There’s a great benefit the follow-up to a bad movie has before it’s even been screened for the first time. No matter how good or bad it may be, it likely cannot be worse than the previous one. Fans went into Batman Begins knowing that whatever they saw would surpass Batman and Robin. And those left disappointed by X-Men: The Last Stand likely went into First Class with the thought that it simply had to be somewhat better.
I make the lofty comparison between the Batman and X-Men franchises because just like the movie from the Distinguished Competition, Marvel’s merry mutants have pulled off a miraculous turnaround from the gratuitous action nonsense that Last Stand had been into an origin story filled with likable characters, interesting dynamics, and (if you can believe it) little-to-no Wolverine.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you should probably stop right here and avoid the SPOILERS I will be getting to after the jump. If that’s the case, I’ll leave you with this. X-Men: First Class is, in my opinion, the best movie in the franchise, only argued by X2: X-Men United. Instead of reading this blog, you should go see it. Actually, click on the jump link and give us the page hit. THEN go see it. And then come back.
During development and promotion of First Class it seemed that no one was really willing to answer whether this movie would be tied down by what had been established in the original X-Men trilogy as well as the earlier X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The final answer seems to be a solid “kind of” in that nothing established in this movie couldn’t go ahead and play out in any of the later movies. The appearance of Emma Frost here contradicts the Wolverine movie, but I never got around to seeing it and thus couldn’t tell you how important she was there. Whatever it was, it’s probably best to ignore it and go with this one.
The core concept of First Class is the story of the relationship between Charles Xavier and Magneto. Unlike their comic origins which jump from their childhoods in Auschwitz and a nuclear facility to their relief work in Israel with the discovery of mutants already established, this begins with both Xavier and Magneto only aware of themselves as mutants (and Mystique, in Xavier’s case) and no one else. Thus, as fans follow along with the uncovering of so many more characters, they can relate to the amazement seen by the characters. The origin blurs the lines of the Silver Age X-Men with Xavier holding ties to the CIA and the Ultimate X-Men with Xavier and Magneto gathering mutants together to create a better pacing to pull the two and make each other aware of what the other is doing.
But even with the title “First Class” gathered and the villains identified, the story remains the relationship between the two and everything transpires reflects on that. It’s that focus that was so lacking in The Last Stand and it makes First Class shine. But that’s not to say there’s not a lot to like about the rest of the cast. The young students, played by relatively new faces rather than the predecessors’ star-studded cast takes its faces from all over the X-Men franchise. Some of them – Beast, Banshee, Mystique and Havok are likely well-known by casual X-Men fans while Angel (Salvador) and Darwin are newer characters that fit well in the dynamic looking to be established. And yes, the lesser known faces don’t remain in the spotlight long anyway, but the time they do get leaves an impact on the viewers.
It’s also amazing the focus the kids get to shine. Banshee gets his signature striped flight wings and learns how to fly (the effects on it finally answering the longtime question of just how the hell he does it), Beast gets his blue-and-fuzzy appearance, Mystique’s decision to leave Xavier and join Magneto makes total sense, and Havok receives his signature power ring. So much gets done at a pace that doesn’t feel at all rushed. It’s really incredible. And that’s aside from the tons of development given to Xavier and Magneto themselves (highlighted by Xavier using his telepathy and expertise on genetic mutations to pick up girls at a bar).
The villain group doesn’t get as much character building, which is fine. If you gave them equal time to get their back story, they’d likely become protagonists themselves. The main villain of the film is Sebastian Shaw, played with a sinister flare by Kevin Bacon, surrounded by his Hellfire Club. Fans who prefer films to be true to their comic counterparts are probably blasting this role, as Shaw’s character becomes a former Nazi scientist who helped establish Magneto’s powers. True, that’s a far cry from the comic Shaw, it works here because it gives Magneto a face to hate and thus tempers his anger into what he eventually becomes. Shaw’s donning of Magneto’s telepathy-blocking helmet not only gives Mags a reason to himself gain it at the end of the movie, but also serves as a symbol to show that Magneto has become towards humans what the Nazis had been towards the Jewish people.
The only other noteworthy villain is Emma Frost, who incredibly enough manages to take her standard nearly naked wardrobe and make it believable. The necessary scene to pull it off introduces her in the Hellfire Club which, compared to some of the others walking around, makes her normal wear seem almost conservative (not at all). Emma is wisely taken out of the picture midway through as to not prevent too much spotlight from being taken from Shaw and allowing Xavier to stay tied to Magneto as his final acts are done. The other two villains of the movie – the demon Azazel and the unnamed-on-screen Riptide – serve as little more than henchmen which is fine for what they do. Trying to share the spotlight between too many villains has sunk several comic movies and this one wisely allowed them to be badass in the background while the story takes place. They’re there to fight while the bigger characters talk. It works beautifully.
And even the supporting government characters add an important dynamic to the scene. Moira MacTaggert is transitioned from her scientist comic character to a government agent, but doing so fills a needed role as human liaison between what’s going on in the foreground and the higher-ups that are watching it transpire from afar. The other noteworthy character is played by Oliver Platt (fans of the West Wing might recognize him) as an unnamed CIA official who first introduces Charles Xavier to Hank McCoy and even Cerebro. It surprised me that he wasn’t given a name (he’s in the credits as “The Man in Black”) and that he was carelessly killed off early on. If I, a nerd in X-Men history, were to associate him with anyone, I’d put him as Fred Duncan, Charles Xavier’s long-forgotten CIA liaison in the earliest days of the franchise.
There’s a lot to like about X-Men: First Class. True, the villains’ plan is corny (starting the Cuban Missile Crisis to attempt to breed mutants through atomic war) but it’s not the heroes vs. villains battle that is the point here. It’s about the relationship between Xavier and Magneto and by the time they part ways at the end of the movie it leaves fans wanting more from the hopefully-to-be-expanded series. This movie is a success and by far the best comic movie I’ve seen in quite a while (I haven’t seen Thor).
It’s a breath of fresh air for the X-Men movies…and the first time I’ve been able to say that since X2.