I’m sure I’m not the only X-Men fan that laments Bryan Singer choosing to vacate the director’s chair after the second film. After he left, we then got the admittedly enjoyable but completely forgettable and rather sloppy X-Men: The Last Stand, under the direction of Brett “Rush Hour” Ratner.
However, things then looked up when we heard there was going to be a prequel focusing specifically on the most famous and one of the most popular members of the team, Wolverine. Sadly though even under the direction of the talented Gavin Hood (director of the Oscar-winning Tsotsi and the underrated Rendition), the film failed to bring the franchise back from where the third film had taken it and at that point it looked like there was no hope left for the franchise to get back up to the level it had previously achieved.
Step in X-Men: First Class. What seemed like a project fated for mediocrity at the very best has turned out to be arguably the best installment of the franchise so far, a grand, exciting, handsomely made film that does everything right which the two previous films in the series did so very wrong.
First Class goes where a lot of fans of the franchise have been wanting it to go every since that very first scene of the first film showing a young Magneto in a concentration camp, bending and buckling the metal gate as his mother gets dragged away by the Nazis. In the first film it jumped forward to the already on-going disagreement between Professor X and Magneto, but after opening with that scene once again First Class stays in that time and delves into what exactly happened between Charles Xavier and his former friend Erik Lehnsherr.
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender play Charles and Erik, respectively, and both do an excellent job of completely inhabiting these iconic characters. Although McAvoy looks very little like the future Professor X, Patrick Stewart, he gets the calmness and spirit of him down just right. Fassbender, on the other hand, not only embodies Magneto but he does look believable as a younger Ian McKellen. It may seem trivial that the past incarnations of characters be believable and that they will actually turn out as we know them from previous films, but it’s just as essential a thing to get right as the display and utilizations of the mutant powers which are so integral to the series’ mythology.
Speaking of which, First Class has both a wide array of powers upon which for us to feast our eyes (with the aid of top-notch CGI, of course), but also, and perhaps more importantly, the right combination of power-filled mutants. Each brings something different to the table, sure, but in the context of the story they complement each other well. It doesn’t exactly hurt that the casting is excellent, allowing for fun chemistry between pretty much all of the First Class team. Pretty much all the mutants are great, but notable highlights include Jason Flemyng as Azazel (who is pretty much a red version of Nightcrawler from the second film); Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee (who has the power to scream at high frequency, essentially allowing him to fly); Jennifer Lawrence as a young Mystique (my personal favourite mutant of them all); and an Kevin Bacon as a surprisingly formidable and impressive bad guy, Sebastian Shaw (I won’t ruin what exactly his power is). The film does a great job of both showcasing all of these varied powers without being overly showy or campy about it, a crime both the third X-Men and the Wolverine prequel were guilty of on several occasions.