X-Men: First Class features part of the core of a good movie, and a lot of superfluous garbage that drags the whole thing down, ultimately presenting a barely mediocre product. The one, shining nugget of joy in the film is Michael Fassbender’s performance as the master of magnetism. Magneto is a delight, but not in the sense of a great dinner guest. In fact, he’d probably be a real drag at a party. However, he is a delight for the audience in that we see real weight to his character. There is a history and a depth. He also spends 1/3 of the film globetrotting to all corners of the Earth killing ex-Nazis, which turns out rather endearing. If only that theme could have constituted all 3/3 of the film…
As a whole, the movie features nice explosions, good acting, and even some few examples of remarkable scene composition that stick out like sore thumbs, but in a positive way. It explores the genesis of the X-Men, which is odd seeing as how Bryan Singer’s X-Men seemed to do that as well, but with some minor ret-conning they were able to awkwardly birth a prequel set in the early 1960’s. The film begins exactly like the 2000 movie, by introducing the audience to a young Erik Lensherr as he first enters a Nazi concentration camp and discovers his ability to manipulate magnetic fields. His interview inside the warden’s office is one of those few exquisitely crafted scenes I mentioned earlier, and makes masterful use of camera angles. Erik’s unfortunate childhood contrasts the pampered upbringing of his soon-to-be BFF, Charles Xavier, who is British and has a British family and lives in an old British castle somehow in upstate New York. He is also a telepath. The filmmakers would have been wise to keep the focus on the relationship study between the two men, and the evolution of their friendship into something like, but not, enmity; however, the movie soon spirals out of focus by trying to do too much with too many characters and Soviets and terrorists and Cuba.
Magneto’s hunt for his mother’s killer, and newly-christened Professor Xavier’s shotgun conscription into the CIA, bring them together as they try to take down international terrorist, and evil mutant, Sebastian Shaw. Shaw, who is surprisingly and ably played by Kevin Bacon, has a posse of evil mutants, including a devil guy who can teleport, a guy who never talks but can create tornadoes, and an attractive blond telepath. Because the bad guy has a whole crew, the good guys need to get one, too, so Mags and X scour America searching for young mutants they can draft into their teenage army, including the tantalizing Angel, an ex-stripper whose mutant power is to fly on bug wings and spit fire acid. Yea, no joke. Another guy shoots red-energy hula hoops. I think the filmmakers found the bottom of the barrel, weren’t happy with what was there, removed the barrel, and then started digging. The rest of the film concerns itself with the proto X-Men hunting down Shaw and his evil group, as they sail around the world in a tacky submarine a 60’s James Bond villain would be embarrassed to use.
The acting overall is solid, as I have mentioned. Fassbender is wonderful as Magneto, and steals the film. James McAvoy is also very strong in his performance as a young Xavier, not quite so sure or steadfast in his moral bearings as in the previous films. In a better world the film would have been built around these two characters and actors. The kids with powers, the actual X-Men, are completely uninteresting and one-dimensional. The supporting cast is mostly solid as well, save for January Jones as Emma Frost. This girl needs to be taken off movies; get her off Mad Men, too. I can’t say her acting is flat, since even flatness has a dimension to it. Her acting just isn’t there. It feels like looking into a black hole. Kevin Bacon, who has always seemed a bit underappreciated as an actor, does a good job as Sebastian Shaw, whose genuine charm belies a procrustean and merciless worldview. And I just want to mention Rose Byrne because she’s hot. She is in this movie. She plays a Moira McTaggart who shares only a name with the original comic book character.
The overall direction of the movie is pretty bland, as is tradition in summer actioners. Matthew Vaughan, whom some may know from the fun-ish Brit crime thriller Layer Cake and/or Kick-Ass, takes a crack at the X-Men after having turned down the X-Men 3 project. That is a fact; you can look it up. He has a spark; some of the scenes, like Eric’s coin test, the attack on the CIA HQ, and the final action set piece, are extremely well done. They exhibit and exquisite grasp of pacing and composition. Sadly, that’s 3 scenes in a 2 hour movie. The rest is nothing to write home about.
As I previously mentioned, there is the core of something worthwhile here. We get a small peek at the dependent and essential relationship that develops between a man who can control minds, and a man who can lift an attack submarine out of the water. All-powerful mangods need friends, too, yo. But ultimately it’s just a subplot in a bad James Bond movie. The denouement and tragedy of their relationship is almost laughable, as well, when you realize these 2 people have known each other for about one week. The not-exactly-love-triangle between Magneto, Xavier, and Charles’ childhood friend Raven had potential as well. But again, we just get an appetizer, and no main course. Erik’s relationship with Shaw is also much more complex than originally apparent. Many of Shaw’s lines in the film eerily echo Magneto’s own ambitions in the other movies, which take place later chronologically. However, instead of developing the several intriguing aspects of the characters’ relationships, the movie jumps around from Vegas to Russia to Argentina, and everywhere in between with no focus and little narrative cohesion. Tying the film into the real events of the Cuban Missile Crisis is an interesting choice in principle, but the execution is botched, like trying to make a unicorn by gluing a cardboard tube to a horse’s forehead. Also, you have a film about people who are physically different from the norm, who want to be accepted as equals in the early 60’s. Wow, if only there were a real-world analogue to that theme from the time period…oh wait. If the filmmakers went through the trouble of setting the movie in the real world, why not use the mutant issue to more deeply explore the civil rights movement? Conversely, we get 2 black people in the entire movie. One of them is Lenny Kravitz’ daughter, so I don’t even know if she counts. And the use of the black X-Man, named Darwin, is pretty ridiculous when thought of in this context. I’d say more, but no spoilers here. Not to harp on this incessantly, but if you look at the picture above, which is the poster for the movie, guess who the only team member not shown is? I know; it’s a conspiracy.
Sadly, the film ultimately tries to do too much, and falls short of being anything above good Summer-tainment, which it is. First Class is parsecs ahead of X-Men 3 and the Wolverine movie. I still recommend the film, but suggest you temper your expectations.