X-Men: First Class: Fassbender’s Magnetism Makes This Film Attractive
I grew up on X-Men. I read the comic books, I collected the action figures, I watched the TV show. I collected the Fleer Ultra X-Men trading cards. So needless to say, every time an X-Men movie comes out, I am the first in line and the most excited to see the characters of my childhood on the big screen. I was blown away by the first half of X-Men, and X2 is still to date the best comic book superhero film ever made (sorry, The Dark Knight, you lose). X-Men 3 looked good but had a central plot device that never really worked and a terrible ending. Wolverine was terrible all-around. I was wildly skeptical about the reboot, since “origin films” and “prequels” rarely work. X-Men: First Class is certainly entertaining, with some great action sequences, but it feels crowded and overstuffed. Michael Fassbender as Magneto, however, delivers such a great performance that we feel how good this film might have been if it was more pared down.
We begin by meeting Charles Xavier as a child, who discovers a young Mystique breaking into his house. They grow up to become friends (played by James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence, respectively), though it’s implied that maybe Mystique is interested in capturing Charles’ eye. Erik Lensherr is a child in a Holocaust death camp, where he meets Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who is working with the Nazis to attempt to find mutants. He kills Erik’s mother to trigger his mutant power, magnetism. When Erik (played as an adult by Michael Fassbender) gets older, we see him hunting down surviving Nazis and killing them, all the while asking for Shaw’s whereabouts. Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) is a CIA officer looking for Shaw, who believes she’s discovered the existence of mutants. The CIA (led by Oliver Platt) employs Xavier and Mystique to find Shaw, which is where they discover and befriend Magneto. They then recruit an army of young mutants, including Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Angel (Zoe Kravitz), Darwin (Edi Gathegi), Havok (Lucas Till), and Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), to take on Shaw and his allies Emma Frost (January Jones) and Azazael (Jason Flemyng).
Purists of the X-Men franchise will obviously have a massive field day with criticism against this film, because it in no way reflects any of the realities from the comics. Characters’ pasts are drastically altered, events are drastically altered… the mere timelines of characters’ existences are drastically altered. This doesn’t really affect the quality of the film per se, but since the film isn’t perfect in this form, it does make you wonder why they would bother doing a franchise reboot that is so different from the source material. It also makes you wonder why they’d crowd the film with so many characters– each of the X-Men characters is fascinating and has a life of their own, so why reduce many of them into one-dimensional cyphers? Why create new characters just to put them on a casualty list? Why introduce major characters just to kill them when they could have been major players in several films in the franchise? The point I’m trying to underscore is… I have no problem with seriously diverting from the actual source material as long as the choices being made are what is best for the franchise (for great examples, see many of the cuts and/or additions in the Harry Potter films). Fox seems to be damaging the X-Men franchise long-term by being flip with the choices made about the characters.
Some of the actors are charming enough in their roles, in particular McAvoy and Hoult, but the movie belongs entirely to Michael Fassbender as Magneto. From the moment he steps on the screen, we are thoroughly intrigued. This is partially due to the writing– the hellbent-on-revenge kid who lost parents during the Holocaust is inherently more interesting than the rich kid working on his thesis. This does give Fassbender more to play, and he makes it work. He hunts down Nazis like a mutant Inglourious Basterd (also a film starring Fassbender), and I could have watched an entire film of just this. He’s also the only mutant not immediately buying into Xavier’s vision of a mutant superteam helping humanity. Why should he? He’s seen the horrors of the world, and Xavier’s only horrors are when the private chef doesn’t have his meals prepared on time. Matthew Vaughn and the pack of writers who worked on this script over several years didn’t balance the scales well enough– we don’t understand why we should watch and care for Xavier except for how he can help Magneto and his morally complex quest.
The movie is still plenty enjoyable, though. Kevin Bacon hams it up as Sebastian Shaw, and he certainly proves a worthy adversary. Azazael’s teleportation (a mutant effect that Bryan Singer made so memorable in the opening sequence of X2) makes both a break-in at CIA Headquarters and a one-on-one fight with Beast some of the most exciting action of the year. Cameos by Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Romijn get big laughs, and the movie is witty and breezy throughout. Finally, the special effects, always strong in this franchise, are better than ever, with missile conflicts and submarine levitation being among the most impressive feats accomplished on screen during this fifth X-Men film. Somewhere hidden within this film is a focused, streamlined, 4-star film starring Fassbender as Magneto, focusing on his conflict with Shaw and his budding relationship with Xavier, leaving out much of the recruitment process, the CIA, and the extra character with no development (Angel, Darwin, Riptide, etc.). Instead, because the movie gets cluttered and creates new one-dimensional developments for their myriad of characters, First Class has to settle for being less than first rate.