“X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” BRINGS US A GREATER TYPE OF MARVEL FILM
The biggest mistake you could make with Michael Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class” before seeing it is writing it off as an unnecessary Wolverine-less prequel. I know I almost did. But not only is this film downright fantastic, it also allows us a more multilayered viewing of the original trilogy. Similarly to “Batman Begins” and “Star Trek,” this film uses equally lofty ambitions of storytelling rather than just explosive special effects in going back to the very beginning so that we may better understand the present. The result is a genuine work of art which makes up the best installment of the X-Men series and one of the strongest Marvel films to date. After eight years since “X2,” this X actually marks the spot.
The year is 1962. Roughly around 30 years before the stories of the X-Men – specifically, Professor X and Magneto – we know. Mutants aren’t out of the closet yet. Here, Professor X is Charles (James McAvoy; “Wanted”), a college Oxford graduate whose wisdom beyond his years doesn’t hide the less-restrained excitement he has for others’ mutations which makes him far less refined than his older Patrick Stewart counterpart. Magneto is Erik (Michael Fassbender; “Inglorious Basterds”), a self-proclaimed “Frankenstein’s Monster” who is driven to destroy the Nazi officer who destroyed his life during the Holocaust. In a “Sophie’s Choice”-like scene that feels far more adult than anything I’ve seen in the Marvel universe, the man gives young Erik an ultimatum which truly puts the Magneto we met in the original trilogy into a fuller light. Charles and Erik – one with the power of empathy, the other the power of magnetism – bump into each other while on the hunt for the same man: Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who is single-handedly trying to start World War III with what we now know to be the Cuban Missile Crisis. But as we know, their friendship isn’t one that was meant to last. But while they are partners, they go out and recruit other individuals with mutant powers, including Charles’ childhood friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence; “Winter’s Bone”).
I’ve always found it fascinating how the two comic book companies – that would be DC Comics and Marvel Comics – currently differ in how they approach their lynchpins. DC has reinvented a heroic world with 100% realism. Marvel stays with the pure-entertainment comic book formula with very little else involved. This pattern has been going on for so long that we don’t even question it anymore. We either expect good fun like “Spider-Man” or edgy realism like “The Dark Knight.” We forgot along the way that they can shoot for the stars and come up with gripping Oscar-worthy material like “American Beauty.” This story is aiming for just such a higher quality.
This isn’t a reboot as much as it is a “Fast Five”-like transitional film, trying to become a different type of franchise. Considering how horrible the last two installments (“The Last Stand” and “Wolverine”) were, this is as wowing of a comeback as when Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” effectively erased the stench of Joel Schumacher’s “Batman and Robin” from the dark knight’s franchise.
There is real genius throughout the way this story and these characters unfold before our eyes. In several ways, “First Class” is just as much of a warped product of its time as Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds,” with the whole history of the Cuban Missile Crisis being deformed for the sake of our alternative retelling of reality.
The cast works exceptionally well, but most of them tend to get lost amid the power of the main two powerhouse performances of Fassbender and Bacon. McAvoy and Lawrence are quite effective in their roles, and we can definitely see them as younger versions of their older selves, but it is Fassbender who challenges his character the most.
As usual, a great superhero movie only works with a great villain. “First Class” has two characterizations of villainy. Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw provides your traditional villain, a worthy Marvel adversary whose evil we see the best during his first chilling scene. Yet for me, the greatest villain is always the one who doesn’t start out as one. Shaw is a traditional villain – lofty goals of world domination and little else.
Yet with Michael Fassbender’s presence-filled portrayal of Erik, we get a truly stirring portrayal of blind hatred that cannot be denied. Erik’s interesting characterization shines brightest when we compare his loyalties throughout the film. When we first meet him during adulthood, he defines a badass attitude with his dealings with some former Nazi soldiers. Up until he meets Charles for the first time, Erik’s revenge-blinded sense of existence is practically worthy of his own film in how cinematically potent he is. Yet when he meets Charles, we see that Charles did, however briefly, helped Erik find his humanity again. Even with us knowing what Erik will end up becoming, like Anakin in the “Star Wars” prequels, we can’t help but hope that Charles can get through to him.
Charles and Erik’s friendship redefines the both of them. This friendship has always been at the heart of the whole franchise, and it is shown with the appropriate gravitas. The part that amazes me? Most of this is conveyed through Fassbender’s eyes. It is this sense of character and writing where I actually feel like Fassbender could be looking at some Best Supporting Actor nominations later. While completely different from Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” Fassbender tells the story of a completely different character that is mesmerizingly compelling in his own dark way. The bar scene alone is worth as many accolades as the similar scene from “Inglorious Basterds” was.
There are moments we can immediately recognize as the best of the franchise. While few scenes can top the Nightcrawler White House attack, the storming of the X-Mansion, and our sole moment where we see Wolverine in all his violent glory (at least as much as we can in a non-R flick) in “X2,” “First Class” has its moments that enrapture us – Erik’s dismantling of a cruise ship, Erik’s ultimatum scene, Magneto’s final kill, the recruiting montage where we get an awesome cameo, the true origins of the Magneto mask, and the awing climax over the Cuban attack.
But there is, for me, one particular scene which is the greatest of the film. This occurs during Erik’s quest on going through various Nazi sources in order to find Shaw, when he finds three of his targets in an empty bar, subtly introduces himself in German, proceeds to have an intense Tarantino-like subtitled conversation, and finally uses his powers in a spectacular manner. It’s the slow burn of the scene that makes it brilliant, almost Hitchcockian, in how Erik unveils himself. I literally got fanboy goosebumps (a reaction previously attained only through Nolan’s Batman) when Erik subtly turns his arm over, revealing his tattooed Nazi identification numbers, to a previous Nazi. A priceless setup.
“First Class” is, by all counts, an adult movie. There are no events toned down to fulfill the by-the-numbers genre requirements. Erik’s violent ultimatum, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Erik’s final downfall into darkness are storytelling tidbits worthy of acclaimed directors like Francis Ford Coppola or Quentin Tarantino.
While I still prefer Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass,” this is still like watching a master decorator putting together an exhibition of all his talents. This is Marvel’s perfect film, with nothing pedestrian or half-baked to be found anywhere. Armed with an unflinching screenplay and a spectacular ensemble cast headed by Fassbender, “X-Men: First Class” is an appropriately first-class superhero masterpiece that doesn’t misstep.
As much as I would miss Hugh Jackman as the indelible Wolverine, I would still be one of the people cheering for this to be a full-on reboot for the X-Men franchise. Let Wolverine have his stand-alone films. “X-Men: First Class” is the type of X-Men that longtime fans deserve.