in X-Men: First Class. What’s a brother gotta DO?
Even if you give a pass on the continuity and powers from the comics, the movie gets a lot wrong in its depiction of mutant abilities. Why Xavier has to put his hand to his head whenever he uses his telepathy is beyond me; it’s probably just to “show” a rather visually dull power being used, but it’s silly. As in the comics, Shaw is shown to be impervious after he absorbs kinetic energy (but unlike the comics, he absorbs and releases it in unusual ways). After all, he is shot at, and lets loose a live grenade in his hand, both without a scratch. But just after absorbing the power of a nuclear sub, his skin and bones can be penetrated by the likes of a mere coin? Nope; not buying it. He should have attacked Erik (who could have deflected his attack with a magnetic force field, and possibly even grown stronger in the process), to blow off all of that energy and thus be at least weakened before Erik kills him with a magnetic coin toss.
Although I’m getting picky (and ignoring a bit of later comics canon, as I should for a film set in the 60’s), Mystique can shapeshift but she cannot change her mass; it has to GO somewhere. So they get mystique all wrong in her very first scene; she shifts from an adult woman into a child much smaller than even a young Charles Xavier.
And I could go on and ON about just how far off from X-Men canon this movie is, and maybe I will at a later date on a podcast. But as I’m not paid by the word here, I’ll let it go at that!