Set during the Cold War of the 1960’s, X-Men First Class depicts the efforts of Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, the men who would one day be Professor X and Magneto, as they try to guide the fate of the newly emerging Mutant race and prevent one of their own from wiping out humanity.
X-Men: First Class Review
This is a prequel. And generally, that type of story can’t help but be “all about the villain.” From the Star Wars prequels to Smallville, the tale of how a good guy turns his back on humanity and becomes evil is a much more intriguing and satisfying journey than one about a good guy who… just stays good. From Dark Vader to Lex Luthor to Magneto, very few “character arcs” can match the emotional resonance and wish-fulfillment of The Rise of the Villain. Especially when the villain’s logic and motivation make so much sense.
Erik’s path starts out as one deeply personal but relatively small, revenge against the men who killed his family. It grows truly global by the end of the film as Erik, a victim of Nazi oppression against the Jews, sees a very similar fate ahead for his Mutant brethren, saying “Never Again,” as he symbolically and literally takes on the mantel of Enemy of Mankind.
Though humanity’s inhumanity to Mutants is a little heavy-handed at times, they really make it hard to argue with Erik’s logic. Characters like Moira, humans willing to accept mutants, seem to be far from the norm, with most of the others wanting to either use or kill mutant kind, ensuring that Magneto remains the best kind of villain. One whose motivation is perfectly understandable, but whose actions cross the line into extreme.
However, Magneto manages to not steal the whole show, thanks in part to Charles Xavier’s strong story arc. Whereas someone like Clark Kent’s journey on Smallville was relatively static, going merely from Rookie Hero to Professional Hero, Charles’ tale takes a dramatic turn. Starting out as an academic who willing joins the struggle for the fate of Mutantkind, after being crippled, he’s forced to become a mentor. Not being able to partake in the coming battle, he now must to train a new generation of heroes to lead the fight. In the best hero tales, sacrifice is a major part of it, and no one can say Charles doesn’t sacrifice for his beliefs, losing both his legs and any chance for love in the quest for Mutantkind.
The decision to busts the bounds of continuity and bring in popular modern day characters like Emma Frost and Beast ensure a rich cast with plenty of history and personality to work with. The inclusion of Mystique, who gained a lot of her popularity from her portrayal in the films, helps visually cement the ties between this and the other films in the franchises since, besides a few cameos, no actors reprise their roles as major characters.
The love triangle between Mystique, Magneto and Beast not only adds a dimension of romance to the story, it retroactively adds a lot of character development to character’s “later” appearances.
Unfortunately, not all the characters get a healthy dose of personality. Some, like Alex Summers, Angel and … um, that guy with the tornado powers, are little more than ciphers. Two-Dimensional character “types” with very little to offer beyond filling out the roster. It’s one thing with the villains. You kind of expect “minions” to just be menacing, but I would have liked it if Havoc and Banshee had been more than The Tough Kid Who Shoots Lasers, and The Funny Kid Who Screams and Flies.
Probably the most regrettable is the case of Darwin, a young African American mutant with the power to “adapt to survive,” meaning he can have any power he needs at the moment. Despite that useful ability, he’s killed fairly quickly thanks to an energy blast. In fact, the death was SO cliché, I really expected it to be a trick, and that he would return later in the film, having evolved into an energy being or something that needed time to reconstitute itself. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.
The classic issue of Humanity vs Mutants is present, like always. However, unlike the other films in the series, this one isn’t about the war between the two. It’s about the Mutants discovering themselves and forming the community we will see later. It’s an apt metaphor that the story is all about teenagers and people in their early 20’s, each one trying to figure out individually who they want to be, while at the same time trying to decide who the Mutants will be as a people.
The dark side of that community, populated by Sebastian Shaw and his crew, plot to kill all humans to make the way for their people. Shaw has all the human-hating of a Magneto, but none of the motivation or “heart.” It’s thanks to Kevin Bacon’s performance that Shaw moves beyond the typical mustache-twirling villain who plots man’s downfall.
One of the best things about the X-Men movies is the effort to be realistic about the subject matter and the world they are portraying, all the way back to taking the X-Men out of spandex in the first movie. This film does that as well, the 1960’s setting helping to ground the story in the events of that time, with the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis both factoring heavily into the plot. They even go so far as to explain why the group would do something so comic booky as give themselves superhero names and call themselves “The X-Men.”
It would be easy to call this “Mad Men meets X-Men.” Especially since January Jones, one of the female leads on Mad Men plays Emma Frost. But unlike Mad Men, X-Men is an alternate universe history, one where it’s hinted at that the mutants actually succeeded in ending the Cold War, but only by giving the Americans and Russians a common enemy to face. As it stands now, the Mutants are still a secret known only by the government. Hopefully more films will follow explaining how Mutants became public knowledge, and fill up that 40 year gap between this film and the first X-Men movie.
Many reviewers are already calling this the best superhero movie ever, threatening to topple even The Dark Knight from that pedestal. Well, if any film has that potential, it’s this one. While the recent Batman movies are at times a bit overwhelming and overwrought, X-Men: First Class manages to be a top-shelf summer action movie with just enough deep themes and ideologies keep you thinking after the story is over. And really, isn’t it that combination that makes the X-Men so great in the first place?
A COMIC BOOK BLOG RATING
|Not just a good prequel, but a truly great story all it’s own||Some of the characters could have used a bit more personality and development|