X-Men: First Class (Film Review)
3 & ½ out of 4 stars
Those dismissing the latest entry in the X-Men series as another redundant sequel will be pleasantly surprised: ‘First Class’ is the best in the saga to date. Under the direction of British filmmaker Matthew Vaughn, the film’s numerous strengths include its gripping performances, thrilling action scenes, and a heartfelt storyline which works both as a highly personal tale of self-acceptance and a clever commentary on historical events. Undoubtedly, the ‘X-Men’ series still has life in it yet.
From the very first scene, the emotional stakes are raised high: the audience is introduced to 1940’s childhood versions of the film’s two heroes, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender). The former is the son of billionaire parents and was raised in a mansion in Westchester County, New York, while the latter is the son of a Jewish mother who was separated from his parents at birth by the Nazis and grew up in a concentration camp. From birth, they share a common bond: both are mutants with extraordinary powers; Charles can read and manipulate others’ minds, while Erik can twist and lift metal using his telepathic powers. Unfortunately, the way in which these powers are discovered differ as well: Charles is able to practice his skills in secret in the comfort of his own home, while Erik’s abilities are born from experiments on him by the twisted Nazi scientist Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), also a mutant with the power to resist aging.
The film’s main plot then jumps to the 1960’s, at the heart of the Cold War. Xavier has become one of the world’s most respected professors on genetic mutation at the University of New York, while Lehnsherr is a professional assassin dedicated to tracking down and killing his ex-Nazi tormenters one by one. By chance however, the two are both found and then brought together by CIA agent Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne): the agency is looking to form a secret fighting force comprised of mutants to protect global security and combat covert Communist operations. As well as Xavier and Lehnsherr, the team also includes Hank McCoy (Tony), a scientist with wolf-shaped feet that allow him to run at superhuman speed, and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), a girl with the ability to shape-shift into the form of any other human, amongst others.
However, an even bigger threat looms around the corner. The evil Dr. Schmidt is still alive and preparing a scheme that will threaten the very fate of the world itself. Now called Sebastian Shaw and commanding his own army of powerful and vengeful mutants, Shaw has been masquerading as U.S. and Soviet officials and convincing members of both sides to start a nuclear war. Faced with the possible annihilation of the human race, Xavier and Lehnsherr must lead their band of mutants to Shaw and stop him whilst also confronting their own personal demons.
Judged purely by action movie standards, ‘X-Men First Class’ is simply one of the best entries in the genre. Factors aiding in its success are the steady, sure-handed direction of Matthew Vaughn, its kinetic editing, and the countless classic action set pieces featured in the script, and the outstanding visual effects featured in the film. Standout scenes include Lehnsherr’s raid on a mansion, the opening scenes where he destroys an entire laboratory purely with the powers of his mind, and the final confrontation where six X-Men must take on an entire fleet of naval carriers and army helicopters. Indeed, ‘First Class’ almost evokes the ‘Indiana Jones’ series in its sense of wonder and excitement.
These scenes are only aided further by the gritty and realistic tone of ‘First Class’. Much like ‘Casino Royale’ and ‘The Dark Knight’, the film truly brings the series’ extraordinary mythology into a real-world setting, with the opening scenes in Nazi Germany being as painfully brutal as any regular period drama in theatres. Limbs are shot off, body parts are shown contorting in stomach-churning mutations, bruises and cuts are shown in graphic detail, and key characters die by the story’s end. In fact, ‘First Class’ will probably be the most adult-oriented superhero outing on offer this year, with scenes such as Erik’s violent final confrontation with Shaw or his assassination attempts on his Nazi tormentors deftly conveying the harshness of the mutants’ lives. Much as in the films above, this gives ‘First Class’ a heightened level of tension and suspense during its action scenes which few comic book films achieve.
Yet for all of its intense scenes, ‘First Class’ is also the most moving entry in the series to date. More than any of its predecessors, the film focuses on the isolation and emotional difficulties of its mutant protagonists, most of whom have been tragically shunned by society through their differences. In fact, one scene where Raven, a mutated shape-shifter whose natural form resembles a blue-skinned monster, debates with a team mate whether or not she will ever fit into society easily ranks as one of the most powerful movie scenes in recent memory. Ultimately, ‘First Class’ is more of a character drama with action and thriller elements than the mindless popcorn fare currently dominating multiplexes.
This emotional pull is only made more potent by the deep and multi-layered performances of the entire cast. As the main protagonist, Charles Xavier, James McAvoy has never in his career been more confident, playing the professor as driven, motivated, and utterly selfless even in the face of unspeakable prejudice and hatred. Appointed as the leader of the group, Xavier consistently advocates a policy of peaceful co-existence between mutants and humans, much to the chagrin of his team. As Erik Leshnerr, Michael Fassbender is arguably even more impressive, playing Xavier’s exact opposite: although charming and suave, his smooth exterior masks a cold ruthlessness and anger, which rises to the surface every time he uses his powers. Fassbender’s performance resembles Daniel Craig’s interpretation of James Bond, lending credence to the theory that he will be a leading contender for the role in the future.
The supporting cast also brings their best performances to the table, with Jennifer Lawrence in particular impressing as the conflicted Raven. However, the biggest stand out is Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, the evil mastermind responsible for the Cold War. Arguably the best villain in the franchise, Bacon plays the character with the perfect blend of debonair charm and deadly menace, stealing the audience’s attention with every scene. Other notable performers in the cast include actor Nicholas Hoult as the wolf-footed Hank McCoy, Rose Byrne as Moira McTaggart, and Zoe Kravitz as Angel, all of whom bring sympathy and depth to their parts despite having limited screen time.
If there’s one flaw with ‘First Class’, it’s that it fails to fully embrace its period sixties setting in the same manner as its opening WWII scenes. As a result, history buffs expecting to hear Beatles songs, hippie themes, and other cultural cornerstones from the decade will be disappointed, especially given the young age of most of the team’s members. In fact, the only feature clearly identifying the film as set in the sixties at all is the plot’s focus on the Cold War and its divisive effect on the global community. On the other hand, the admittedly rather sunny nature of the period features above would probably clash with the film’s serious tone if included in the finished film.
Surprisingly, ‘First Class’ is not just the best film of the year to date, but one of the greatest entries in the entire superhero genre. For the X-Men’s latest outing is far more than just a superhero movie with a smarter script than usual: it’s an intimate, highly moving story of conflicted outsiders trying both to fit in and destroy a world which fears them and fails to understand them. It’s a story that appeals to all generations and ages and can be transposed to any setting, be it the civil rights struggle of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X or even the everyday struggles of anyone with a disability. Without a doubt, ‘First Class’ truly lives up to the grand promise of its title.
‘X-Men: First Class’ is currently playing in Hong Kong theatres.