Written by David Holland
By 2011 the comic book movie age was in full swing. The Marvel Cinematic Universe had found its footing with two Iron Man movies and “The Incredible Hulk” already in the books, and both “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” on their way. The MCU had teased their ambitious ensemble “The Avengers” to audiences that ranged from excited to skeptical. On the DC side, Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” had paved the way for “The Dark Knight”, a movie that promised to change the game as far as comic book films were concerned. But X-Men movies had been coming out for a decade, and this was one of the first comic book film franchises to truly stumble. “X-Men: The Last Stand” was still considered a laughingstock, and the only “Origins” movie was so middling that the planned series had been largely abandoned. Instead, it was up to “X-Men: First Class” to relaunch the series, bringing familiar characters back along with some new ones in a sort of prequel that vaguely connects back to the original trilogy’s timeline (calm down, we’ll get there). Rebooting a franchise to prove that there is still life in it isn’t easy (I’m looking at you, “Amazing Spider-Man” and “Fantastic Four”), so how does “First Class” do?
I brought my established skepticism of prequels to this rewatch, and this film pulled double duty as both a prequel and an origin story, so it had two strikes against it. But I found that it made up for both of those two strikes by setting its own terms. It is connected to the events of the original trilogy, but far enough removed from them that it doesn’t feel cornered into forced explanations. It sets us up with curious circumstances and then pulls the audience along with questions: If Charles and Mystique are best friends now, what happens to push her to Magneto later? If Beast looks ordinary other than his feet now, how does he become the Beast we know and love? If Shaw’s helmet can block out telepathy, why not make your whole evil lair out of the helmet material, or at least make helmets for all your friends?
I think part of what works for me here is that we aren’t getting an origin story for the whole “X-Men” (2005) group. This film stands by its name – it’s the “first class”, the original recruits. And sure, some of the mutants aren’t going to be ones you recognize if you’re a casual consumer of comics or 90’s animated shows, but the primary focus of the movie is the relationship between Charles and Erik and how that dynamic effects everyone around them. Mystique is our audience stand-in, at first charmed by Charles’ goodness but later drawn to Erik’s vision of a world where mutants are dominant.
The performances by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender drive this movie. Finding to actors to live up to Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan was no small task. Yet both McAvoy and Fassbender individually and especially in their shared scenes deliver the emotional punch. Fassbender, in particular, delivers every line with the emotion and barely-controlled rage of someone who has been abused, traumatized, and weaponized by true evil. Magneto is one of the most sympathetic villains in comics if you can portray him just right, and so far the X-Men franchise is two-for-two on actors who have the chops for this role.
Your mileage may vary on how much you like the tone of this movie. At times it feels like a Cold-War era James Bond movie (Roger Moore era, not Connery). There’s clandestine meetings in casinos with revolving booths, a boat with a detachable submarine, and a villain who regularly directs casual misogyny at his female colleague. But other than that last bit, I don’t mind planting the X-Men in the past and watching an alternative universe in which the Cuban Missile Crisis is averted by mutants, even if the general tone of the movie takes you back to another era.
“X-Men: First Class” doesn’t take a lot of risks. It is out to reboot the franchise, which means it can’t alienate its audience because one more stumble after “Last Stand” and “Origins” could have made Fox shelve the series. These days we think of comic book films as machines that print money, but in 2011 we weren’t at that point and there was serious talk about “comic book fatigue” or, at least “X-Men fatigue”. So “First Class” did what it needed to do, but doesn’t rise to the level of truly inspiring comic book movies. The whole “Hellfire Club” is sort of poorly defined, as is Sebastian Shaw, whose mutant power seems to be “doing whatever the plot deems necessary at the moment”. The necessary time we spend watching Erik and Charles become friends, recruit fellow mutants, and train is time not spent on the villains. That means in the film Shaw’s plan seems to boil down to: Step 1) Nuclear War, Step 2) A lot of vaguely sketched out ideas Step 3) Become king?
The Hellfire Club is little more than a generic stand-in, a foil for the X-Men to rise against and for the Brotherhood of Mutants to eventually replace. That’s too bad because a truly inspiring villain is part of what separates good comic book films from great ones.
“First Class” is a reboot that stands on its own and can restore confidence in a franchise that had suffered a couple missteps.