X-Men: First Class
based on characters by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
It wasn’t until the fandom exploded that I wanted to see X-Men: First Class. While I’d seen the first trailer and been mildly interested, I decided to go see Thor instead. And then everyone in my life enjoyed it, the fandom exploded, and I began to feel as if I’d made a terrible decision—after all, while superhero movies and Pixar films are how my father and I bond, I could hardly drag him to X-Men: First Class because I wanted to watch James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender have a rad bromance for two hours. Eventually, all the praise wore me down and I set off on my own to the best theater in the area, where I had rows and rows to myself and could have all the silly reactions I wanted to. Moral of the story: going to movies by yourself in the middle of the day is awesome. I highly recommend it, especially when the movie is good.
X-Men: First Class is a… prequel? reboot? The film isn’t quite sure itself. In any case, it tells the story of how Professor Xavier and Magneto met, teamed up, and ultimately fell out, set in the 1960s with the Cuban missile crisis as its backdrop and climax. Charles Xavier, a telepath, is an Oxford grad studying genetics and supporting his adopted sister, Raven, whose mutation allows her to shapeshift into anyone, although her true form is scaly and blue. Erik Lehnsherr, a Holocaust survivor who can control magnetic fields, is searching the world for Klaus Schmidt, the man who murdered his mother and tortured Erik to unleash his power. When CIA agent Moira MacTaggert contacts Xavier for help tracking down a man called Sebastian Shaw, their two missions collide when Shaw turns out to be Schmidt. In order to help the CIA take down Shaw, the two recruit and train a handful of mutants for a showdown in Cuba, but their conflicting ideologies might drive these two friends apart. (Who are we kidding? It does. You’ve seen the other movies.)
Watching this felt like warming up for the next big superhero period film, Captain America. (Totally going to see it this weekend.) They use the setting well without hammering it home that it’s the 1960s; instead, that level of unsubtlety is left for nods at the other films. (You can imagine why this film is a headache for anyone trying to make sense of the continuity here, even when only considering the films.) Yes, we’ve got plenty of lines about Charles going bald and being a professor, but, to be fair, there are some more subtle callbacks—you’ve probably heard about the one involving the strategic use of an f-bomb. It doesn’t feel chained to the other films (what with its blatant disregard for things that happen in them and all), addresses mutant issues by dipping deeper into the parallels being a mutant has with being an other, and further complicates the dynamic between Xavier and Magneto.
Magneto has always been an interesting villain because he’s doing the wrong things for the right reason; X-Men: First Class makes you wonder if he’s not doing the right things. By the same token, you wonder if Xavier is taking the wrong approach. For instance, the film introduces us to the adult Xavier as he flirts with a woman in a bar, pointing out her heterochromia and talking about how her mutation makes her attractive; Raven watches, annoyed. Later that night, she asks him if he thinks her mutation is attractive; after misunderstanding her and mentioning that he would totally date her, he backpedals like no other into “YOU’RE LIKE MY SISTER!” territory. In short, he’s a bit of a hypocrite, and it’s no accident that when the lines are drawn, Erik’s team has more mutants whose mutations aren’t cute or easy to hide. (I’m still processing my feelings on the only two non-white characters ultimately joining Erik; I’m pretty sure it’s unfortunate.) I was really pleased by the way this film explores passing and the privilege it provides to the mutant who can co-opt that privilege by simply not speaking up—case in point, Hank McCoy, whose efforts to pass ultimately render him into the Beast we know today. I’m not gonna lie, I teared up a little when Raven told Hank that he is so beautiful the way he is. It adds another dimension to the usual “MUTANTS = PICK AN OPPRESSED GROUP, ANY OPPRESSED GROUP” dynamic that the X-Men essentially run on, especially since Singer often references the queer community with his X-Men films.
The cast is sparkling—McAvoy and Fassbender did not disappoint, although Fassbender blew me away; his Erik is sharp, dark, and completely unapologetic about who he is, right down to how much he needs Charles. (As you might imagine, his last lines in the film made me all warm, fuzzy, and sad.) I was quite impressed with Jennifer Lawrence as Raven, who is earnest, likable, and struggling with the fact that the world may never appreciate her for who she is. The youngsters are fresh, likable, but not exactly established that well; the two stand-outs that aren’t Jennifer Lawrence are Edi Gathegi as Darwin (criminally wasted here) and Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy. (Side note: Hoult looks astonishingly like James Marsden, to the point I mistook him for Havoc at first glance.) The action sequences are creative and weighty, especially the climax, and it’s quite satisfying as a action-packed summer flick. But there’s still something heartier to it at the end of the day, which makes it a better movie than the other X-Men movies. (To be fair, I haven’t seen any save the first. But, while I will, I doubt I need to.)
Bottom line: X-Men: First Class is a satisfying action-packed summer flick, but the solid cast and the way the film adds another dimension to the usual “mutants = oppressed minority” metaphor by making passing and assimilation key topics of discussion make it something a bit better. Solid.
I saw this film in theaters.