“X-Men: First Class” is a huge improvement over the previous entry, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” It also makes for the best “X-Men” movie this side of “X-Men 2: X-Men United.” It’s breezy fun, the special effects are terrific, and the emphasis on character this time makes for a more involving prequel. With Wolverine shoved aside for this, the 5th movie and the 2nd prequel in the long running series, many other characters get their chance to shine.
The primary focus of “First Class” is on Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto (Michael Fassbender) as we see the significant events which shaped who they became. But while Charles’ upbringing was a privileged one, Erik’s was unbearably tragic as he and his parents are imprisoned in a World War II concentration camp. His ability to control magnetism becomes evident early on, and that talent soon gets exploited by scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon of all people) who commits an atrocious act in front of Eric. From there on, the driving force in Eric’s life is one of bloody revenge.
Prequels are tricky because we are naturally inclined to be against other (not to mention younger) actors taking over roles previously portrayed by Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen. Then there’s that cynical feeling of studios taking this route just to save money. It was deemed after “X-Men: The Last Stand” that a 4th movie with the same cast would have been far too expensive to make. Of course, with a reported budget of $160 million, “X-Men: First Class” doesn’t sound like much of a bargain.
Moreover, does anyone remember “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd?” You think that many people were going to be fooled by a Jim Carrey-less prequel? Anyone remember “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas?” Heck, does anyone remember the first “Flintstones” movie? I vividly remember seeing it, but the plot details escaped me once I walked out of the theatre.
But what’s great about “X-Men: First Class” is that the cast doesn’t need to worry about living up to the actors before them. They get to approach these classic characters in a different light which frees them up from any restrictions that could have been imposed on them. Characters like Mystique and Dr. Hank McCoy are given more depth and complexity than before, and many surprises are in store (or at least for those who never read the comics). The script invests much emotion in these characters, and that includes those bad mutants we rooted against in the past.
James McAvoy (”Wanted“) is excellent as the young Charles Xavier, and he looks like he had fun making this prequel. Whereas Patrick Stewart’s Professor X was wise and mature, James’ is just getting started in his career and comes across as quite the ladies man. I also admired that while Charles is incredibly intelligent, we find his ego getting the best of him before he knows it. So sure of what he knows about, McAvoy does great work in making Xavier well-intentioned but not as open to mutants being themselves in the real world.
Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto remains one of the most fascinating characters from the “X-Men” universe. While he’s been the series’ chief villain and a megalomaniac, Magneto is simultaneously an anti-hero and has even been seen as a hero in the comics. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for him considering the horrors he was exposed to in his youth, and it makes his future actions understandable if not excusable. No wonder actors have so much fun in this role; you never know for sure the direction Magneto will end up taking. All you can say is that whatever he ends up doing, it will be to his benefit more than anyone else.
With movies like “Fish Tank” and “Inglourious Basterds” under his belt, Michael Fassbender is the perfect choice to play the young Erik Lehnsherr before and after he becomes Magneto. Michael has given performances deep with complexity and feeling; looking like the good guy at one point and then later turning into one seriously twisted individual. As Erik, he is great at showing the different layers to the character and how he is forever caught in a horrific moment he can’t get out of.
But one character who really gets expanded here is Raven whose shape-shifting abilities earn her the nickname of Mystique. Rebecca Romijn played Raven in the first three movies as a supervillain, and her character never got much in the way of psychological depth. Jennifer Lawrence (”Winter’s Bone,” “The Beaver“) however gets more to work with as we come to meet Raven at the time her allegiance to “brother” Xavier begins to wane.
In Jennifer’s hands, she makes Raven/Mystique a strong female role model, determined to be open about who she is and not be ashamed of it. While hiding herself in human form as she is encouraged to do so by Charles Xavier, Raven’s frustration at appearing in public as someone other than herself is finally taking its toll. Jennifer is riding high on some incredibly strong performances in recent years, and she continues to show how far her acting chops can stretch.
With Bryan Singer (director of “X-Men 1 & 2″) returning as a producer, I’m sure he had a good hand on getting this particular entry focused more on character development. Each one is shown suffering through conflicted emotions as to what path the mutant race should follow, making them no different from the humans who deal with many of the same issues. Mutants are seen as the next stage in human evolution, but that haunting question of whether this will be to humanity’s best interests or detriment always hangs in the air.
But actually, the person who deserves the most credit for “First Class’” success is its director, Matthew Vaughn. Coming off the gleefully rebellious “Kick Ass,” one of 2010’s very best movies, he manages to bring a lot of its inventive energy to a franchise in desperate need of it. Matthew also makes the special effects benefit the actors actions instead of just overwhelming them. What made the first few “X-Men” movies so special was the amount of emotion they generated, and that is definitely the case here. Its our connection with these characters that makes the action set pieces all the more exciting.
If there are any problems with “X-Men: First Class,” it’s that the movie’s last half becomes overly concerned about bringing the characters in line to where they are at in the first three movies. This was also a big problem with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” even though that one was far more convoluted. It would have been nicer to see the friendship between Charles and Erik get expanded on in future movies instead of just ending this one with them taking sides. Then again, perhaps it still could be expanded on.
Kevin Bacon, always a terrific actor in anything and everything, is perfectly detestable as the movie’s most irredeemable villain. At the same time, I wished the writers had expanded on the character more. Compared to the others, Sebastian Shaw threatens to be a little too one-dimensional in his actions. Had Sebastian more complexity to him, it would have made the transition of power between him and Erik more believably acceptable.
Other strong performances come from Rose Byrne (”28 Weeks Later” and “Bridesmaids“) as Dr. Moira MacTaggert, and Nicholas Hout as the highly intelligent yet shy Dr. Hank McCoy. On the other hand, while January Jones is amazingly beautiful as Emma Frost/White Queen, her one-note delivery of dialogue is one of this film’s major detriments.
“X-Men: First Class” is a prequel done in the same spirit of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” and it’s the first really good blockbuster I have seen in the summer 2011 movie season. It’s proof that you don’t need Wolverine, the main focus of the past four flicks, to make an “X-Men” movie. This is a reboot that works to everyone’s advantage, and I am eager to see what comes next.
* * * ½ out of * * * *
BTW, don’t bother staying through the end credits. There’s no sequence after they’re over, so take care of that urine ache ASAP.