WPR Reviews: X-Men: First Class
It would be safe to say that the X-Men franchise has had a less than great time on film. While X-Men and X-Men 2 were both somewhat enjoyable films, X-Men: The Last Stand and the recent prequel X-Men Origins: Wolverine were boring and too convoluted for a film about a team of mutants. Rather than work on from the latter prequel, 20th Century Fox have decided to go even further back to the early days of Professor X and Magneto before they adopted those names. They also brought on board Matthew Vaughn to direct, no doubt thanks to his adaptation of Kick Ass being a huge success. So can it redeem the franchise?
I’m glad to say it can. To clarify on the earlier plot, X-Men: First Class essentially shows the formation of the X-Men, as Charles (Professor X) and Erik (Magneto) meet and join forces along with other mutants to stop Sebastian Shaw from causing a third world war that would see humanity eradicated in place of mutants. What makes it work in comparison to the other films is that it’s a simple plot that doesn’t leave much in the way for plotholes and most importantly, doesn’t get in the way of the characters or action. There’s no large sideplots or romances to get in the way this time, it’s just the mutants doing what they do best. I’d call it adequate if you will, but not in a negative sense. The writing is good enough and the action is good enough. It’s what you’d want from a good comic book film.
What does make the film stand out is James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender’s performances as Charles and Erik. While the fight against Shaw is the point of the film, it’s just as much of a character study of the two mutants and what makes who should be the best of friends eventually enemies. The two actors bring some great acting to the roles and capture exactly how Charles and Erik should be portrayed. McAvoy’s Charles differs slightly to Patrick Stewart’s. He’s more outward and cocky, but just as charming as he should be for the character. The differences are a benefit to the role anyway as Charles is young and hasn’t reached the Yoda like wiseness he displays in his latter years.
As for Erik, he’s quite a tragic figure. He’s just as intelligent and diplomatic as Charles but his experiences as a child shape his ideology and force him to resort to anger rather than peace. The great part is that it’s a believable concept. What I’ve felt the films have always gotten right is that the character’s isn’t cast a two bit villain but someone who’s motives you can understand. Charles and Erik are very similar and the film shows that through their friendship but while the former wants humans and mutants to live peacefully, Erik will protect his kind by any means necessary because of how he and the rest of the Jews were treated during the Holocaust. He can justify his actions, however extreme they are, because of how humans treat mutants. Fassbender displays all of these qualities in his performance and this is what makes him a good Magneto. This relationship between the two is old news to comic book fans, but it’s good that it gets such a faithful representation on film. Lets just say that I could definitely see McAvoy and Fassbender’s characters becoming those played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.
There are some problems with the film though. Firstly, there are quite a few of what I felt were inconsistencies with the previous films. To look at them as plotholes is subjective because they’re a result of the other films, but they can’t even be considered retcons. For example, at the beginning of the film Charles and Raven (who later gets the Mystique nickname) discover each other as children and grow up together like Brother and Sister but yet you’d never know that from watching the other films. There’s also intimacy between Mystique and Magneto/Hank (the former comes out of nowhere) and yet you wouldn’t get that impression in the other films either. And of course, there’s the fact that from the exception of Professor X, Magneto, Mystique and Beast, you never see any of the other mutants in any of the other films. Because of that, these mutants literally get no character development whatsoever. They introduce themselves, show off their ability, perhaps get one or two 30 second scenes but they could easily be swapped out for any other mutant.
Sebastian Shaw’s mutant crew, with the exception of January Jones, don’t even get introductions or names. I’m sure if you have an extensive knowledge of X-Men you’d be fine, but I don’t, so all I know is one guy disappears and reappears and has red skin and the other guy can create tornadoes that’ll send you straight to Oz. I can understand that they don’t appear in the other films but at least give me a reason to care about them. These problems wouldn’t be so bad if the film was being treated as a complete reboot, but it isn’t.
Speaking of January Jones, her performance as Emma Frost is the worst part of this film. Now I’ve only seen her as Betty Draper in Mad Men, but her acting was so wooden in this film and I’m not even joking when I say it was essentially Betty Draper in “sexy” lingerie. That may work for Mad Men, but here it just didn’t, especially when she’s meant to be Shaw’s right hand woman. Emma Frost isn’t exactly going to be the emotional centrepiece of the film but she could at least be more than boring and monotone. Even the film forgets about her halfway through when she gets captured by the CIA. Just completely forgettable, and it drags the film down a little. She may be some nice eye candy, but she’s not Emma Frost.
Ultimately though, these problems don’t stop you from enjoying the film. It’s a fun film that has plenty of style and charm to it. It won’t change anyone’s opinion on comic book films and is essentially a summer blockbuster in every area but it’s easily the best of the X-Men films and a good film in its own right. I went into the cinema having grown tired of the onslaught of comic book films but I came out feeling refreshed and ready for a few more. It must have done something right to do that.