“X-Men: First Class” has the pop and style and comic book action and humor beloved in this genre. Director Matthew Vaughn, who cut his chops on the hyper-visceral, hyper-violent “Kick-Ass” has accomplished something sort of great here. He’s resurrected a sinking franchise.
Starting in sunny Nazi occupied Poland, we meet the young Erik as he is ripped away from his mother by SS officers. So desperate to be with her, Erik unleashes his magnetic powers for the first time, mentally bending and contorting the metal fence keeping them apart.
Immediately after this feat, Erik is greeted by SS officer Sebastian Shaw, played adeptly by Kevin Bacon by way of Christoph Waltz. Shaw threatens to kill Erik’s mother unless Erik uses his powers on command. He does, but mom’s killed anyway. Years later, an adult Erik (Michael Fassbender) embarks on a “Munich”-esque quest to hunt down and kill Shaw.
Meanwhile soon-to-be-Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is at Oxford with Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the blue- man-meets-Navi character form the first three films. Mystique is in love with Xavier, but soon-to-be-baldy is not interested, possibly because Mystique looks blue and scaly.
Then the CIA gets involved. From there, the plot follows the creation of the illustrious X-men set against the backdrop of the cold war, in which our friend Shaw, the old, mutant, Nazi, General (which is a phrase I wish I got to type more often), is attempting to start World War III, so that all mutant kind can rule the world.
Things are actually fairly complicated for a summer action flick, and there’s only two or three “action” beats. But that’s okay. In fact, I’d say the action was the least appealing part of this film. The interplay between Xavier and Erik is palpable, with their life experiences very directly influencing their conflicting viewpoints that inevitability lead to their tragic falling out. George Lucas should take notes from this movie if he ever wants to remake those Star Wars prequels.
The X-men franchise really kicked off the entire embarrassment of super-hero film riches currently being experienced today. The 2000 “X-Men” brought comic book characters into a real world with real problems and real conflict between the characters. The second one topped that. There would be no noir “The Dark Knight” if not for these two films.
However, “X-Men: The Last Stand”, was practically a cartoon, and the fourth (also a sort of prequel), “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, killed any hope of making any sort of sense of the X-men continuity. Vaughn picks of the pieces of a shattered franchise and puts them back together the best he can. The movie hovers in this weird prequel / reboot area, almost like the 2009 “Star Trek” but never gives us a reason for why certain things are different, such as Hank McCoy suddenly being a lot older, or why Mystique is suddenly a completely different person.
By keeping the continuity of the old films, these characters can only exist in the past. In the past where we know Xavier won’t die. Beast won’t die. Magento won’t do anything earth shattering. No Wolverine. We know what comes next for these characters, and sure, the journey is sometimes more exciting than the destination, but comic books are by definition stories of “what happens next” that’s why we buy the next issue.
The only knock I have against this film are these qualms. It seems Fox was eager to cast new actors, new producers, and give a brand new start to the franchise, but for some reason had a problem starting completely fresh.
The enjoyment derived from X-Men: First Class, greatly depends on your level of comic book geekdom. Many of the best parts of the film are in-jokes and references to the sweeping and often confusing X-men continuity, and knowing the events that come after this film, in the movies that came out before it; can take this movie to a completely different level of enjoyment.