By Matt Smith
There are more than a few things that X-Men: First Class gets right about its characters that Bryan Singer’s very serious original approach to the series managed to get wrong, no matter how good those first two films actually were. The first is that the X-Men are slightly campy and are often written with a good sense of humor about how ridiculous their adventures come across to non-mutants (check out pulp author Victor Gischler’s terrific current run with the characters for further examples of this, where our heroes take on, among other things, vampires), and the second is that these are still relatable characters that don’t need to be absolutely drowned out by special effects. That last bit in particular was something that Bryan Singer went on to do with the limp Superman Returns and Brett Ratner went all-out for with his potentially franchise-ruining turn at the helm with X-3.
It’s this slightly pulpy, pop-culturally informed approach taken by Singer (returning as producer only) and director Matthew Vaughn that reinvigorates the series, and makes very familiar characters seem fresh while still managing to keep most of the continuity of the film universe intact. Vaughn is no stranger to either pulp or superheroes, having directed last year’s Kick-Ass and the Neil Gaiman adult fantasy Stardust, both of which manage to balance subjects and styles that could very easily turn really, really bad. Now if we can just get him out of the Zack Snyder-esque pigeon hole he’s possibly found himself in as a great director of comic book movies.
For the prequel, the film turns back time to the early 1960s, when America was in the iron grip of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the main crisis confronted by the newly discovered mutants is the defining moment of that era, the Cuban Missile Crisis. In X-Men movie mythology, this event is engineered by the evil Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), leader of the Hellfire Club, a group of baddies who wish to see the destruction of the human race. Shaw also happens to have been a Nazi, particularly one who murdered the mother of Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) who will eventually become the X-Men’s greatest enemy, Magneto.
We are introduced to both Erik and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) in parallel opening sequences that give us plenty of backstory and character development, from Erik’s time in the concentration camp to Xavier’s childhood discovery of fellow mutant Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) while she’s stealing food from his estate’s refrigerator and his subsequent time earning his PhD in Genetics in London. We also get to know Moira McTaggert (the terrific Rose Byrne), a CIA agent following the activities of the Hellfire Club in providing secrets to the Soviet Union who stumbles upon the existence of mutants while snooping around in a pretty terrific take-off of the one great joke ever given to the world by Family Guy: the sexy lingerie party. Just look up that reference on your own and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
Anyway, this swinging sojourn into secret rendezvous and undergarments – a favorite of Emma Frost in the comics anyway, and a nice shout out to the oft-under-clothed females of superhero stories – eventually leads McTaggert to reach out to Xavier as an expert on genetic mutation before he reveals himself as a mutant to her and the rest of the CIA. This inevitably leads to the assumptions by the top brass that the mutants are a threat to national security, even though Xavier merely wants to help avert a potential international crisis, thus setting up the predominant mythology of the X-Men: the persecuted minority struggling against the fearful majority that has lead to interpretive metaphors for everything from the Civil Rights movement, to gay rights, to gender equality in the past sixty years since the characters were first introduced.
The relationship dynamic between Erik and Xavier is built upon really well, giving us a peek at how the differing ideologies of these two formed, and providing some pretty good insight into the ways in which human beings will inevitably err on the side of their personal experience when constructing their views on how to best solve their problems. Erik is out for vengeance, at first against only Shaw, but ultimately turning against mankind as a whole because he feels it will stop at nothing to wipe out the mutant race. Xavier, however, believes that both species, homo sapien and homo superior, can co-exist, if only they could see eye to eye. Xavier, of course, has never had to face discrimination because of his telepathic abilities, while Erik of course faced more than enough during the Holocaust, and finds a kindred spirit in Mystique, who he repeatedly tells is beautiful without covering up her true blue skin. “Mutant and proud” becomes a catch phrase for her only derogatorily at first, but ultimately becomes the mantra of what will become Magneto’s Brotherhood, eventually taking up the annihilation of mankind Shaw was after to begin with.
The lineup of mutants introduced in the film, oddly enough, contains only one of the original comic book team, Beast (Nicholas Hoult), possibly in an effort to distance this film a bit from the first three and get a fresh start on the characters without being totally burdened by future events. This is a completely welcome tactic rather than trying to retrofit the entirety of three previous films into a different package, and some of the new faces are pretty cool, with January Jones’s appropriately emotionless portrayal of the glamourous Emma Frost, who really doesn’t warm up in the series until she becomes one of the good guys further down the road. I bring this up because a fair amount of attention has been given to how “wooden” she is in this film, which seems odd to fans of Mad Men where she is pretty regularly fantastic. I think it’s simply the character of Frost herself that may be a problem for some. Also of note is Jennifer Lawrence, who was so fantastic in last year’s Winter’s Bone, and who takes up the mantle of Mystique quite ably, and Michael Fassbender, who also happens to bear a passing resemblance to what a younger Ian McKellan could have looked like. There’s also a really terrific scene that features everyone’s favorite mutant and which utilizes the MPAA’s “one F-bomb per PG-13” rule in the best way I’ve ever seen.
Anyone expecting in-depth analysis of world events, or even more than cursory glances toward social relations should probably look elsewhere. Not only is this not a movie interested in pursuing such things, it shouldn’t have to be. The metaphors are there, but they’re not overt, which are really the best kind. For a movie series concerning mutant superheroes, it should actually be preferred. The acting is solid, as are the action sequences, which utilize CGI in such a way as to not seem intrusive – a marvel in this day and age. But Matthew Vaughn’s real contribution to the movie is the unburdened feeling one gets while watching it, while still giving us something to think about and engaging us with characters we can care about. Brooding and “deeply” philosophical interpretations of comic books and superheroes like The Dark Knight this is most decidedly not. And that’s something to be proud of in a day and age where the industry seems to be pushing everything into darker directions.
What X-Men: First Class delivers is a pretty terrific summer blockbuster that somehow manages to balance the breeziness of the comics from whence it came with the somewhat darker stories that lie ahead in both film and comics continuity. The change in setting to the 60s, and the multiple locales help to give the series a breath of fresh air and a bit of nostalgia, and gives us a fun, fast and emotionally resonant superhero action film that sheds some of the darkness from the genre in a manner much like Marvel’s earlier summer release Thor. And the somewhat problematic reinterpretation of historical events is ultimately a non-issue. This is not only fiction, but fictionalized contemporary history that imagines human genetic mutation leading to the existence of superheroes. I doubt anyone will take this seriously at all, and if they do, well then I’d like to point them to the trailer for Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon which is at least based on reinterpreted history some idiots out there actually believe.