After working through it and working it over, I’ve come to the conclusion that X-Men: First Class is a bad movie. This pains me more than I should like to admit, because there’s some deep groundwork for a very good movie here. This unfulfilled potential and the interesting takes on familiar characters and backstories make this a film worth seeing if you’re a Marvel and X-Men fan. However, on the whole, the average viewer should remain skeptical, and only go if they’re feeling very sporting — this film ranks solidly below Thor, dwelling closer to the level of the later X-Men films and Origins: Wolverine.
X-Men: First Class portrays the origin stories for the several of the franchise characters, providing flashes of background for Magneto, Professor X, Raven, and Beast, and other charismatic heroes in training. The government, guided by the tolerant good will of agent Moira McTaggart, provides intrepid young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik “Magneto” Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) with the means of finding and recruiting fledgling mutants. These superhuman allies come in handy when mad mutant supremacist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) attempts to ignite the Cold War into a hot one.
The best acting by far is the work by McAvoy and Fassbender, and the camaraderie and conflict between them creates the foundation for an excellent origin story. They have genuine fraternal spark in their scenes together, and they evoke the right kinds of respective energies: Magneto a sinister and alluring intensity, and Xavier a sense of calm, bordering on skittishness. If we’re to take these characterizations at their word, Xavier is enthusiastic and sharp, but he hasn’t yet developed into the powerful leader that Patrick Stewart will eventually portray. That’s fine… if anything, it’s a fairly good explanation for the eventual fragmenting of the mutant coalition.
Somewhere buried in this story, there’s also a very potent account of oppression, victimization, and retaliation. The motifs of racial and genetic superiority, tyranny of the majority, and fear of the Other are present at all times, and there’s a lot of potential for nuance, depth, and complexity. Reactionary liberation, assimilation, identity politics, the subliminal identification with the oppressor; lots of bloggers are covering this, even as we speak. X-Men: First Class is, if nothing else, a great spark to start conversations like this.
Unfortunately, in spite of all this promise, the film ends up being too serious, without being ambitious enough to handle the gravity of its themes. The problem starts with the writing—whoever finalized the script wasn’t confident enough to let the themes stand on their own, so they’re constantly repeated in bad hand-waving dialog, a barrage of solemn insights into the characters’ thoughts on being The Oppressed and The Other. The whole movie—especially the second half—is a litany of over-serious pronouncements, barely speckled with occasional humorous asides, which aren’t really enough to make it seem like the filmmakers have any perspective.
In a film like this—a film about the psychology of oppression and victimization—it’s important to focus on motives and interior lives of the characters, and because it’s a “strike force team” ensemble movie, the filmmakers had no time whatsoever for that kind of exploration. Sudden changes of loyalty (romances? betrayals?) were constant features of the narrative landscape, but were totally dramatically inert, because they were so quick, and because the characters were lifted and dropped into the plot so frivolously. This type of thing is far better in a comic book format, where you have very short issues, followed by week-long stretches to reflect on those developments. When every introduction and episode is mushed together into 90 minutes, it really feels like nobody cares much about the lives of these characters.
It also doesn’t help that there was very little chemistry between many of the younger actors. Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank (Nicholas Hoult) had lots of breathy exchanges, but there was never any physical or verbal spark between them; on top of that, they were burdened with some very strange encounters involving picnic baskets and massive hypodermic needles. Rose Byrne’s Moira was apparently supposed to be romantically interested in Charles Xavier, but this never came through on-screen, making a bit of acknowledgement towards the end seem to come straight out of the blue. These are the kinds of spaces where these characters could have developed into people we really invested in. Instead, they remained mere obligatory plot-points on a well-worn narrative path.
The film is supposed to take place in the UK in the ’60s, but except for the occasional nod to mod decor and the distracting use of the word “groovy” by Professor Xavier, it doesn’t look any more like ’60s academia than the other X-Men films, or Hellboy, or anything else with a generic chrome-and-primary color palette. The special effects are only passable, and at times, it’s too obvious that the vehicles and the super-powers are modeled and generated on a computer screen. Fight scenes depended entirely on these flashes and particles and lens flares, and weren’t terribly impressive as a result. A strong aesthetic eye could have pulled the film out of “generic” and into “visually unique” territory, and this would have made it feel considerably more serious. Alas, once again, there was no such commitment.
In the end, this is the first draft of a technically stronger and thematically more powerful film. There’s a deep reservoir of thematic material here, from the Nazi and oppression themes to the intensely ambivalent relationship between Charles Xavier and Magneto. However, the film passes like a stone skipping over the surface of these ideas, moving too quickly and too lightly to make good on the promise.