“X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” (2011) Review
Recently, I came across a comment that the last “X-MEN” movie, 2009’s “X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE”, had been a failure. I found this opinion surprising, considering that it actually made a profit at the box office. Failure or not, Marvel Studios decided to continue the movie franchise with a fifth entry called “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn, “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” is, like the 2009 movie, another origins tale. Only it traced the beginnings of the two friends-turned-adversaries, Charles “Professor X” Xavier and Erik “Magneto” Lensherr. The movie began in a scene straight out of 2000’s “X-MEN” – at a concentration camp in 1944 Poland. While young Erik Lensherr was being separated from his parents by Nazi guards, he displayed an ability for magnetism manipulation by tearing at one of the camp’s gates. This ability attracted the attention of the camp’s scientist, Dr. Klaus Schmidt, who tried to coerce Erik into using his ability again by threatening his mother with death. Unfortunately, Erik failed and Dr. Schmidt killed Mrs. Lensherr. At an estate in Westchester, New York of the same year, young Charles Xavier awakened from a deep sleep by a noise from the kitchen. He investigated and found his mother searching for something to eat. However, being a telepath, Charles was able to discover that he was facing a stranger. The stranger turned out to be a young, blue-skinned shapeshifter named Raven “Mystique” Darkhölme. Charles invited the young stranger to stay at the Xavier mansion and the two became close friends.
“X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” jumped another eighteen years forward to 1962. Charles Xavier has become an instructor on genetics at Oxford University. Raven has remained his close companion in a sibling-like capacity. Erik Lensherr has spent the last decade or so, hunting down Nazis that escaped prosecution by the Allies – especially those who had served at the concentration camp where he had been imprisoned. He has especially become interested in finding and killing Dr. Schmidt out of revenge for his mother’s death. The story shifted to Las Vegas, Nevada; where one Moira MacTaggart and other CIA agents are investigating the Hellfire Club, a social organization led by Sebastian Shaw (aka Dr. Schmidt). After infiltrating the club as an “escort”, Moira discovered that Shaw and his mutant followers – Emma Frost, Azazel, and Riptide – are intimidating a high ranking Army officer into relocating military missiles to Turkey. Moira sought help from Charles and Raven to provide information to her CIA bosses about mutants. They also met Erik, during a trip to Miami to track down Shaw. After preventing Erik from drowning during an attempt to kill Shaw, Charles became close friends with the Holocaust survivor; as they work with Moira and the CIA to bring down Shaw.
Personally, I do not believe that “X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” deserved its low reputation. I thought it was a pretty damn good movie – not perfect, but entertaining. However, I do believe I could say the same about “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. I would add that it might be better than the 2009 film. Despite its flaws. In fact, “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” turned out to be a cleverly written movie that managed to weave two historical events – the Holocaust and the Cuban Missile Crisis – into its plot. Director Matthew Vaughn did an excellent job in maintaining an even pace for a movie not only filled with exciting and occasionally exaggerated action sequences and dramatic scenes. But aside from the director, the movie’s main virtue proved to be its first-rate cast.
Someone once pointed out that the X-MEN movie franchise did an excellent job of using the topic of “mutation” or psychic abilities to reflect upon the themes of bigotry and tolerance in our society. This theme became even more relevant, considering the movie’s setting of 1962 – a period that reflected the height of the Civil Rights Movement. I can go further and commend screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Vaughn for daring to explore all aspects of the bigotry experienced and engaged by the characters.
Some of the movie’s main characters experienced intolerance at the hands of others. Holocaust survivor Erik Lensherr not only suffered under the Nazi regime as a Jew, but also endured the U.S. government’s (in the form of C.I.A. officials) wariness and contempt toward mutants, as did fellow mutants such as Charles Xavier, Raven Darkhölme, Hank McCoy and the group of young mutants they had recruited. C.I.A. officials Director McCone and William Stryker Sr. (father of the villain from the second and fourth movies) were ready to imprison Charles and Raven upon discovering their mutations. Fortunately, one C.I.A. man in particular – the nameless Man in Black – prevented this from happening. The script also focused upon the two mutants regarded as “odd men out” because their mutations were reflected physically. Raven’s natural blue skin led her to maintain a “human” form that allowed her to blend with other humans and mutants. And C.I.A. scientist who constantly wore shoes to hide his mutation – animal-like feet. Their desperation to blend with the others on a regular basis led Hand to create a formula that eventually backfired.
Finally, the movie also focused on those mutants that viewed their mutation as signs of their superiority over non-mutant humans. Characters such as villain Sebastian Shaw and his Hellfire Club followers, and eventually Erik and Raven allowed their dislike toward humans to manifest into a bigotry that encouraged them to engage in plots of genocide that made the Nazis, North Americans of the 18th and 19th centuries and other bigoted societies look like amateurs. One such plot served as the background of “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. The movie revolved around Sebastian Shaw’s efforts to use his connections to the U.S. and Soviet military to start a third world war between the superpowers. Such a war would bring humanity to the brink of extinction, allowing mutants (with Shaw as the leader) to dominate the world. This plot eventually resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The producers of “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” chose the right actors to portray the younger versions of Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr. James McAvoy perfectly captured all of Charles’ intelligence, talent for leadership and subtle wit. He also delved deeper into the character’s idealism and occasional naivety. And McAvoy gave audiences an audacious peek into Charles’ penchant for little seduction with pick-up lines that were both charming and wince-inducing. Michael Fassbender portrayed all of the intensity and anger of the vengeance-seeking Erik Lensherr. Every once in a while, an actor comes along with the ability to perfectly walk the fine line between heroism and villainy. Fassbender certainly achieved this in his portrayal of Erik. And looking at the screen chemistry between McAvoy and Fassbender, it seemed a pity that they had never shared a scene when they appeared in the 2001 miniseries, “BAND OF BROTHERS”. Because they were dynamite together.
The supporting cast also proved to be top-notch. The X-MEN movieverse has always provided first-rate villains. Kevin Bacon’s portrayal of the villainous Sebastian Shaw/Dr. Schmidt was no exception. If I must be honest, his Shaw may prove to be my favorite “X-MEN” villain. Aside from intelligence, wit and a taste for grandiose plotting and gadgets that rivaled a Bond villain, Bacon injected a joie de vivre into Shaw’s character that I found very entertaining. Some critics and fans have criticized January Jones’ portrayal of Shaw’s consort, Emma Frost, accusing her of being “wooden”. I am sorry, but I do not agree with this opinion. Yes, Jones portrayed Emma as Miss ‘Cool Hand Luke’. But she also did a first rate job of conveying the character’s strong attraction to Shaw and dislike of his occasional sexist attitudes. And thanks to her subtle comic timing, she provided the movie’s funniest moment in a scene that featured Emma having ‘telepathic’ sex with a Soviet general. Her reaction to being caught had me laughing in the aisle. Instead of Rebecca Romijn, the film’s producers chose Jennifer Lawrence to portray the younger Raven Darkhölme aka Mystique. And I thought she did a pretty damn good job. I have nothing against Romijn’s portrayal of Mystique, but I believe that Lawrence was given a better opportunity for a deeper exploration of the character . . . and she made the best of it. The movie also featured fine support from the likes of Rose Byrne as C.I.A. agent and ally Moira MacTaggart, Nicholas Hoult as the young Hank McCoy, Jason Flemyng as the frightening teleporter Azazel, Oliver Platt as the C.I.A. ‘Man in Black’, and Zoë Kravitz’s subtle and passionate performance as mutant Angel Salvadore.
As I had earlier hinted, “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” is not perfect. I believe it has two major flaws that prevented it from potentially becoming the best film in the franchise. The movie’s biggest flaw proved to be its lack of continuity with the other four films. “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” included the beginning of Charles Xavier’s paralysis and the end of his partnership with Erik Lensherr. Yet, Charles was still walking and working with Erik in a flashback set around the beginning of the 1980s in 2006’s “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. I am aware that Raven’s cells allowed her to mature very slowly. But did the same happen to Dr. Hank McCoy? He was in his early-to-mid 20s in “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. Yet, he looked somewhere in his 40s in the third “X-MEN”, which was set some 40 years later. And the Emma Frost portrayed by actress Tahyna Tozzi in “X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” looked at least five to ten years younger than January Jones’ Emma in this latest film. And “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” is supposed to be set 17 years before the 2009 film. Charles began his school for young mutants in this movie. However, he told Wolverine in 2000’s “X-MEN” that Scott “Cyclops” Summers and Jean Grey were his first students. They are no where to be seen and quite frankly, I could have done without this early edition of the Xavier School of Mutants. I found it annoying.
Another major problem proved to be the film’s costumes – especially for women. The movie is set mainly in 1962. Yet, Sammy Sheldon’s costumes reflected the late 1960s, not the early years of that decade. Just to prove my point, look at the following photographs:
1962 Fashions For Women
January Jones in “MAD MEN” Season Two (set in 1962)
January Jones in “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” (set in 1962)
In fact, the costumes and hairstyles for other female characters DO NOT reflect the year 1962, as well:
Both actresses Rose Byrne and Zoë Kravitz are wearing knee-high boots, which WERE NOT in fashion in 1962.
Yes, “X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS” had some major flaws. But I cannot deny that I still managed to enjoy the movie very much. Screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn wrote a flawed, but very entertaining and epic story. The movie also boasted first-rate performances from a cast led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. And Vaughn brought all of these factors together with some fine direction. “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” has made me an even bigger fan of the franchise and I would heartily recommend it for anyone’s viewing pleasure.
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