I am sure that many of you already know that X-Men: First Class was originally intended to be the second Origins film, focusing on Magneto. At some point its development shifted away from being a Magneto film and instead moved its target towards a slightly larger target, the dawn of the mutant age and Charles Xavier’s first students. It is a choice that made for a better film and a more than successful reboot of the franchise. Yes, I said reboot. I believe it was initially intended to be part of the existing film universe, but there are just too many inconsistencies and I would prefer to look at this as a break from the others, no matter how good the first two are, the third film and Wolverine were considerably less so.
Matthew Vaughn, who had been on board for the third movie but left abruptly before shooting was to begin, returns to the franchise on better terms and with Bryan Singer, who helmed the first two films, on board as producer and co-writer, the film was certainly in good hands. I know I was looking forward to it when I saw it in theaters, whatever they delivered. Both men have vision and an understanding of how to make a good movie and while this film is not without its faults, it more than delivers.
The movie opens with Erik Lensherr and Charles Xavier as children at the approximate time their mutant abilities manifested themselves. With Erik, it was when his parents were taken and placed in a concentration camp during WWII. His anger revealed an ability to affect metal. It is an ability whose power is hinted at when the man running the camp, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), takes an interest in the lad and pushes him until his anger unleashes the full, unfocused strength of his metal bending talent. As for young Charles, it came a bit earlier, as a young boy at his family’s estate when he awakens in the middle of the night and has a chance meeting with another young mutant, Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence), later known as Mystique, showing he was not alone.
We pick the story up some years later during the Cold War when our heroes are now grown men. Erik (Michael Fassbender) is on the hunt for those responsible for the death of his mother in the concentration camp while Charles (James McAvoy) has proven himself to be something of a ladies man at Oxford. The two are on a collision course, and there is nothing that can stop what they will become. Their meeting is inadvertently assured by Shaw, whose Hellfire Club is doing plenty of behind-the -scenes political maneuvering, moving pieces into place for a third World War. Not to be forgotten is Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne), a young CIA operative tracking Shaw. The backdrop to this drama is the building Cuban Missile Crisis, giving it some real-world heft, complete with archival footage of JFK.
Of course, this is more than just the Xavier and Magneto show. More mutants get in on the fun including Shaw’s recruits of Emma Frost (January Jones), Azazel, and Riptide. On the other side we have Banshee, Havok, Beast, Angel, Darwin, and of course Mystique. Not too many, not too few, a nice mix of big screen effect inducing powers and not too many as to crowd the screen for airtime.
This is how an X-Men movie should be made. It is big and flashy with some nice effects-laden sequences as well as quieter and more subtle with time taken for character, not to mention an overall high quality cast. It pays attention to detail, and while it is not a direct copy of the comic book origin, it has an internal logic that works and makes sense. And that is an important piece of the puzzle, right? This movie respects the source material, takes its time with the characters, and has a narrative flow that works. I don’t think we could have expected a film completely true to the comic, concessions and changes are made with any adaptation, good or bad, and this one does a good job of it.
Watching the relationship between Charles and Erik develop is quite good; it shows how they are two sides of the same coin. McAvoy and Fassbender bring plenty of subtlety and charisma to their roles. In particular, Michael Fassbender was spot on as the man who would become Magneto. There was so much going on in his eyes and when he put the helmet on it just felt right. There is some interesting, thought-provoking moments that relate as much today as they would during the Cold War setting and it all has to do with the two sides of the same coin. The two men clearly want the same thing; they just have different ways of going about it. There is a scene on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where they briefly discuss looking for other mutants. Erik likens it to the first steps towards another Holocaust, where would the listing end? On the other hand, Charles sees a lot of people who are going to need help. Both want what is best for mutants, but the methods are destined to diverge.
The supporting cast is also good with the likes of Kevin Bacon, who is a delightful scene-chewer as Shaw. Not to be left out, the other mutants, led by Jennifer Lawrence, were all solid and added some nice texture to the movie, even if a few of the effects shots looked a little off. For example, the flying did not look quite right.
Really, the biggest drawback of the film was January Jones as Emma Frost. She is a charismatic black hole, complete with dead eyes. She was just empty, emotionless, and just killed the momentum in any scene she is in. Fortunately it is not so bad as to take away the rest of the film’s accomplishments.
Matthew Vaughn directs with a steady hand, never overplaying his cards while ensuring there is enough visual pyrotechnics to keep all involved interested. It is a movie that plays out on a grand stage where nothing is subtle, yet contains enough subtlety to give us interesting characters that are needed to become truly invested. It is not a movie that will speak to the human condition or mean much in the grand scheme of things, but what it does do is entertain with intelligence.
Oh yes, there are a couple of fantastic cameos, be sure to keep an eye out for them. Also, stay through the credits, not for any extra scenes, but because the score is pretty darn good. And try to forget the bad marketing, terrible posters, and dull trailers they used to market it.
Audio/Video. The film is presented in a 2.35:1 ratio transfer and looks mighty fine. It is bright, colorful, and has plenty of fine detail. You don’t have to look far to see it, from facial lines, to the representation of the powers, to the blue and yellow costumes in the finale, nothing to complain about here. The color palette is warm and seems to be “aged.” I mean, the film is primarily set in the 1960s and the color timing looks to have been set to match that of the era. Additionally, there are a number of scenes that show off the detail level, such as when Erik is confronting the banker (check the reflection), and the Beast’s transformation. There is nothing about the look that doesn’t appear first class. I found no evidence of digital manipulation and there is a nice, realistic level of film grain that aids in making this look cinematic.
If the pretty pictures aren’t enough, the DTS-HD5.1 track is rather exceptional and nicely immersive. The dialogue is always crisp and clear, and when Charles’ voice heads directly for your head, it really comes around you in the sound field. Since this is an action movie, the action bits are very nicely realized, such as the first encounter of Erik and Charles, as Erik tries to stop Shaw, not to mention the big sequence at the end of the film. Audio is nicely directional and the explosions certainly pack a punch.
- X Marks the Spot Viewing Mode. This gives you periodic pop-ups that take you to featurettes about the production. They can also be watched from the Extras menu.
- Cerebro: Mutant Tracker. This interactive bit lets you navigate through Cerebro and see bits about the various mutants through all of the films.
- Children of the Atom. This documentary is broken into seven pieces totaling over an hour. It covers the differences between comics and movies, the mutant choices, various stages of the production, and possibility of sequels. This is quite good.
- Deleted Scenes. Thirteen cut bits have made their way to the disk. Always nice to see what didn’t make it.
- Isolated Score. Haven’t seen one of these in awhile. It is a nice inclusion, the score really is quite good.
Bottomline. This is a really good movie with strong characters, good performances, and a nice cross of fun superhero movie and intelligent filmmaking. I have found that it does work well with multiple viewings. I hope to see sequels to this in the not too distant future.