It’s probably fair to say that the original “X-Men” was the film that kick-started the modern deluge of superhero movies. Ever since then, the X-Men franchise has generally been one of the stronger players in the superhero film market. And the recently released “X-Men: First Class” continues this trend – it’s an elegant, streamlined prequel with remarkably developed characters. While not quite up to the level of “Thor,” it’s a solid adventure that many fans will find compelling.
“X-Men: First Class” focuses primarily on the relationship between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender). One will ultimately become the kindly, genial Professor X…while the other will rise as the dreaded villain Magneto. Their upbringings could not be more different – Charles is raised in privilege, while Erik endures the horrors of the Holocaust. While Charles pursues success in academia, Erik travels the world exacting revenge against his Nazi tormentors. When their paths finally cross, an unlikely friendship is forged.
The year is 1962. CIA agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) has stumbled onto a conspiracy: a group of evil mutants known as the Hellfire Club, led by ex-Nazi scientist Sebastian Shaw, are planning to instigate a U.S./Soviet world war. She recruits Charles (known for his telepathic abilities) and Erik (a manipulator of magnetic force) to stop Shaw and his comrades. Along the way, they build a team of mutants from all over the U.S., forming them into the first “X-Men” (as opposed to “G-Men). The film culminates in a fascinating “retelling” of the Cuban Missile Crisis, filled with plenty of explosive action.
In many ways, “X-Men: First Class” feels like a good James Bond movie. There’s the same witty dialogue, the same international-conflict setting, and the same breathlessly paced action scenes. (It also means that there are many of the same content problems present in the “Bond” franchise). The 1960s setting really works in the movie’s favor – it gives the film a clever alternate-history tone, much like its predecessor “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”
Where the film really transcends its predecessors, however, is in developing a complex relationship between Charles and the shapeshifting mutant Raven (also known as Mystique – played by Jennifer Lawrence). Whereas in earlier films her character lacks real depth, in “First Class” her true insecurities are revealed. Tortured by the horror of her “true” physical appearance, she longs to find acceptance as she is…even if that means abandoning convictions in the process. Her attitude is, ironically, summarized by the recent hit song “Born This Way” (Don’t hide yourself in regret / Just love yourself and you’re set / I’m on the right track, baby / I was born this way). And in the end, it is this aggressive antagonism that leads to her undoing.
This illustrates one of the predominant themes of the film: alienation from society. It’s easy to draw parallels between the X-Men and any arguably “disenfranchised” group…accordingly, many have tried to link the film series to the modern gay rights movement. If the film is read in this way, however, its message may be the opposite of what many “gay rights” organizations promote: Magneto, the film’s antagonist, is a vocal supporter of “mutant pride,” while the nobler Charles advocates subtle coexistence. This directly contradicts many of the “out and proud” themes present in the modern homosexual movement. Though an offhand reference is made to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” system, it’s played for laughs. The film is perhaps closer to an analogue of the Civil Rights Movement – in which peaceful, nonviolent integration (e.g. Martin Luther King, Jr.) is held up above violent animosity (e.g. the Black Panthers and other related groups).
The film doesn’t trample on individuals’ self-worth, however – rather, it celebrates uniqueness and individuality. Instead, it rejects the destructive attitude of “just be yourself, no matter what.” Sometimes, personal desires must be subverted for a higher purpose – in order to foster greater acceptance of mutants in the long run, Charles is willing to “turn the other cheek” and be treated like a monster. Christian viewers will likely find much food for thought here, as well as some good topics for discussion. Clearly, the film is a few philosophical notches above the average summer blockbuster.
Where “X-Men: First Class” stumbles, however, is in its supporting cast. While McAvoy and Fassbender are outstanding in their roles, the rest of the new X-Men simply lack appeal. Gone are series stalwarts Storm, Cyclops, Wolverine, and Nightcrawler – instead, viewers get Angel, Havok, Banshee, and Darwin. At times, the film feels like it’s scraping the bottom of the barrel for fresh characters. I recognize that the film is intended to be a jumping-off point for the “next generation” of Hollywood stars, but these characters simply lack depth.
Objectionable content is, unfortunately, well above the median for superhero movies. In addition to language (including one f-word) the film also carries a rather strong sexual undercurrent. Blue-skinned mutant Mystique has always been a sensuous character, and “First Class” certainly accentuates this. The requisite female villain, Emma Frost (January Jones), is a sultry Bond-girl figure who wears little more than lingerie throughout the entire movie. And while the violence isn’t much worse than other superhero movies, it’s depicted in an especially harsh, realistic way. This isn’t a particularly “family-friendly” film.
Older viewers, however, will find much food for thought in “First Class.” Though it doesn’t pack the same emotional punch as “Wolverine” or “X2,” it offers a nuanced, philosophical story garnished with stylish action. It’s a strong fifth installment in a remarkably long-lived superhero franchise.
A rousing, thought-provoking action film that recalls the best of “Bond.”
Normalized Score: 5.8
Aside: There is no extra scene after the credits…unfortunate, I know.