X-Men is one of the few superhero franchises that really works well in a realistic setting. That’s probably because nearly everyone can relate to the feeling of not belonging. Almost all of the best X-Men stories have focused to some degree on the nature of mutants as a social minority akin to homosexuals, African Americans or any other marginalized group. None of us want to be persecuted for who we are, and the X-Men mythos speaks to that in a primal yet entertaining way.
At the heart of that notion lies the relationship between Professor Charles Xavier and Erik Magnus Lehnsherr, aka Magneto. Their competing philosophies — which have been likened to those of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively — provide the conflict which drives the X-Men in all media. We’re very fortunate that Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class chooses to spotlight that conflict. It makes for a truly compelling action movie that’s more about philosophy than special effects.
Like many fans of the film franchise, I initially responded to First Class with skepticism. How could the film recast roles embodied in Bryan Singer’s movies by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, two fine actors who elevate the quality of whatever they’re in? Silly me; I wasn’t familiar with James McAvoy or Michael Fassbender, the young actors who fill those shoes here. McAvoy and Fassbender totally own these characters; their interactions make the script come alive. Fassbender, especially, is a treasure: there are many scenes where Magneto’s intensity becomes palpable merely because of the look on Fassbender’s face. I’m of the opinion that Magneto is the best villain superhero comics ever created (and indeed one of the best characters in general ever spawned by the genre), and Fassbender here does excellently bringing gravity to this fascinating role.
To me, the best thing about the Xavier/Magneto divide is how realistic it all feels. Magneto wouldn’t work as a villain if we didn’t at least see where he’s coming from, but I think First Class takes that one step further — I think there are plenty of points, maybe even the majority of the film, when Magneto’s philosophy is more attractive than Charles’. Erik advocates that mutants not be ashamed of themselves, that they refuse to be marginalized by human culture and that they aspire to be the best, most powerful creatures they can be. That probably speaks to viewers a little more strongly than Charles’ milquetoast apologizing. When you couple that with the fact that Xavier’s actually a pretty persistent (and somewhat bad?) womanizer, he doesn’t always look like the monolithic hero superhero films usually throw at us. First Class happily chooses to give both its lead characters a fair shake philosophically, and I think that carries this movie throughout its hefty 2:20 run time.
Besides the principals, there’s plenty else to like here. First Class features some really inventive use of mutant powers — I was particularly impressed by the way the teleporting Azazel dispatches with his foes. It’s got a pretty solid supporting cast bolstered by Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) as Raven/Mystique and featuring some surprisingly straight action turns from Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids) as Moira MacTaggert and Kevin Bacon (everything) as Sebastian Shaw. I also very much enjoyed the way this film situated itself in the context of world history; that helps to cement the realistic feel of the X-Men franchise I mentioned above. In a way, this film is kind of X-Men via Thirteen Days, but I find that an asset, not a detraction.
Though the initial X-Men trilogy had its high points, I think most viewers would agree it was eventually brought down by some lackluster sequels, especially 2009′s throwaway Wolverine. First Class reminded me that X-Men movies can prove very potent. I really hope a prequel sequel (pre-sequel?) comes from this film… I can’t be the only one who’d like to know where all these new characters get to before Bryan Singer’s X-Men rolls around.
My Best of 2012 Playlist by Eric Garneau
After being inspired by some friends, for the past few years I’ve been really into documenting my musical exploration with year-end mixes. I realize this is not a particularly novel thing to do, but hey, who has original ideas any more? Anyway, this has gotten even easier to do thanks to new technology like Spotify. read more