In continuing with the origin stories that began with the widely panned X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class goes way back to show us the beginnings of Professor X, Magneto, Mystique and a few other mutants who aren’t half as interesting.
Director Matthew Vaughn (maker of Kick-Ass) does a fantastic job with the origin stories of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Professor X and Magneto respectively. Charles is free of his wheelchair, with his head full of hair, and played with boatloads of charm by James McAvoy.
Erik gets his hellish start in a concentration camp and grows up to be a handsome, menacing revenge artist who can do a lot more than move coins with his mind. Michael Fassbender gives the future Magneto a core sadness that makes him quite the sympathetic badass. Both Fassbender and McAvoy do Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart proud in the roles the latter duo made famous.
Recent Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence lends a certain sweetness to Raven, a.k.a. Mystique (played in prior movies by Rebecca Romijn). The scene when Charles and Raven meet as children provides a nice background of understanding for the two. Who knew that Professor X and Mystique were once like brother and sister?
Well, comic book fans, I guess, unless this is just Bryan Singer and his scriptwriter friends using a little artistic license with the X-Men legacy. (Singer, who directed the first two X-Men films returns to the franchise as a producer and story contributor, his first in the franchise since X2.)
The story takes a sort of “Harry Potter at Hogwarts” approach to the younger mutants like Mystique, Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Havok (Lucas Till) and Darwin (Edi Gathegi). This portion of the story isn’t half as enjoyable as the Charles and Erik story.
Cleverly, the film uses some real history to drive its plot along, incorporating the Cuban Missile Crisis into the X-Men universe. Turns out, World War III was averted not due to the shifty strategies of John F. Kennedy and his military men, but to some meddling mutants trying out their wares for the first time.
Kevin Bacon tears into the part of billionaire Sebastian Shaw. An older-looking, German-speaking incarnation of Shaw terrorized Erik in the concentration camp, conducting experiments that made Shaw younger and more American in appearance. Shaw is also bursting with evil mutant energy and looks to wreak havoc upon the world. Bacon embodies pure evil in the role, giving fans of the franchise a villain that rivals the nasty greatness of Magneto.
Where the movie stumbles a bit is in the story of Mystique. H er character arc seems rushed, her final motivations a bit strange. Fans know that she becomes an evil mutant, but her switchover occurs in the last few minutes of the movie, and her decisions are hard to buy.
Perhaps the film’s biggest goof would be the casting of January Jones as Emma Frost. Jones, who looks incredible in her skimpy outfits, totally ruins the party whenever she opens her mouth. Surely, she is one of the worst actresses getting steady work these days. While Emma Frost often takes diamond form in the movie, Jones is as wooden as my desk.
I would rank First Class above X-Men: The Last Stand and Wolverine, but below the first two movies. For the record, I’ve enjoyed all of the X-Men movies, but thought the third, like this one, was a bit overstuffed.
As for where the franchise goes from here, it’s hard to say. First Class opened to the lowest box office of any X-Men movie, largely due to the absence of a big star draw. Time will tell if it holds its own, turns a profit, and warrants more X-Men movies. Something tells me that won’t happen unless Hugh Jackman shows up in a starring role again, or the likes of Brad Pitt signs on as Magneto.