X-men was not a comic I followed as a kid. But in the 1990’s Fox TV came out with an animated version that was far above the usual Saturday morning fare. Then Bryan Singer’s X-Men came out in 2000 and I was a complete convert to the mythos of the mutants among us. Three years later, X2 expanded the story and increased its resonance. Different from the DC superheroes, the Marvel superheroes were usually outcasts, misunderstood, and often raging at the lot fate had for them. But where you’d have the angst of Spiderman with his interior conflicts, with X-men you had a world in conflict. It was part Shakespeare, part Greek tragedy, rolled into one (with explosions).
The series faltered badly with the prophetically-entitled X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006, and the Wolverine prequel in 2009 was only marginally better. The characters drifted into action sequences, but the heart of the story was confused, with people acting contrary to their nature for no apparent reason other than to twist the story. The writers had lost the thread that appealed to me – the struggle with their nature, and whether they should continue to strive to help a world that hates them, or return that hatred with interest.
With X-Men: First Class, the series has recovered its mojo. This reboot, set mostly during the first years of the 1960s, highlights the friendship and eventual estrangement of Charles Xavier (James McElvoy) and Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) – Professor X and Magneto. It also focuses on the shape-shifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) who can hide behind any facade, but whose natural form is blue skin and scales, auburn hair and yellow eyes. Along with other mutants and a CIA operative (Rose Byrne) who finds herself drawn to Xavier, they stand against the Hellfire Club and its mutants, led by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who want to bring on a nuclear war to eradicate the humans and allow the mutants to claim the earth. Perhaps the best way to sum up the conflict is that we must choose who we will be, regardless of what gift or curse we have. Not all choose wisely.
The special effects are first-rate throughout, but they serve the story rather than the other way around. Eric’s encounter with a group of Nazis hiding in Argentina early in the film is a prime example of this, and even the large scale set pieces that end the movie do not overwhelm it. The acting across the board is first-rate, and blends with the characters in X-Men and X2. Fassbender in particular is mesmerizing in channeling Magneto’s suave demeanor and simmering rage. The quality extends to the smaller roles filled by excellent character actors: Oliver Platt, Rade Serbedzija, Ray Wise, and Michael Ironside, among others. There are also two cameos by stars from the earlier movies.
Director Matthew Vaughn first made his name as a producer in England, working with Guy Ritchie, before slipping into the director’s chair to helm Layer Cake and 2010’s Kick-Ass. Having him direct First Class was an inspired choice, for his sense of pace and story serve the movie well.
This jaunt back into the early part of the X-men story is well worth the trip.