X-Men: First Class (2011)

So that's it? What? We some kinda... X-Men?

In many ways, I’m the ideal viewer for X-Men: First Class. I really enjoy midcentury period films. I am drawn to films about volatile teens trying to find their identities. Bad history does not bother me. I think superheroes are cool, especially for heightening the human element of stories. X-Men are especially cool in my book, offering a wide variety of themes to explore and powers to show off in fight scenes. I’m also not a stickler for continuity or faithfulness to source material; whether this is a “reboot” or a “prequel” or a “whatever” of Bryan Singer’s original X-Men films is 100% moot to me. (Those films lie in the sweet spot of nostalgia to be leveraged by a project like X-Men: First Class where I remember liking them a lot, but haven’t seen them in 20 years so have little memory or attachment to anything specific about them.)

And so I might be biased, but X-Men: First Class is, in my eyes, pretty clearly Matthew Vaughn’s best film to date. It’s very far from perfect, too long by at least 15 minutes with a chop suey screenplay that I could have told you was written by at least four people without looking it up. But it’s got a lot of core strengths that elevate it.

The most important thing X-Men: First Class has going for it is a terrific young cast with phenomenal chemistry. Chief among the ensemble is Michael Fassbender as Erik Lensherr aka Magneto: The film’s arc is his breaking bad to the point that it’s obvious this was at one point during preproduction planned to be a Magneto prequel film. It essentially is a Magneto prequel film. James McAvoy is also fantastic as Charles Xavier aka Professor X. As important as their individual performances, Fassbender and McAvoy are outstanding together: The story thrives on their connection which bubbles with homoerotic chemistry, Vaughn framing their partnership and then rift in tragic-romantic terms, going about as far as Luca does in pushing to the edge of making their mutual attraction text.

Part of the joy of X-Men is the huge roster of interesting mutants that fill out the fringes, here almost universally perfectly cast: Jennifer Lawrence as shape-shifting Mystique, Nicholas Hoult as Beast, Zoe Kravitz as Tempest, and Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggert, Professor X’s human colleague. That’s some star power: all of these actors could easily be first- or second-billed in a major 2024 release. (Poor Charles Xavier… caught in a love quadrangle with Lawrence, Byrne, and Fassbender.)

The production is a lot of fun: it’s a glossy, Mad Men-inspired, early-’60s concoction of handsome costumes, mahogany colors, and luxurious sets. The ugliest part of the production is the bright yellow uniforms that the early X-Men use, though even those have a vintage charm to them. We get to soak in some fun settings: glamorous night clubs, wooded sanctuaries, angular metallic government facilities, Cuban beaches, and more.

With a prologue in the ‘40s before a time hop to 1962, First Class manages to make its antagonists both Nazis and Soviets, which is a little much. Lensherr’s post-Nazi trauma is the most emotionally potent thread in the film: When he finally and brutally gets his revenge on Sebastian Shaw (an excellent Kevin Bacon), it’s both a moral breaking point for Lensherr and a cathartic act of justice. The Cold War setting, meanwhile, is more broadly metaphoric of the lingering tension between Lensherr and Xavier that rises to a boiling point at the same time the world nearly breaks out into nuclear war.

The worst part of the film is easily the script, which is too long by at least 25% (a problem that has plagued every Vaughn project to varying degrees since). The film reaches a slow simmer in its middle act as all sorts of chess pieces move around to set up a finale that isn’t quite worth it. Some of the lines are real clunkers, with absolutely no theme left unsaid in explicit terms, usually several times.

The visual effects are underwhelming, too. Vaughn can’t quite find the sweet spot of making the artificiality of the creatures exciting. Moments that depend on photorealism (e.g. Beast’s fur reveal) are often disastrously uncanny.

As an origin story, the film is ultimately satisfying in a way that Batman Begins is: franchise touchstones gradually and almost organically develop. But it’s also not dependent on being a reverential prequel to be interesting: X-Men: First Class is a satisfying standalone tale with rich character development that’s more than just member berries. Vaughn keeps it full of personality, fun and flashy while still reigning in his weirdest and most cynical impulses. For better and mostly worse, those impulses would be unleashed in every one of his subsequent films.

X-Men: First Class remains, to me, an excellent comic book movie, and an excellent movie outright. I don’t want to get too carried away: it’s certainly multiple tiers away from the very best, like Spider-Man 2. But it’s better than it needed to be and wholly satisfying in a way a Matthew Vaughn movie hasn’t been for me before or since.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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4 replies on “X-Men: First Class (2011)”

I must admit, I enjoy this film in it’s own right, but it also made me imagine Mr Nicholas Hoult playing a distinctly Adam West-esque Caped Crusader when I heard he had auditioned for THE BATMAN (So I have reason to be doubly-grateful to this fine but of superhero fluff).

Also, I must admit that one really enjoyed Logan’s cameo: just the right balance between ‘Wolverine gets everywhere’ and ‘Actually works for all character present’.

Agreed the quick cameo is nicely done. I just wish the Disney IP cross-pollination content machine hadn’t cheapened those kinds of shout-outs by overdoing them. Still glad to see Jackman pop in and out of the film. He’s great. I actually have never seen Logan, but I’d really like to.

Hoult has that disarmingly uncool that circle backs to cool aura that I could see being harnessed for an Adam West pastiche.

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