X-Men: First Class just might be the best cinematic outing for Charles Xavier and his wacky band of mutants so far. It’s a franchise reboot of sorts, a prequel that takes the series back to the formation of the X-Men, complete with a politically volatile 1960s setting and throwback yellow costumes sure to please fans of Stan Lee’s original X-Men run. The film was written as a precursor to the Bryan Singer-supervised run of X-Men movies that kicked off the superhero blockbuster trend 11 years ago, but this could easily be the beginning of a complete franchise re-launch. Aside from the fantastic X-Men 2, the first round of X-Men movies was pretty underwhelming, weighed down by too many characters, an at times painfully somber tone, and eventually the meddling hands of Brett Ratner. Matthew Vaughn was brought in to take over the series after the cult success of his amazing superhero satire Kick Ass last summer and even though no one ever could have predicted it, Vaughn was an inspired choice.
Matthew Vaughn began his career as a producer on Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. The fact that Ritche’s career went to shit once Vaughn stopped collaborating with him should have been a sign that Guy perhaps only brought his exhaustively hyper-kinetic visual style to the partnership, but no one seemed to notice. Vaughn then turned himself into a director with Layer Cake, Stardust, and Kick Ass. Each project was more ambitious than the last and he gradually grew as a filmmaker. Coming into X-Men: First Class, Vaughn was a rock solid storyteller who could change his style to suit the needs of any given project, while still bringing a dark wit, stylized use of violence, and playful approach to writing to the party every time. X-Men: First Class is no exception, when a young Magneto is doing some Nazi hunting in the early scenes, he uses his powers to fling knives around and dislodge fillings in a hilariously stylized way that wouldn’t feel out of place in Kick Ass. A streak of dark humor runs through almost every scene, having fun with the pulpier aspects of the film without ever disrespecting the source material.
It’s very clear while watching the film that Vaughn and his writing partner Jane Goldman have a very deep respect for the X-Men universe. While they may play around with the material and make it their own, it’s still a very faithful representation that should please fans. The story follows a young Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr as they become Professor X and Magneto. Xavier was a privileged child (both in terms of wealth and psychic abilities) who became an academic with his lifelong platonic mutant friend Mystique at his side. Magneto on the other hand developed his metal bending powers through Nazi torture and dedicates the rest of his life to using that power to murder those responsible. Their paths cross to hunt down Kevin Bacon, who is both Erik’s head Nazi torturer and supervillain Sebastian Shaw who the CIA hire Xavier to help stop once they learn that he has mutants helping him plot for world domination. Together Xavier and Erik form the fledgling group of X-Men to stop Shaw’s plot to start World War 3 by convincing the Russian Army to plant nuclear missiles in Cuba (a nifty little tie-in to real events). Xavier and Erik forge a tight friendship, but quickly realize their opinions on human/mutant relations differ dramatically. You see, Erik identifies with Shaw’s desire to eliminate humans for a mutant uprising and is also a fan of his psychic powers-blocking helmet. Hmmmm…I wonder how this will turn out.
It’s a pretty complicated plot to work through while also introducing a collection of new mutants to the film franchise like Riptide, Azazel, Banshee, Havok, Angel, and Emma Frost, but Vaughn pulls it off admirably. The secondary mutants obviously don’t get as much screentime as Prof. X, Magneto, Shaw, Mystique, and a revamped Beast, but they all get to show off their powers in a way that’ll please fans. The young versions of Prof X and Magneto are obviously at the center of the film and in James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, Vaughn found the perfect actors for the roles. Stepping into the shoes of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen was no easy task, but not only do McAvoy and Fassbender fill in wonderfully, but actually make you forget the iconic actors who played their roles previously. If this reboot continues, the series is clearly in good hands. Kevin Bacon is a fantastic Nazi supervillain as Shaw and he clearly has a blast in the role. Jennifer Lawrence is assigned to the requisite brooding “I’m a mutant and proud” role as Mystique and does a good job carrying the bulk of the film’s emotional burdens. Nicholas Hoult was a little over-the-top in his nerdy portrayal of Beast in the first half of the film, but proved to be a solid badass once the blue hair took over. In fact, the entire cast is strong, from top to bottom. Given the number of mutant roles that Vaughn had to fill, both major and minor, the director did an incredible job of finding the right young actor for each part.
X-Men: First Class offers everything you could possibly want out of an X-Men movie. The Malcolm X/Martin Luther King parallels between Prof. X and Magneto remain in tact, if anything only feeling more relevant in the period setting. The cast of mutants is eclectic and first rate. The action is pants-wettingly awesome. And the filmmakers clearly love and respect both the comic book source material as well as the previous X-Men movies, filling their script with references and knowing cameos while still managing to make the material their own. If you’re one of the many comic book geeks out there who felt burned by what happened to your beloved X-Men universe in the underwhelming X-Men: Last Stand and the god-awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine, prepare to be excited. It only took 8 years but we finally got a decent follow up to X2. Hopefully the producers will be smart enough to keep Matthew Vaughn around for the next movie. The guy clearly knows what he’s doing and the franchise is finally in good hands for the first time since Bryan Singer quit. Hopefully this new class won’t suffer from a sophomore slump next time out.