Before mutants had revealed themselves to the world, and before Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) took the names Professor X and Magneto, they were two young men discovering their powers for the first time. Not archenemies, they were instead at first the closest of friends, working together with other Mutants (some familiar, some new), to prevent nuclear Armageddon. In the process, a grave rift between them opened, which began the eternal war between Magneto’s Brotherhood and Professor X’s X-Men.
About 30 minutes into X-Men: First Class, I felt like I was watching one of the finest comic book, superhero movies I’ve ever seen. The story starts out with Charles and Erik as children; Charles the son of extremely wealthy but never seen parents, and Erik, the son who not only witnessed his family being taken into a concentration camp but his mother’s murder by the sadistic Dr. Schmidt (who would later become the villainous Sebastian Shaw). The scenes with Erik are full of emotion, power and sadness and the actor playing young Erik is magnificent as he tries to use his power to save his mother’s life, and then unleashes his full anger after Schmidt shoots her.
The boys age to young men but their paths don’t cross until Charles convinces the CIA of his abilities and offers his services to help locate Shaw, who seems to be making secret deals with the Russians to install nuclear missiles in Cuba (yes, the film takes place in 1962). As the CIA closes in on Shaw’s yacht, he becomes aware of another mutant nearby who demonstrates his powers while trying to take out Shaw to avenge his mother’s death. Erik’s powers aren’t under control at this point and Charles saves him from drowning and convinces him that they can work better as a team.
From here, we are introduced to more Mutants recruited for the cause. The younger Mutants, I thought, were going to make such a stunningly serious and adult film, to that point, more juvenile (and they do engage in some juvenile behavior), but once Shaw and his band of evil mutants attack the CIA compound, we know this won’t be all fun and games. The story shows us the relationship between Charles and Erik, their different attitudes about how the world will see them once their mission is complete, and how they became the more familiar “frenemies” that we know today (some might even say this movie is something of a bromance). We also learn that Mystique has the ability to age twice as slow as a normal human (which explains how she can be a child in 1942 and look like Rebecca Romijn in 2000) and we see how the normal-looking Hank McCoy (well, except for those feet) became the furry, blue Beast.
I have to hand it to writers Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and writer/director Matthew Vaughn for giving us a complicated story that spans locations from Germany to Vegas to Russia to D.C. to Cuba to upstate New York – and back again! I never felt that they dumbed-down the story, the dialog or the characters just to make them appeal to the masses. McAvoy makes a terrific Charles Xavier, showing us his cheeky side with cheesy pick-up lines and his idealistic beliefs that humans will accept the mutants without fear or consequence as well as his abilities as a leader. Fassbender, however, steals the show as he shows us Erik’s inner rage and pain simply through his facial expressions. When Charles taps into his mind to help him control his power – which is somewhere between joy and rage – he reminds him of a happier time in his childhood before life for the Jews went to hell in Nazi Germany. The look on Fassbender’s face as Erik experiences those memories that he thought he’d forgotten brought tears to my eyes. He gives a magnificent performance, and really looks like he could have aged into Ian McKellan.
All of the cast are excellent from January Jones to a barely recognizable Jason Flemyng (as Azazel, the red-skinned version of Nightcrawler). Jennifer Lawrence gives Raven/Mystique a lot of soul, and – not really a spoiler – it’s quite sad when she decides to go off with Magneto at the end. Nicholas Hoult was charmingly nerdy as Hank McCoy, but his Beast suffered a bit from the extremely constricting makeup (but kudos for not going the CGI route with the character). And Kevin Bacon. Wow, this guy must have a portrait in his attic because he still looks like that guy from Footloose. He’s terrifically menacing as Schmidt (even speaking German) and morphs into the sleazily seductive, but extremely dangerous Shaw who has a way of making people do what he wants. I also got a kick out of seeing a slew of great character actors in small roles: Oliver Platt, Glenn Morshower, Ray Wise, James Remar and Michael Ironside. I was also surprised to see other familiar faces like Brendan Fehr, Jason Beghe and Randall Batinkoff in extremely tiny roles.
I also have to give a shout out to the production designer, art directors, set decorators and costume designer for nailing the period, both the 40s and the 60s, and not just the 60s but movies from the 60s. Some of the sets – real sets – are gigantic! They really look like something from a classic James Bond movie. In fact, that’s what this reminded me of … a James Bond movie with Mutants. Vaughn also manages to keep the movie jumping around the globe, but it never becomes overwhelming or tedious, there are no dead moments in the script, and the action scenes are choreographed and shot in such a way that you can actually see what’s going on! None of those crappy full close-ups full of moving body parts that tell you the director has no idea how to shoot action. My only complaint, and it’s not really a complaint but more of a compliment, is that I’d really liked to have seen Charles and Erik work together in another movie before they became the iconic characters of Professor X and Magneto. I enjoyed the story and the characters so much that I wanted to see more before they crossed that line from friends to nemeses (seriously, this is no Phantom Menace). That said, I am looking forward to the further adventures of these teams, both good and bad, as well as the introduction of some of the more familiar X-Men we know today.
X-Men: First Class is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language (one usage of the F-word, to be exact).