Counting to X: X-Men: First Class

The Last Stand was an abject mess, a failure in nearly every way. That was a bad thing for the movie, but ultimately a very good thing for the franchise. The Last Stand’s failure opened the way for something completely different to be tried. That in turn led to the creation of the other essential X-Men movie; First Class.

First Class throws everything from casting to continuity out of the window. Aside from one pivotal moment, Erik Lensherr trying and failing to save his parents from the camps, everything old is new again. Or rather, everything old is older still as the movie takes place in the 1960s. It’s a brave choice and one that writers Jane Goldman, Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Matthew Vaughan, working from a story by Bryan Singer and Sheldon Turner, make work on multiple levels.

The most obvious is casting. James McAvoy somehow manages to clearly be playing a younger Patrick Stewart even as he puts his own definitive stamp on the role. This Charles Xavier is a barely graduated upper class scientist who is one part swashhbuckler one part potential sex pest. He’s charming and plausible and amoral and the movie absolutely beats the crap out of him in a wide variety of ways. It also cleverly positions Charles as one of the first mutants, along with adoptive sister Raven (Mystique), played with burly, belligerent charm by Jennifer Lawrence. They are the embodiment of the mutant issue and both do an extraordinary job of showing how much they grow over the course of the movie. The seeds of Raven’s radicalization are especially impressive and Lawrence clearly relishes being given the context for the role that Rebecca Romijn was denied.

This repositioning of Mystique as one of the most important characters in the universe is key to the movie’s success. She’s a grounding point, a mutant with a very visual physical mutation who lacks the self confidence Charles is gifted by his invisible abilities. She’s also murderously angry in a way he isn’t and her struggle to define herself, and her people, is the strongest part of this second trilogy by far.

That’s also true of Michael Fassbender’s Magneto. First Class dives headlong into his origins and Fassbender has never been better than he is in this movie. His Erik is grieving, endlessly, murderously furious and also desperate for someone to belong with, or to. Fassbender has a physicality to how he shows Magneto’s abilities in action that just burns the screen up. There’s a fight with a group of escaped Nazis in Argentina where he’s clearly barely breaking a sweat even as he uses his abilities to drive a knife into one opponent, yank it out and throw it back into another. He looks, moves and feels incredibly dangerous and had the film stopped there it would have been impressive. The extra mile it goes makes this, arguably, the definitive Magneto movie as we see Charles show him how to use his abilities based on positive memories rather than rage. The image of Magneto, tears streaming down his face as he uses the gift the Nazis corrupted for something other than hate is incredible. The fact that he can’t turn away from violence despite this is heartbreaking and defines the character. Plus he and McAvoy are just irrationally hot together. Seriously the chemistry between the two is almost improbable.

Unlike every other X-Men movie, the ensemble actually get a far bit to do as well. Nicholas Hoult’s Beast, whose origin is fairly sprinted through here is excellent value. Likewise Rose Byrne as Moria MacTaggert, re positioned here as a CIA agent and Oliver Platt as her fellow spook and Xavier’s first champion in the field. The other members of the First Class get less, but Caleb Landry Jones’ Banshee and Lucas Till’s Havok both register well. The others…we’ll get to.

Where the movie really shines is in the way it embraces its period. The mildly feverish optimism of the ‘50s and ‘60s along with the apocalypse fever of the Cuban Missile Crisis is fertile ground for these characters and the writers make sure they milk it for all its worth. At times First Class plays like an unusually high budget episode of The Man From UNCLE, replete as it is with secret rooms in go-go clubs, escape submarines and off the books shenanigans behind the Iron Curtain. This is the period where the Great Game, or at least the fiction around it was interested in having a little fun and the movie wants the same thing. It pays dividends for Magneto especially, and the banter-y relationship he and Xavier have is one step and a bowler hat away from being Avengers dialogue. And not the Captain America type either.

Then there’s the villain. Kevin Bacon has SUCH fun as Sebastian Shaw, scientist, adventurer, eugenics hobbyist and all around bad man. From the opening, where he scars Erik for life to his final scene, Bacon is endless good value. He’s a darkest timeline Austin Powers, a curdled Bond. An international man of mystery and danger who is clever, tough and a legitimate threat. All of which makes his eventual demise all the more intensely satisfying. Not to mention horrific.

Oh and the franchise positively glows under the control of the first director in its history who can actually do multi level action sequences. Vaughan balances the slightly flat house style with a gloriously free wheeling approach to action, making for some surprising and fun beats which are always driven by character. The running gag about how Banshee learns to fly is a great example of this, but time and again Vaughan and his writers use the characters and their abilities to define the action rather than vice versa. The closing battle is a great example, as opponents frequently swap and locations change constantly thanks to one side having a teleporter. That being said, arguably the most charged fight here is the frantic scramble between Xavier and Magneto to stop the latter throwing every missile back at the ships that have just fired on them. The image of the missiles and shells, tumbling end over end and following their trajectory backwards is a perfect visual summation of the power and terror Magneto embodies and the fight is a neat microcosm of the two men’s ethical disagreements.

I mentioned that this one is really, really good right? Because it is.

Mostly.

The X-Men movies are bad at diversity. All of them. And this is arguably the worst. it’s a deeply weird problem for a franchise based on the celebration of difference to have but this is the movie that drags it into light and the result is ugly. Darwin, played with easy charm by Edi Gathegi, is a mutant whose ability involves the instantaneous evolution of whatever he needs to survive. He’s killed. Angel, played by Zoe Kravitz, is a classic character who is introduced working in a strip club, wanders around a little and then joins the bad guys because she’s frightened. They’re both black. They are the only characters in the entire movie who are. It’s the absolute definition of a terrible look and weirdly the one time the setting really works against the movie. Every female character gets an underwear or straight up nude scene and not even the Man from UNCLE kitsch of Shaw’s personal nuclear submarine can cover up the face the biggest hitter on his team wears a corset into battle. It’s lazy writing that hurts the movie and the franchise and nothing gets done about it until arguably Apocalypse or Dark Phoenix. Even then it’s far too little too decades late and if the X-movies have a fatal flaw, its surely this.

If you can get past that there’s so much to enjoy here but it’s a challenge and a maddening one at that. This is so nearly a perfect reboot and Vaughan’s original plan was that this really was going to be the start of a period trilogy. Unfortunately, the movie did very well which means Vaughan’s plan was abandoned in favor of going to the future, and back, straight away. Next time, we’ll see how well that went.