REVIEW - 'X-Men: First Class'

Think about the past ten years’ worth of comic-book movies. Many of them are structured around the origin stories of the heroes we know from graphic novels. You might feel that the superhero origin story is getting to be a tired formula – something to sit through before the real action begins. For that reason, you might wonder if the new Marvel prequel movie X-Men: First Class is worth seeing – do we really want to see the beginnings of characters we’re already familiar with?

But upon seeing director Matthew Vaughan’s X-Men: First Class, I’m convinced that origin stories in superhero films can actually be opportunities to properly define established characters – if handled correctly.

The movie is set in the 1960s, against a backdrop of American-Soviet political and military tensions. It principally follows two mutants fans already know: Erik “Magneto” Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) and telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). Lensherr is a former inmate at a Nazi concentration camp, while Xavier has had a much more privileged life, with an estate in New York and a successful academic career at Oxford. Lensherr’s ability to control metal with his magnetic powers was noticed in the prison camp and exploited by the cruel Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), an energy-absorbing mutant with Nazi connections and a megalomaniacal desire to exterminate humans. Shaw’s experiments inspire a deep hatred in Lensherr, leading him to begin a worldwide search for his tormentor.

Shaw, meanwhile, slowly manipulates the American and Soviet governments towards nuclear war (to cleanse the planet of humans and make way for mutants). Lensherr’s desire for revenge against Shaw causes him to cross paths with Xavier, who has allied with the CIA to stop Shaw and work towards human acceptance of mutants. Lensherr and Xavier decide to locate other mutants to oppose Shaw, but the two men have differences of opinion over how to proceed: Lensherr wants to kill Shaw and ensure the safety of his kind, while Xavier prefers the peaceful route with no casualties and calm negotiation. The two friends nevertheless stay united against their common enemy in an effort to avert World War Three.

The film builds to an action-heavy reimagining of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

That plot summary has everything a good comic-book movie needs: global consequences, a larger-than-life villain, and a variety of mutants who provide equal measures of fun character moments and cool action sequences. Interestingly, the movie doesn’t feel much like a superhero film – at least for acts one and two. Instead, the 60s setting and globe-trotting plot actually reminded me of a Bond film, albeit with characters who can shoot lasers from their chests or control people’s minds. For this reason, the overall experience felt very fresh – this movie can stand on its own, and doesn’t rely on the other X-Men movies to support its narrative or characters.

The plot tie-in with the historical Cuban Missile Crisis gives the film a thematic weight that many superhero films don’t have. Rather than an all-out cartoonish opponent and thousands of helpless humans scurrying around, the film finds a place in the 1962 military standoff for the mutant characters. It re-imagines the historical events to tell an alternate version of the story – something comics do very well. The script also frequently references theories on genetics and evolution to “explain” the mutants, and make them seem more plausible.

I liked McAvoy and Fassbender in the roles of Xavier and Lensherr – their friendship feels real, and links up well with the performances of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the original movies. There was also some good work from Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, and Nicholas Hoult as Hank "Beast" McCoy. The movie actually seems to spend equal time with dialogue and action, so all the characters feel reasonably fully-formed by the end. That is what legitimizes this origin story: there's no point making movies about the beginnings of characters if we don't come to understand who they are.  The only mutants I wished we could have heard more from were Azazel (Nightcrawler’s father) and Riptide, the character who can generate and control tornadoes. These two are mostly silent antagonists, obeying Shaw’s orders, and it would have been nice to find out what their motivations are.

Xavier's and Lensherr's friendship feels particularly authentic.

Even though X-Men: First Class puts a lot of work into its characters, sometimes the story falls through the cracks. Because the movie puts more time into dialogue than a traditional comic-book movie, when the action scenes are inevitably added in, the plot becomes a bit rushed. It’s as if the filmmakers quickened the pace of the film to fit everything in. Scene transitions happen often, and it’s sometimes hard to sort out the timeline of events as the characters hop around the globe. Being a comics fan, and therefore used to the over-the-top storytelling style of that medium, I was still able to follow the movie – but it may wear on some viewers.

Given this mad pace, you’d expect there to be too many huge action climaxes, as we find in movies like Transformers or the 2010 Clash of the Titans remake. But here Vaughan effectively builds the action to a single point (the showdown on the shores of Cuba) rather than making every confrontation a major battle. Like the 60s-era visual style of the movie, this climax also seemed fresh. The ultimate encounter between Shaw and Lensherr is still fairly unpredictable – due to the heavier concentration on character development, we’re more emotionally involved with Lensherr and Xavier, and there’s still an element of surprise when they make snap decisions.

X-Men: First Class gets three stars out of four for its reinvigorated, retro take on the X-Men franchise, its emphasis on character growth and its efforts to rationalize the existence of mutants. It loses a few points for its occasionally overstuffed story, but it’s nothing committed comics fans can’t deal with.

What did you think about the film? Is it an exceptional origin story? Is it just another entry in a bloated series? Sound off in the comments!