Review: 'First Class' Brings Astonishing Back to the X-Men Franchise
by Jeremy Kirk
June 1, 2011
How do you bounce back from a lackluster sequel and an appalling prequel? If you're the X-Men franchise, and you're directed by Matthew Vaughn, you travel even further back, ignore the tropes that didn't work before, and create X-Men: First Class, an origin story that hits all the right marks in terms of character, story, and exciting entertainment. With storytelling that incorporates real-world events in a fictionalized world, the film provides the momentum X-Men fans have been screaming for ever since they saw the Phoenix outline underneath the surface of X2. It does everything needed to re-energize a franchise that both began the current ideologies of comicbook film making and has lost its bearing somewhere along they way. With an exciting fury, it's back!
Beginning where 2000's X-Men began, and in a stunning recreation of those scenes, it shows a young Erik Lehnsherr in 1944 Poland being ripped from his family by invading Nazis. But instead of jumping ahead 60 years as the first movie does, we see the events that transpire directly after and are introduced to Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon, a scientist who wishes to uncover the true nature of the mutant gene. We do then jump ahead nearly 20 years. Lehnsherr, now an adult and played by Michael Fassbender, who has honed his magnetic manipulation, seeks vengeance for the atrocities Shaw committed on his family.
Elsewhere in the world, Dr. Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy, and his friend, the shape-shifter Raven Darkholme, played by rising star Jennifer Lawrence, are brought in by the government when the mutant abilities begin to surface in the world. They are tasked with discovering others like them, building a team, and uncovering the truth behind a potential nuclear threat that seems to have mutant origins itself.
If it feels a bit loose-fitting, it's because the first half of First Class is quite loose-fitting. There is a lot of story Vaughn and the screenwriters are having to work with here, a lot of whipping storylines that seem to flail about in sporadic movements. Despite the branches and the large number of characters and relationships you are forced to keep in check, it never becomes unbearable. This is especially the case around the halfway mark when stories converge, teams are formed, and the real action of the film is able to come about.
X-Men: First Class is an origin story only in so much as it takes the established arcs we recognize from the X-Men series and shows us the paths taken to get there. Charles and Raven are good friends long before she becomes Mystique. More importantly, Charles and Erik are good friends long before Erik turns his evil gaze on the human race and become Magneto. But what First Class does better than establishing even these singular relationships, it builds on the idea of humans versus mutants and sheds ample amounts of light on either side. If faced with characters such as those found in the X-Men world, would human-kind let our fears drive us against them, or would there be an acceptance? Likewise, would the mutants of the world band together to fight back against humanity, or would they have the same level of understanding?
All four sides on either flip of the human/mutant coin are analyzed, and while consensus tells us who is wrong and who is right, who is good and who is evil, there really is no defining answer to any of these questions. The gray area that builds each and every character in the X-Men universe is what makes them so interesting. Vaughn and his crew fully realize this, and with this realization comes a means of crafting a story that is incredibly weighty and driven with realistic tendencies. Including the US/Russia during the 1960s dynamic enhances the real-world implications to an even further extent.
And the story works even better when the characters involved are so strikingly filled by great actors. Lawrence provides so much depth to the Raven Darkholme character that she enhances what we see of the character in original X-Men movies. No, the continuity doesn't always add up, though nothing is as disjointed as the Tyler Mane-to-Liev Schreiber casting between X-Men and Wolverine. Still, Lawrence, as well as the majority of the cast, not only fills her role, she pushes it to the limit making the other films of the series that much better. Beast, Havok, Banshee and a number of other characters you recognize from previous films or discussion of the comic book flesh out a truly resourceful cast. There's even a nice cameo in First Class that in one line of dialogue establishes arguably the best character in the series better than most of what's seen in the other films.
But the real relationship here is between Erik and Charles, or Fassbender and McAvoy. They become quick friends, and it's never questioned. Just as you never questioned that Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen could have been dear friends in their former lives, the actors in First Class expand on their characters to an even greater degree. You want to see these actors playing these characters in even more adventures even though you know the sword that hangs between them is hanging by a very thing wire. While McAvoy gives a stellar performance in his own right, Fassbender is the real star of X-Men: First Class. He gives the Erik Lehnsherr character a realism, a sincerity and a coolness factor that not even McKellen could provide.
And that, once again, goes back to what's already been said. You truly want to see more. More of these actors playing these characters. More establishing origins that gets you from the point A of First Class to the point Z of X-Men. More Matthew Vaughn action, which arrives a bit late but packs quite a blockbuster punch all on its own. X-Men: First Class, like 2009's Star Trek, provides a new look, a fresh take on characters we believe we know from other sources. Just as successful as that film, First Class re-imagines to such a flourishing degree that it makes you almost forget what you've already seen of this franchise. In one film, X-Men: First Class has put the word "astonishing" back into the X-Men franchise.
Jeremy's Rating: 8 out of 10