Plot Synopsis: ”X-Men: First Class” is set in the ’60s at the height of the Cold War, when escalating tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union threatened the entire planet, before the world discovered the existence of mutants.
Before Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) took the names Professor X and Magneto, they were two young men discovering their mutant abilities for the first time. They were closest of friends, working together to stop the greatest threat the world has ever known: the mutually assured destruction of a nuclear war.
In the process, a rift between them opened, a fissure in philosophy that would lead to an endless struggle between two superpowers: Magneto’s Brotherhood and Professor X’s X-Men.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn (”Kick-Ass”), ”X-Men: First Class” utilizes the historical context of the turbulent ’60s (Cuban Missile Crisis, Civil Rights Movement) to tell a story of prejudice and acceptance.
Fassbender’s Erik Lensherr is on a mission to find and murder Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a fellow mutant who unlocked young Erik’s potential through torture and pain. Erik’s ability to manipulate magnetic fields was unleashed out of rage when Shaw killed his mother in cold blood right before his very eyes – and ever since then he has used anger as a tool to unleash his magnetic powers
Charles Xavier is the polar opposite. He is privileged, well-educated and embraces peace, love and harmony. And while he and Erik are from different worlds, they form an instant bond. Xavier is the Yoda to Magneto’s Anakin – teaching the powerful mutant to embrace goodness as a conduit for his powers instead of anger and hate.
One of the film’s most memorable scenes occurs when Xavier uses his telepathy to unlock a memory of Erik’s that he had forgotten — a beautiful moment with his mother. It is from this moment of focus and serenity that Erik discovers peace and is able to fully harness his abilities to do truly amazing things.
McAvoy and Fassbender deliver excellent performances, while Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) brings a whole new level of depth to Mystique, a character who must ultimately decide which path she will go down – the righteous naivety of Xavier’s X-Men or the radical Brotherhood of Mutants.
Speaking of mutants, ”X-Men: First Class” has plenty of new ones – and a few familiar faces. Zoe Kravitz is Angel — not to be confused with the Warren Worthington variation. This Angel has insect wings and can spit venomous fireball blasts. Then there’s Edi Gathegi as Darwin, who has the ability to adapt to any situation in order to survive — including rock-hard scales or gills for breathing underwater.
Lucas Till is Alex Summers, older brother of Scott Summers (Cyclops) and otherwise known as Havok. Nicholas Hoult is Dr. Hank McCoy, X-Men’s very own Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who becomes the super-smart, super-blue Beast. Stealing the show is Caleb Landry Jones’ sonic-screaming Banshee – who uses sound waves to create vibrations.
The ”X-Men” are brought together to fight Sebasian Shaw and the Hellfire Club, a collection of mutants including Emma Frost (January Jones), Riptide (Álex González) and Azazel (Jason Flemyng). Fans of the comics will recognize the revelation that Aazael and Mystique are the biological parents of Nightcrawler – a plot point that could be introduced in later films.
The final battle finds the X-Men and the Hellfire Club fighting amidst a confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States – the fate of the Cuban Missile Crisis will no longer be in the hands of mere men, but will rest upon the actions of mutantkind.
Bottom Line: ”X-Men: First Class” is a delightful summer movie – filled with memorable moments that audiences love to see in these kinds of movies: a team of unique individuals is assembled – we see the mentors (Xavier and Erik) interview potential recruits who show off their amazing abilities. Then of course there’s the pre-requisite training montage before the big epic final battle.
Final Thoughts: Ultimately, the film’s biggest fault is that it is tied to Bryan Singer’s ”X-Men” universe. While ”First Class” attempts to create something new with the ”X-Men” mythology, it is mired by the inherent flaws of the films before it.
Vaughn’s film could have been more impressive had it been a true reboot of the franchise, with the real First Class lineup of Cyclops, Jean Grey, Beast, Iceman and Angel (Warren Worthington). A new continuity, free of restrictions – a second chance to get it right.
Instead, Vaughn has delivered a superior prequel to an inferior series of films. As you may remember, Vaughn was poised to direct the third installment, 2006’s ”X-Men: The last Stand”, before pulling out during pre-production. The final product, directed by Brett Ratner, sounded the death knell for the ”X-Men” franchise.
Instead of moving forward with a reboot, Fox subjected audiences to the abhorrent spin-off, ”X-Men Origins: Wolverine”. ‘Luckily, ”First Class” is sweet enough to remove the sour taste of those lesser films from the palate. Hopefully Vaughn will get to make more X-men movies, but one has to wonder where they’ll go with the story, being as Singer and the gang have spoiled so much of the fun already.
Maybe in ten years someone will get the balls to do a proper ”X-Men” film with all the vigor and excitement of the ’90s cartoon series. I’m talking giant sentinels shooting lasers, bright flamboyant costumes and an ambition to be theatrical and over-the-top, not the subdued black leather uniforms of Singer’s way-too-realistic world.
Until then, Vaughn’s ”X-Men: First Class” is a great summer action film and one of the best Marvel efforts to date. Fans of the ”X-Men” series will be pleased with the amount of care (and fan service) given to this ambitious prequel.