Looking back, you can only go up. James McAvoy, Kevin Bacon, Academy Award nominee Michael Fassbender and Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence star in X-Men: First Class.
Cast of Characters:
Charles Xavier/Professor X – James McAvoy
Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto – Michael Fassbender
Moira MacTaggert – Rose Byrne
Raven Darkholme/Mystique – Jennifer Lawrence
Emma Frost – January Jones
Dr. Hank McCoy/Beast – Nicholas Hoult
Man in Black – Oliver Platt
Azazel – Jason Flemyng
Alex Summers/Havok – Lucas Till
Armando Munoz/Darwin – Edi Gathegi
Dr. Klaus Schmidt/Sebastian Shaw – Kevin Bacon
Director – Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay – Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn
Based on characters created by Jack Kirby & Stan Lee
Producer – Lauren Shuler Donner, Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg & Gregory Goodman
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language
In the German camps of occupied Poland during World War II, Nazi scientist Dr. Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) is observing a young boy by the name of Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner). Discovering Erik’s ability to manipulate metal with his mind, Dr. Schmidt makes the boy his personal lab rat. Overseas, in the States, a young Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher) meets a young shapeshifter by the name of Raven (Morgan Lily). Seeing that she has no family to go to, Charles invites her to live with his family as a foster sister.
Years later, Charles (James McAvoy) and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) are approached by CIA officer Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), who needs help on tracking down Sebastian Shaw (formerly Dr. Klaus Schmidt) – a mutant bent on bringing about nuclear war at the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis. MacTaggert’s not the only one trying to track down Shaw as Erik (Michael Fassbender) has been searching for him to get revenge for the trauma he caused him all those years back at the camps.
Following the monumental disaster that was Batman & Robin in 1997, 20th Century Fox reignited moviegoers’ interests in comic book films with X-Men in 2000. The mutant franchise achieved what many franchises hope for with a 2003 sequel that improved over its predecessor, yet the franchise began to suffer afterward. While 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand was not a colossal train wreck, the film suffered immensely from overcrowding (even for X-Men standards) and Brett Ratner’s bloated direction. The franchise didn’t give up hope and finally gave the masses a train wreck, though, with X-Men Origins: Wolverine starring Lumberjack Hugh.
Now, I still believe that the gold standard for this franchise is X2: X-Men United. That said, it’s completely understandable if there are those that feel X-Men: First Class (which is a very close second) is the strongest as this film was a much needed return to form for the sagging mutant series.
Director Matthew Vaughn (who previously directed the underrated Layer Cake and the highly entertaining yet controversial Kick-Ass) provides the usual staples of action entertainment associated with the previous X-Men films, and even for a film running over two hours long, Vaughn keeps things moving at a steady pace. Amidst all the action and fight scenes, though, bringing back the heart and emotion of the story, which were so direly missing from the previous two installments, were the two key components of what made this film great.
Filling in for Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen this time are James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, respectively. One of the best elements of the X-Men series has always been the love/hate relationship between Professor X and Magneto, and here we get to see where it all began. McAvoy does a very fine job as the restrained, pacifistic Professor Xavier and the back and forth he shares with Fassbender on whether humans and mutants can coexist are some of the stronger moments of the film, primarily ’cause it’s there that we catch glimpses of the rivalry that will eventually divide the two. In an impressive turn – that’s made all the more chilling by Henry Jackman’s haunting score that accompanies him – Fassbender gives, by far, the most fleshed out and empathetic portrayal of Erik Lehnsherr. That’s not a slight in any way to the terrific portrayals previously from Ian McKellen. But what makes Fassbender’s turn so rewarding to watch is seeing how the great villain (Stan Lee actually stated that he never thought of Magneto as a “villain”) of the X-Men universe began not only as a victim, but a victim of one of the most horrific events in world history. It’s that moral ambiguity and touch of grey behind Magneto that has always made him such a fascinating character and Fassbender captures his torment perfectly. Regardless of his actions, his motivation and reasoning behind them are clear.
“Identification, that’s how it starts. And ends with being rounded up, experimented on and eliminated.”, he concernedly tells Charles.
As the film’s central villain, Kevin Bacon provides a great deal of charm and humor (Bacon said he wanted to portray him as a Hugh Hefner type) as the delightfully devious Sebastian Shaw. Shaw views himself as the hero (the most effective villains generally do) of the story, and sees no purpose in coexisting with those (humans) who he feels hate and fear his kind. Bacon may not be the first guy that pops in your head in terms of comic book villains, but he gives a very charismatic performance of one whose villainy lies more in his manipulation of those who are initially good into believing he’s right.
Plus, it doesn’t hurt for him to close the gap by adding a few more degrees of separation to his list.
Granted, as always, the cross for any X-Men film to bear is the number of characters, and the number of mutant youngsters feels a bit overcrowded, which leads to most being underdeveloped, as each of them have to have their own “Look what I can do!” moment. However, two standouts amongst them all are Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult as Mystique and Beast, respectively. As characters that are similar in that they possess great abilities but feel compelled to hide in shame from what they deem to be an unflattering physical appearance, both Lawrence and Hoult are likeable presences that are easily the most developed and empathetic out of all the younger cast members.
Despite the few character nitpicks that come with the territory in this series, X-Men: First Class is a breath of fresh air for this particular comic book film franchise that’s been stuck in a rut since X-Men: The Last Stand. With Vaughn’s stylish direction, a talented cast and one of the most memorably funny cameos in comic book films, X-Men: First Class proves to be one of the strongest in the series, packed with action while never skimping on the heart and depth that made the first two films great.