Another year, another 'reboot' in which a studio goes younger and fools around with the successful elements of a once enormously successful 'tent-pole' in an effort to continue the success of a beloved film series. Why do they do this? The actors who helped establish the series now want a bigger piece of the pie because they have become more popular. And because they have become more popular, they are appearing in more films which makes scheduling more difficult. And maybe the producers or studio heads have decided the series needs a boost in ticket sales. Ultimately, it becomes a less painful exercise to go younger and cast up-and-coming actors to take on some of the roles which have already made other people famous. Reboots are a tricky proposition. They don't always work. But in the case of "X-Men: First Class", a director new to the series and a good cast help make this an enjoyable summer popcorn film.
Is it as good as the first "X-Men"? No. There is just no way to replace the unmistakable force of chemistry created by Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Halle Berry, Famke Jannsen, James Franco and all of the others involved. But "First Class" is much better than you might expect or hope.
We return to the early 40s. Charles Xavier, a young boy, meets a young Raven who has broken into the mansion where he lives. She is hungry and afraid her condition will scare him off. Instead, Charles, who also has strange and unique abilities, welcomes her and she becomes a part of the family. Meanwhile, in Germany, Erik Lesher, a young boy, is separated from his parents at one of the concentration camps. A doctor (Kevin Bacon) wants to unlock Erik's power and soon realizes the easiest way to do so is to make him angry. Flash forward to the early 60s. Charles (James McAvoy) and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, "Winter's Bone") are living at Oxford while Charles finishes his doctorate. Erik (Michael Fassbender, "Inglourious Basterds", "Jane Eyre") is traveling the globe trying to find the doctor and his associates, all of whom made his childhood hell. He begins the globe trotting journey in Switzerland. An FBI agent, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne, TV's "Damages", "Bridesmaids") realizes Sebastian Shaw (Bacon) and his associates are up to some mischief. She sneaks into their secret lair in Las Vegas and watches Emma Frost (January Jones, "Unknown", TV's "Mad Men") turn into a giant diamond and 'convince' an Army General to support a plan to put American missiles in Turkey. Moira realizes she needs help and reaches out to Charles. They soon meet Erik and convince him to help. With the assistance of a doctor (Oliver Platt) involved with the CIA, they search out other Mutants to recruit. After a quick training session, they learn Shaw and his associates are trying to start World War III and the tensions are escalating around Cuba.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn, the director of "LayerCake", "Kick-Ass" and "Stardust" (which is, by the way, a horrifically underrated film), brings a lot of unique touches to the film, making it fun and exciting to watch.
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are both very good and evoke the character traits, mannerisms and sensibilities of who their characters will become and how they are portrayed by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan later. Strangely, they both manage to make the performances seem fresh and interesting. You will recognize the Stewart and McKellan versions of these characters but both of the younger actors portray their characters with a wink, wink, nudge, nudge kind of inside knowledge. The performances are fun but also respectful of the other actors' work.
McAvoy has been around for a while and done some great work in very serious films like "Atonement". In "X-Men", he brings these dramatic chops to the role of Charles Xavier, lending his portrayal a certain amount of gravity. Xavier is the leader of this group, its moral center. He has to be the stern one, the one to set people on the right path. But younger Charles isn't beyond noticing when one of the trainees falls on his face and needs a little pick-me-up. There is also a lot of playfulness in his relationship with Raven, playfulness which makes him seem more age appropriate.
When Xavier learns what is going on, there are a few too many of the "This is what is happening and this is why we must stop it" type of statements. Some of these are illustrated with graphics or brief montages which make them more interesting, but too often they seem to be simply a way for the writers to get from one point to the next with the least amount of work. In the end, these moments seem a little too sloppy and bring the quality of the film down.
Michael Fassbender, last seen as Heathcliff in "Jane Eyre", is the more interesting of the two. As he begins his journey of retribution, he turns on the charm and menace, usually at the same time, making his entire persona a mystery. When we first pick up with him as an adult, he is hunting the German Concentration Camp doctor (Bacon) who made his life miserable as a young boy. His hatred is not something that has simply developed and his need for revenge must be satisfied. This need is driving his actions and failure is simply not an option. In fact, failure could drive him mad. He meets with various people, trying to track down the doctor and his associates, and this trek takes him to many corners of the globe. Each person needs to be persuaded, because the Doctor has a lot of secrets to hide and many people are willing to help him. But Erik's mutant powers prove to be very persuasive.
When Erik finally tracks the doctor, who now uses the name Shaw, to Florida, he also comes across Charles, Mystique and Moira, all of whom are already trying to capture Shaw. Eventually, they come to realize what Shaw has in mind and Charles convinces Erik to join forces to take him down.
What I liked most about the relationship between Charles and Erik is that we see a genuine friendship build and grow between them. Of course, there are hints at this in the first three "X-Men", but McAvoy and Fassbender convincingly portray the friendship and camaraderie their characters are supposed to have had in the beginning.
It is also interesting to watch Erik deal with the dueling sides of his persona. In the beginning, he doesn't want to have anything to do with his mutant side, but anger unleashes his powers and the evil Doctor soon unlocks Erik's anger. Then, when he meets Charles, Xavier helps him to harness the power and to amplify it, without the accompanying anger. Later, Erik begins to deal with his mixed feelings towards humans. As he becomes closer to Charles, he sees how his friend feels about humans, the eternal hope he feels for them, and this causes even more mixed emotions within. But Erik has a deep seated hatred for humans based on how they have treated him and tried to exploit his powers. He and Charles are also fighting to stop Shaw, but there are moments when he isn't exactly sure he disagrees with Shaw.
Kevin Bacon plays the doctor who almost twenty years later will change his name to Shaw and become a respected and rich member of society. Bacon was a real surprise and his performance adds a lot of fun to the film. First of all, casting Bacon as someone who doesn't age is almost brilliant. The character's similarities to Dorian Gray are explained by his own quest. And as the villain, he almost never raises his voice, yet, you sense the menace every time he comes on screen. Early in the film, as a doctor at a German concentration camp, he just exudes menace yet he smiles and laughs throughout most of the scene. This is the mark of many memorable villains. Michael Caine once remarked that if an actor is playing a drunk person by using slurred speech and stumbling around, they will ultimately look like an actor playing a drunk person. It is much more natural to tone it down and give subtle hints the character is drunk. Frequently, the best villains are portrayed as people who don't appear menacing. Yet, one word or turn of the eye is all we need to get a sense of their true threat.
Later, when he returns to the story, we learn he is trying to instigate World War III. He uses his connections and the powers of his mutant friends to influence some key people. He seems to be getting closer to his goal when he is able to influence an American General to vote in his favor.
There are a number of reasons why Shaw resembles a villain from a James Bond film. And when these moments happen, it does detract from the overall effect. Don't get me wrong I am a huge fan of James Bond films, but they are always a bit jokey, a bit tongue-in-cheek. This works to a certain extent in a superhero film, but you also want an "X-Men" film to be intense. The James Bond moments are just a little too jokey and pull you out of the moment.
The more time we spend with Shaw, the more we learn of his powers and the power of his friends. They are a powerful group.
January Jones plays Emma Frost, Shaw's right arm. Jones seems to be channeling the spirit of former James Bond villainesses and it almost works. She has the cool, steely reserve, the beauty and the unemotional demeanor of one of Blofeld's right arms. Jason Flemyng, who seems to appear in every film directed by Guy Ritchie or Matthew Vaughn, plays Azazeal, a red skinned mutant who looks a bit like the devil. He is able to teleport to places and often grabs his foe and teleports to the sky about 100 feet above ground before letting go of the other person.
Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult are the stand-outs in the new group of recruits. Not coincidentally, they also have the most screen time. Jennifer Lawrence, so memorable in "Winter's Bone", plays Raven/ Mystique. She practically grows up with Charles and becomes his sister. She, like Erik, is also struggling with her place in a world of humans. And Nicholas Hoult ("A Single Man", BBC's "Skins", "About a Boy") plays Hank McCoy, who will become Beast. Hank and Raven are both struggling with how their mutation affects their appearance and how they are able to blend in with human society.
Vaughn does a great job. He keeps the familiar iconography and elements of the franchise intact while adding a few little tongue-in-cheek moments, making the overall film distinctly something he can claim as his own.
"X-Men: First Class" is a lot of fun and a thrilling way to get reacquainted with the characters we have come to love.
When Charles and Erik are recruiting members of their new team, there are hints to the existence of other mutants, many of whom will become future members of the X-Men. This positions the inevitable future sequels. Thankfully, this moment is integrated into the story and doesn't seem like such a blatant attempt to create a sequel.