Monday, May 27, 2024

Cinemutants - X-Men: First Class (2011)

At a time when superhero movies are starting to lose their stranglehold on pop culture, there are really only two options: go back and watch old movies, or kill off an entire cinematic universe in spectacular fashion. This July, Marvel’s taking the latter approach with Deadpool & Wolverine, which seems primed to seal off the 20th Century Fox film universe. And while director Shawn Levy promises, “This movie is built [...] with no obligation to come prepared with prior research,” skipping the research has never really been my strong suit when it comes to franchises. It’s a perfect excuse, then, to go through the last 24 years (and 13 movies) with everyone’s favorite mutants, the X-Men.
This week, from 2011, it’s X-Men: First Class. It’s 1962, and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is just beginning his research into mutation when he meets Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a mutant out for revenge on Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the man who killed his mother. With Shaw manipulating both sides of the Cold War, Charles and Erik recruit a team of mutants, beginning with Charles’s childhood friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). 
And so we return and begin again. The reset button is practically a supporting character in the X-Men franchise, and after Origins didn’t quite recapture the magic, First Class goes back even further, both in the timeline and in reprising the actual opening scene of X-Men. (No wonder – it’s still one of the most effective origin stories and one of the best-told ones.) Director Matthew Vaughn is never too showy about the film’s 1962 setting, though a third-act retelling of the Cuban Missile Crisis feels a bit like something that belongs in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. As a prequel, however, First Class is reveling in the untold stories, from Henry McCoy’s evolution into the blue-furred Beast (Nicholas Hoult) to Xavier’s occasional quips about losing his hair.
Frankenstein’s monster. A huge part of the success of First Class comes from its own secret origin, starting life as a screenplay for X-Men Origins: Magneto. By weaving Magneto’s story into a larger tapestry, we get to skip right to the best scenesalong his quest for revenge, and Fassbender is resplendent in his righteous fury. (Points taken off, though, for the infrequent intrusion of Fassbender’s own Irish accent.) We see all the reasons for Erik’s fall, sympathizing all the while with a man who sees himself as a helpless monster. And when Charles accidentally invokes the Nazi defense of “just following orders,” a chill ran up my spine because of how effectively First Class presents Magneto’s perspective. What Ian McKellen implied, First Class does well to elucidate. 
Groovy mutation. On the flip side, James McAvoy is a surprising Xavier, eschewing the austerity of Patrick Stewart’s performance in favor of a Swinging Sixties Charles, not above using his scientific know-how to impress the birds down at the local pub. Still, the shepherd wins out in Xavier as he assembles his first team (not G-Men, the film wryly observes, but X-Men), but more particularly when he attempts to guide Erik’s lost soul toward serenity. Indeed, it’s not hard to see First Class as a tragic love story between two men who could have been brothers; the repeated motif of the chess board, borrowed from the Bryan Singer films, suggests an unspoken bond, though a sunset picnic at the Lincoln Memorial adds a new color to the dynamic.
We’re the better men. I usually remember First Class fondly for the Charles and Erik dynamic, but I was surprised on this rewatch to see how many things don’t work at the same level. Kevin Bacon is hammy good fun as the film’s antagonist, but his cabal of villains are either outright boring or, in the case of January Jones’s Emma Frost, wildly miscast. Meanwhile, Hoult’s Beast is a strong supporting choice, but the rest of the team is largely indistinct; Zoe Kravitz’s Angel is a snooze, Edi Gathegi’s Darwin isn’t around long enough to make an impression, and Havok and Banshee don’t quite have personalities of their own. (On those counts, only True Believers will much care about their inclusion.) Then there’s Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven, a far cry from the sycophantic Mystique we met in the foregoing trilogy; she acquits herself well enough (despite some truly dodgy makeup), but appending her to Xavier’s origin is still a strange choice.
We are the future. First Class ends up walking a fine line between reboot and prequel. It’s hard to say it’s precisely a prequel to X-Men, mostly on the grounds of what happens in Days of Future Past. But while we have cameos from Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Romijn, we also get a very different Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), a Beast who’s older than he should be, and a Summers brother that throws a wrench into the already murky family tree after we “met” Cyclops in 1979 last week. (Then again, the Summers family tree is notoriously gnarled in the comics, where it’s easy to lose count of who the third Summers brother was intended to be.) It’s all a helpful reminder not to take any of this too seriously, and for all my handwringing here, none of it interferes with my enjoyment of the film, which is somewhere near the top of my X-rankings.
Sound off in the comments, true believers: is First Class first in its class? Now that we’ve gone all the way back in time, we’ll jump to the end of the queue next week with The Wolverine, catching up with Logan after the events of The Last Stand.

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