X-Men: First Class
The five years it took for us to see an “X-Men” film directed by “Kick Ass’s” Matthew Vaughn? Totally worth it.
As you might recall, Vaughn was originally tapped by Fox to direct 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” which closed out the trilogy Bryan Singer started in 2000 and continued with 2003’s “X2: X-Men United.” Unfortunately for us, Vaughn left the project to direct another film– the lovely 2007 fantasy, “Stardust”– a little closer to home (and his family), leaving us with Brett Ratner (of “Rush Hour” fame) to hurry the film into theatres before Singer’s “Superman Returns,” a gambit that paid off financially but lost audience goodwill for Fox and their treatment of Marvel’s mutant heroes. The production tensions that accompanied the 2009 spin-off, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” didn’t help soothe fan worries that Fox was running the franchise into the ground.
Once again, we have Singer to thank for “X-Men’s” renewed cinematic success. After his “Superman Returns” failed to jumpstart that iconic franchise and his 2008 thriller, “Valkyrie,” Singer had an idea to bring the “X-Men” back to the big screen. Serving as a producer and story contributor, Singer reached out to Vaughn to tell an origin story of when Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr were allies as the mutant evolution began in the ’50s and ’60s. It was an inspired decision that allowed for less of a fresh start and more of a logical progression in following mutants on screen. True, it is something of a narrative dead-end (most prequels are), but it sets the stage for a more adventurous approach to the franchise. Some have taken to calling this film a “reboot,” that dreaded term that has come to define Hollywood’s current creative identity crisis, but to do so is insulting what Singer and Vaughn have delivered here. Even if he doesn’t direct another “X-Men” film, I hope Singer does not leave the franchise altogether; in shepherding the best film in the franchise since “X2” to the big-screen, he is Fox’s not-so-secret weapon in keeping “X-Men” a viable series creatively and financially.
“X-Men: First Class” begins as “X-Men” did– in Poland, 1944, as we see young Erik, in a fit of rage as the Nazis separate him from his mother, use his powers to twist the metal gate of the concentration camp. The Nazis bring him to one of their best doctors, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, digging into one of his best roles with wicked menace), who wants a demonstration; when Erik is unable to comply, Shaw shoots Erik’s mother in front of him, which really sets the young man’s powers loose. Spoiler much? Not at all; just further exploration at where Erik’s distrust of humanity comes from. By the early ’60s, he’s traveling the world, searching for Shaw and Shaw’s accomplices.
It is by chance that during one such encounter he first meets Charles (James McAvoy), a party animal and a ladies’ man who has just earned the title of Professor for his ideas on human evolution when an ambitious CIA agent (Rose Byrne, a busy lady of late between this, “Bridesmaids,” and “Insidious”) seeks him out for answers when she starts to track Shaw, who is now working for the Russians in an attempt to bring about a nuclear world war. Prepare for a crash course on the Cuban Missile Crisis you won’t find in any history book.
Before scholars and comic book geeks alike cry foul, allow me to get my own geek for a minute. There’s an old convention in comics that allows multiple versions of the same events to have happened without particularly upsetting the established story. It’s called “ret-conning,” and it’s been happening for decades. So even if certain events in “First Class” don’t jibe with the established “X-Men” cinematic universe– for instance, how would Erik (played here by Michael Fassbender) not recognize a particular mutant cameo when they meet “for the first time” in “X-Men” –it isn’t meant to necessarily replace a prior story thread as pose a different scenario for the audience to ponder. After a while, you won’t really care as the style of “X-Men: First Class” (think classic Bond) carries you along with the story of how some of the most prominent members of the “X”-universe (including Mystique, the blue shape-shifter played with energy and emotion by Jennifer Lawrence, and Beast, the blue-furred brainiac, played by Nicholas Hoult, who develops a crush on Mystique) were shaped into the versions we saw in Singer’s films. It’s a bold narrative move that Vaughn pulls off brilliantly as he uses the air of paranoia and Cold War tensions of the early ’60s as a mirror for the distrust and uncertainty mutants and humans alike feel for one another; and the climax set in the Atlantic Ocean as the US and Russia was at the brink of war are among the franchise’s most exciting, not just for the superb action scenes but the way the different storylines play out.
All that being said, the thing that comes through clearest about the “X-Men” movie franchise in this film is how the uneasy brotherhood between Charles (AKA Professor X) and Erik (AKA Magneto) is at the heart of the series. Yes, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is a badass and a kickass action hero, but the dynamic between Charles and Erik, that yin and yang between a more optimistic view of humanity compared to a more cynical one, drives the narrative. That clash was front and center in the first two films, but it got lost amid other major narratives in “The Last Stand.” It’s great to see Singer and Vaughn bring that back to the series and to watch McAvoy and Fassbender put their own youthful spins on these characters, originally created on screen by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, respectively. I don’t know where the series will go from here, but I cannot wait to find out.