X-Men: First Class
Starring Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, January Jones and Kevin Bacon
There’s a moment in most book adaptations where I stop and question just how much silliness I am willing to endure. I refer to it as “the eye roll” moment. If I can make it through a comic-book film without an eye roll, then the entire cast and crew deserve buckets of praise. “X-Men: First Class” is the latest of the ilk in a cinematic summer season where superhero films are being released with such frequency they’ve started to lose value. Thus, lots of “eye roll” moments.
The “X-Men” films have always been interesting, complicated and generally entertaining. Created in the 1960s by Stan Lee, the concept of the “X-Men” was conceptually one of his strongest: teenagers born with special abilities which make them unique. Because they are different, society ostracizes them and fears their capabilities. They are assembled by Doctor Charles Xavier who wants to help them master their abilities and use them to fight for truth, justice and the American way. The last part struck me as odd since the American way so often seemed to more aptly represent those hating and fearing anyone who is different.
The concept seemed fitting in the 1960s when the civil rights movement was in full swing, and the “X-Men” acted as an allegory for the oppression of minorities. Stan Lee’s greatest gift was creating deeper concepts and stronger characters before dressing them up in garish costumes and having them fight evil. After the rather average “X-Men” films, I was genuinely interested to see director Matthew Vaughn take the “X-Men” back to their foundation with “X-Men: First Class.”
The film shows the origins of the alpha and omega of the films: Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), aka Professor X, and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), who will one day become Magneto. The first hour of the film is an interesting, well-paced look at the two men who will one day become the two most powerful people on the face of the Earth. Charles is an impetuous young genius who uses his telekinetic powers to pick up women. Erik is a more tortured soul, his family killed in Nazi concentration camps. He yearns for revenge against a fellow mutant, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who seeks to create a new world order.
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are fantastic actors and do a great job creating these characters. Director Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass”) crafts an exciting first hour, like something out of an old James Bond movie. It’s big, overblown and a lot of fun. Mostly because it takes the basic superhero premise and turns it into a spy thriller. Eventually, Charles and Erik cross paths, a friendship is formed, and they unite in their goal to stop Shaw from starting World War III.
A compelling and exciting first hour comes to a screeching halt when the movie begins to revert to form. Charles and Erik begin recruiting mutants to form a team. We meet the first “X-Men” and that’s when the film goes off the rails. Everything that works in “First Class” is due to deviations from the traditional formula. Every other “X-Men” film has been overstocked with characters, showcasing a large team of various mutants with cool powers. “First Class” stocks the pond with a half dozen mutants who never get more than five minutes of screen time to explain who they are or why they matter. When they change sides or get killed, it’s irrelevant because we spend so little time getting to know them that their motivations and choices are left to guesswork.
Rather than just make the story about Erik and Charles, Vaughn ends up creating just another “X-Men” movie. And it’s not bad, but it feels like all the potential is drained from the movie because a movie about the “X-Men” is contractually obligated to feature teenagers with amazing powers, yadda yadda yadda. The core of the film is so strong and could have carried the whole movie. The filmmakers could have easily shaved every scene with the kids out of the film and lost nothing. In fact, they would have gained something by keeping the film about the dueling ideologies of Charles and Erik. Can mutants co-exist with humanity, or will those who are different be hunted down and imprisoned?
The final act of the movie is a mish-mash of awesome, old-school James Bond inspired action and baffling moments of historical hilarity. My favorite moment was watching the U.S. and Soviet Navy joining forces to try and blow up all the mutants five minutes after the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis confrontation—as if the entire Cold War could be put on hold with a phone call to try and kill a couple of flying kids and a dude who fires lasers from his chest.
I admire a lot of the ideas in “X-Men: First Class,” but until someone is willing to take a risk with the material and do something truly original, we will continue to sit through average comic-book adaptations.