Marvel’s mutants have returned to the big screen and they have brought the swinging sixties with them! Director Matthew Vaughn imbues the newest X-Men film with lavish sets, top notch actors, and an international feel. The special effects are convincing, the plot is character driven, and the overall effect is stunning. Setting the mutant conflict within the Cold War era serves to ground the superheroic struggle within a credible sense of reality, but is ultimately problematic in that the film never explores any of the Civil Rights aspects that it touches upon. It is a treat to see the X-Men in the time in which they were created (by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby), if only for the groovy fashions.
The movie begins with the story of a young Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), a persecuted Jew who becomes a Nazi hunter once his magnetic powers materialize. His struggle is contrasted with that of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) who uses his telepathy to try to pick up women as he studies for a degree in genetics. Due to the machinations of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the men become embroiled in a conflict with the terrorist organization The Hellfire Club. As the existence of mutants becomes widespread, and the threat of Shaw more dangerous, the moral differences between Erik and Charles become apparent. The shades of gray between the philosophies of both men are a driving force of the plot and a welcome respite from the simplistic good versus evil dichotomies portrayed in the previous X-Men films. Fassbender and McAvoy give well-rounded performances and their relationship is fascinating to watch even if the final result is a foregone conclusion.
I had high hopes for the lovely and talented January Jones, yet her performance as Emma Frost, the White Queen, was lackluster at best. There was no trace of the brilliant cunning of her comics counterpart and I wonder if Ms. Jones was asked to portray the sexy telepath as a vapid Stepford wife in order to show some character growth for future films. Either way, I was disappointed that Emma was not given an opportunity to showcase her machiavellian mind. Although she looks the part of a Bond villainess, she spends most of the movie standing around like a broken doll.
While Emma Frost is reduced to getting drinks for Shaw, CIA operative Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) wears lingerie to infiltrate the Hellfire Club and is consistently criticized by her peers for being a woman. As one of the only pro-mutant humans in the film, and a catalyst for getting Xavier government assistance, she is rewarded for her pains with degradation by the film’s end.
The only female character who receives a story arc is the shape-changing Mystique, played by the brilliant Jennifer Lawrence. Her relationship with Xavier and Magneto exemplifies the differences between the two men. Charles is more comfortable when she conceals her true appearance while Erik encourages her to accept herself as she is. Mystique’s struggle with self acceptance is paralleled with that of self-loathing super genius Hank McCoy, aka Beast, (Nicholas Hoult) who is researching a cure for his mutant abilities. Their dynamic is strong and engaging, second only to Charles and Erik.
It was a delight to see two of my favorite comics characters, Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) and Havok (Lucas Till), brought to the big screen. The sequences in which they use their powers were thrilling and the special effects quite believable. Jones and Till do not get many lines and are almost lost in a sea of character overpopulation (Riptide, really?). Fans of the comics already know how fast and loose the films play with X-Men continuity, so they can expect some bizarre juxtapositions with character history, but the overall themes of prejudice and acceptance are all here. It is a shame that the only characters of color (Darwin, Angel Salvadore) are summarily dissed and dismissed, while the two blue characters (Mystique, Beast) enjoy character growth and depth. The film is surprisingly entertaining considering it is a prequel, and many of the end points have already been established. It is perhaps a bit overindulgent in explaining away every bit of film minutiae (Where did the codenames come from? Who named them “X-Men”?) yet some of these details (Who made Cerebro? Where did Magneto’s helmet come from? How did Professor X get paralyzed?) assist in cementing the feel of the X-Men’s world and give the larger than life aspects renewed meaning.
X-Men: First Class elevates the superhero genre to a new standard by focusing on character, exploring layers of morality and finding real world resonance in power displays. While it is a shame that this film does not truly explore the precepts it presents, this film is still a great triumph overall.