X-Men: First Class (2011) – Directed by Matthew Vaughn – Starring Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Zoe Kravitz, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Till, Edi Gathegi, Jason Flemyng, Alex Gonzalez, Oliver Platt, Ray Wise, Michael Ironside, James Remar, Glenn Morshower, Matt Craven, Annabelle Wallis Rebecca Romijn, and Hugh Jackman.
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is a staggeringly great movie, and an incredibly important one, as it offers some variety from the standard superhero movie.
It seems almost inconceivable to me that we have now been blessed with so many superhero movies that a bit of malaise is starting to infect the genre. When Green Lantern tanked (tanked being a relative term in Hollywood), the we-all-knew-it-was-coming speculation posts started coming about the “end of the genre” and that people were suffering from superhero burnout.
Released within weeks of each other, FIRST CLASS took in $353 million at the international box office, while Green Lantern brought in $222 million. A month later Captain America: The First Avenger hit theaters and scored a $368 million haul. The Avengers? $1.5 billion. The Dark Knight Rises? $1 billion. The Amazing Spider-Man? $750 million.
Importantly, most of these films offer something different: there’s a World War II story, the ultimate fanboy movie, an incredibly serious story, and a teen angst story. Even Green Lantern offered something different in a cosmic story (though, really, the film over-marketed the cosmic and then delivered a largely earthbound snoozefest), and so the idea that people were “burned out” on superheroes as the DC/Warner Brothers folks tried to tell us rang false, and gave more evidence to the notion that the House of Warner does not understand how to make a superhero movie as well as their Mouse-owned counterparts. Success with DC characters seems much more random, while over at Marvel, there’s a point man in Kevin Fiege and a consolidated approach on how to make movies that feel like they occur in the same universe without all looking and sounding the same.
FIRST CLASS, of course, is produced over at Fox (and Spidey’s film rights are held by Sony), and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe was able to build on what Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi and David Goyer’s BLADE movies had done, and take superheroes to a new place. But really, I think the lesson that we can learn from Green Lantern and subsequent superhero movies is that simply making a movie about a superhero isn’t a guaranteed success. People still want good movies, and will still respond to good movies (more often than not), if they are marketed properly.
Which brings me back to X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.
When I decided back at the beginning of the summer that I was going to review all superhero movies in order to collect them and release them as book, I wanted to save FIRST CLASS for last because it was the biggest superhero film that I hadn’t seen. I thought it would make a nice bow on the reviewing cake, and even though at some point this summer I realized I would need to break the superhero review book into three volumes (1 for Marvel, 1 for DC, and 1 for everything else) and concentrated on the Marvel films, FIRST CLASS is still the biggest release I had not watched, and thus serves as a fitting end to my run through all of Marvel’s cinematic releases.
FIRST CLASS is a fantastic movie, and does the smart thing to offer us something new. The original X-MEN trilogy had sputtered to a clumsy, tired ending with THE LAST STAND, but FIRST CLASS is not just a breath of fresh air, but an entire new weather front moving in. FIRST CLASS manages to both reaffirm the superhero genre as it gives us something that doesn’t look like anything else.
Set in the 1960s, FIRST CLASS is still told in the same universe as the X-MEN trilogy, and it does a marvelous job of being its own film while still throwing some easter eggs in there to connect this film with the Singer films. If you’ve been reading the Anxiety all summer, you know that I loved Avengers, and really liked both Dark Knight Rises and Amazing Spider-Man. My reaction to FIRST CLASS is much more similar to my reaction to Avengers, in that as soon as I was done watching it, I wanted to watch it immediately again. Which, since I was watching the Blu-ray, I could.
More than any other superhero film, FIRST CLASS thrives on style. There’s a good story here, but there are holes and missed beats throughout the film, yet this subtly styled 1960s vibe is just incredibly engaging to immerse oneself in.
It helps that FIRST CLASS is an incredibly confident movie. Helmed by Matthew Vaughn, FIRST CLASS is entirely comfortable with what it is and what it wants to do, so there’s no apologizing for being a superhero movie set during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I have not ever watched Mad Men, but I get the sense that my reaction to FIRST CLASS is similar to many people’s reaction to that show (and not just because of the January Jones connection) in that it’s just a lot of fun t watch an American costume drama.
Because that’s what FIRST CLASS is – a costume drama with superheroes, oozing with equal parts 1960s cool and sexism. Vaughn has literally stuffed his film with stars, bringing in actors like Ray Wise, James Remar, Michael Ironside, Rebecca Romijn, and Hugh Jackman just for a scene or two, and these brief appearances of actors you know helps to make FIRST CLASS feel warm and comfortable. Watching the movie is akin to drinking an Old Fashioned or a High Ball, some old school drink that makes you feel warm and pleasant.
Ostensibly, FIRST CLASS is a film about the early relationship between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), and birth of the X-Men, but it’s really the overall tone and style that I find the most appealing. Each scene sparkles on multiple levels; seeing Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and Emma Frost (January Jones) interact works because of the actors, the characters, and the style. Members of the Hellfire Club, Shaw and Frost appear a powerful duo, but then every so often Shaw will do something like order Frost to get him ice for his drink to reinforce who’s really in charge of the Club, which reinforces that we’re in the early ’60s, where this kind of accepted sexism isn’t unusual. When a perturbed Frost nonetheless goes and gets Shaw his ice without complaint, it carries a strong cultural resonance into the film, sending a ripple outwards to remind you of where and when this film is taking place.
Kevin Bacon is surprisingly great as Sebastian Shaw. I like Bacon as an actor, but I never would have thought he could give a performance as Sebastian Shaw that would stand alongside Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus, or Heath Ledger’s Joker. Yet that’s what Bacon achieves here; it’s not a role that calls for the fireworks of Ledger’s performance, but Bacon completely embodies Shaw, a rather laid-back, supremely confident villain who approaches the world with the assured calm of one who takes it as fact that he is better than everyone else, and still completely enjoys the chaos he creates. None of the performances here are overblown, but Bacon’s performance provides the experienced calm that balances with Xavier and Lensherr’s youthful exuberance.
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are both very good, too, though I do feel their relationship was underdeveloped. FIRST CLASS doesn’t really put their varying philosophies to the test; by this, I mean that we do not see them develop as much as we see them playing chess with their already established positions. Right from the start, Charles wants to work with the humans while Erik wants to separate himself from them. There is a bit of development on Erik’s end, as he has to work out his revenge against the Nazi scientist who killed his mother and experimented on him (the scientist was Sebastian Shaw, under a different name) and then find himself in Charles’ world, but there’s never any real tension as to where Erik is going to end up, and not just because we know these two men will end up in opposition to one another.
McAvoy plays Charles as good guy, but also as a smooth, swinging bachelor. He uses the same line repeatedly to pick up women, and is a bit narcissistic when it comes to his hair, but when CIA agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) arrives to bring him in on her investigation into Shaw and the Hellfire Club, Charles immediately signs up.
He brings Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) along with him. In this X-Men cinematic universe, Charles discovers Raven when they are children. Raven transformed herself into an image of Charles’ mother in order to raid the kitchen for food. Instead of being mad or angry, Charles is enthused about finding another mutant and invites Raven to stay with them.
That Raven grows up as Charles’ friend and chooses Erik’s side is supposed to be the main emotional arc of the film, but it really doesn’t work for me. Raven simply isn’t given enough screen time for this change to have any kind of power to it. For this to have worked, I think Raven needed to be seen as an equal to Charles and Erik (in terms of her place in the narrative) and this just isn’t the case. Raven is often in the near background of a scene and we’re supposed to draw a lot of what she’s going through based on secondary action. I think FIRST CLASS would have been better if Raven was clearly positioned as the third point on a triangle between Charles and Erik, and that we saw their actions through her eyes, because without this, Raven doesn’t wholly work as a character for me. This isn’t Lawrence’s fault, as she’s quite good, but rather a fault of the way the film has been assembled.
Working as a secret organization inside the CIA, Charles and Erik assemble a team of mutants to train under them. The most enjoyable sequence of the film is the recruitment process, as we see them in quick flashes making their pitch to a number of mutants, culminating in their visit to recruit Logan (Hugh Jackman). Erik and Charles approach the hard-drinking, cigar-smoking mutant at a bar, and have the following exchange:
“I’m Erik Lensherr.”
“Go f*ck yourself.”
And out the bar our two stars go. It’s a great scene, and combined with Rebecca Romijn’s brief appearance later on in the movie, a nice link to the Singer movies. (And yes, this revelation that Raven grew up in Charles’ house begs the question as to why there wasn’t more emotional resonance between them in the Singer trilogy, especially when Raven is de-powered in LAST STAND, but that will eventually be just another strike against Brett Ratner’s disappointing conclusion to what Singer had started.) By the time of FIRST CLASS’ production, Marvel was already dropping its characters from one film into other films to create a sense of a shared universe, and it was a nice surprise to see Jackman and Romijn show up here to provide an X-equivalent.
Charles and Erik end up with a team that includes Raven, Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Angel (Zoe Kravitz), Havok (Lucas Till), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), and Darwin (Edi Gathegi). There’s little reason to complain about getting a “first team” that doesn’t include the classic organization of Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast, Iceman, and Angel because of how the X-Men universe has been assembled on screen. You are welcome to complain about it, of course, but I’m happier to have this movie tie into the other films than to be a simple reproduction of the comics that would have negated the earlier X-films. What is worth complaining about is that in the cinematic version of a comic book franchise that has long been a bastion of diversity and coded in such a way that kids of all races, religions, gender, sexual orientation, etc. could identify with the X-Men, yet it’s the two non-whites who get jettisoned, as Angel joins up with Shaw’s forces and Darwin is killed trying to stop Shaw.
That’s a small (but serious) complaint in an otherwise excellent movie. I’m probably going to re-watch FIRST CLASS as much as any superhero movie short of Avengers, as it’s a movie that just works from start to finish. The pacing is fact, the acting is good, the story (which ties in the Cuban Missile Crisis) is solid, and the style is simply superb. It’s not as good as Avengers, and it doesn’t contain characters I like as much as the Avengers-related or Spider-Man films, but X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is exciting, engaging, and utterly fantastic film making.