I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t dreading this film. Ever since news of it first broke, it seemed 20th Century Fox just didn’t really put the proper effort into planning this. Depending on who in the production you talk to, First Class is either a prequel or a reboot. No one seems to really know. And there are logistical problems in both.
A reboot would be fine—but if you’re going to do a reboot, why not use the five of the original X-Men instead of only one? And if it’s a prequel, then why set it in the 60s, which sets up logical inconsistencies with the existing films? Why not just set it ten years or so before the events of X-Men, with Cyclops, Jean, Storm and Beast as the original team (which is what we’re led to believe was the first class in the original three films).
I’ll get to more logical inconsistencies later. Suffice it to say, this review will be laden with spoilers! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT CRUCIAL PLOT DETAILS REVEALED!
As you’re no doubt aware, X-Men: First Class takes place against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is in Cambridge, using his telepathic powers to guess what drink hot girls want and then hits on them by talking about how their hair color or eye color is an incredible mutation. This is much to the chagrin of his childhood friend, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), a shapeshifter who he introduces as his sister but who clearly is interested in Charles as something more. Charles, however, has a problem with the fact that Raven’s true form consists of blue skin, bright red hair, yellow eyes and some scaly formations over her naughty bits.
So right off the bat, we’ve got a Charles Xavier who acts like a shallow frat boy. Way to go, Fox.
In another part of Europe, Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is tracking down Nazi war criminals. The primary man on his hit list is Klaus Schmidt, the man who killed his mother and told Erik he was part of a new master race because of his powers of magnetism.
Schmidt however, has a new name these days—Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). He and his Hellfire Club, which consists of Emma Frost (January Jones), Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and Riptide (Alex Gonzalez) are manipulating the United States and the Soviet Union into inching closer towards all-out nuclear war. The reason behind this is as retarded as can be imagined—Shaw believes nuclear winter will wipe out humanity but will leave mutants in tact. Apparently, now being a mutant means you’re completely immune to a nuclear explosion.
I won’t even get into how this plot is completely contrary to the motivations of the comic version of Shaw, who is simply a power-hungry opportunist. Nor will I get into the bizarre way that they adapted Shaw’s powers into absorbing all kinds of energy and redirecting it as well. It’ll just make me mad. All X-Men fans really need to know about this Shaw is that he’s some sort of bizarre amalgamation of Apocalypse and Bishop.
CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne, and don’t ask me how Moira went from being a Scottish geneticist to an American secret agent) stumbles upon this plot and witnesses the Hellfire Club’s powers in action. She finds Charles Xavier in record time (recently graduated, he’s apparently already an expert in his field as just a few minutes earlier, he was still working on his thesis) and after reading her mind, Xavier finds out he and Raven aren’t the only mutants out there. Through Moira, they meet the Man in Black (Oliver Platt). It sounds like he should be mysterious, but he’s not. He’s just never given a name. Why couldn’t they have just called him Fred Duncan (maybe only hardcore X-Men fans will recognize that name), since that’s basically who he’s playing?
During an attack on Shaw, Xavier meets Erik and the two join forces. From there, we see them recruit several young mutants to their cause—Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Armando Munoz/Darwin (Edi Gathegi), and Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz).
From there, the film is pretty by the numbers. You have an attack where Darwin is killed off for no reason (just had to kill the token black guy, didn’t you?) and Angel switches sides. Now operating independently, Xavier and Erik train the young mutants in the use of their powers in preparation for the final battle with the Hellfire Club against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I don’t want it to be said that this film is completely bad. It is far superior to X-Men Origins: Wolverine (and Hugh Jackman makes a cameo in this film which is honestly the greatest part of the movie). I’d say it’s about on par with X-Men: The Last Stand. The direction in First Class is far superior, but the story in The Last Stand is, I’m actually ashamed to admit, better. Mainly because of how completely retarded Shaw’s master plan really is.
Michael Fassbender steals the show as Magneto. He’s got the character down and he’s got the same kind of gravitas that Ian McKellen had. The beginning of the film, when he’s Mr. Nazi Hunter, is awesome. I now want to see Vaughn direct a Cold War Bond film starring Fassbender in the title role. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were both doing this as an audition tape for how they could tackle Bond.
The same can’t really said of McAvoy, who just comes off as a pretentious ass. Hoult gives a decent performance, but completely lacks Beast’s trademark wit and humor. Again, this is a far cry from Kelsey Grammar’s portrayal, who was managed to get across both dry wit and intelligence. In comparison, Hoult is just playing a stereotypical shy geek. Kravitz is gorgeous to look at but has little else going on. Lawrence’s Mystique spends half the movie whining and the other half chasing after almost every guy on the team. Jones and Till have a few good moments as Banshee and Havok and they do serviceable jobs in their roles. But they ultimately have nothing to work with.
Of all the First Class, Darwin is probably the most interesting, and unfortunately, his only purpose is to serve as the sacrificial lamb.
As far as the Hellfire Club goes, I just can’t buy Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw. He doesn’t have the right presence for a character like that and when he’s wearing that helmet like he does through half the movie, he just looks ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong, I think Bacon’s a great actor. But he’s not a right fit for any version of Shaw, let alone one this badly written.
January Jones…oh god, she’s terrible. Easily the worst performance of the film. Her only role is to look good in lingerie (which she does). Great body but what a bad actress. Her diamond form also looks really bad, almost two-dimensional. And as for Flemyng and Gonzalez, they really serve no purpose in this film other than for action scenes.
And the costumes. While fanboys were bitching about the X-Men wearing black leather in the original movies, I was in favor of it. I agreed that putting the X-Men in blue and yellow costumes may look cool in the comics (and even that is somewhat up for debate), but it doesn’t work on film. And First Class proved I was right. The costumes looked garish and absolutely terrible. If they had to go with something that resembled the original costumes, they should have used a pale yellow and black instead of blue. But as it stands, they just look ridiculous. Especially in bright sunlight.
There was also some really wasted potential in the setting. The original point of putting this film in the 60s was supposedly because of the similarities to the Civil Rights Movement. Yet the only real element of the 60s is the Cold War (and Xavier’s forced utterings of the word “groovy,” which just made me cringe).
Again, there are good elements—Vaughn definitely knows what he’s doing behind the camera and there are some decent to outright great performances. But the story is just ridiculous. And it’s obvious Fox didn’t pay much attention to what they’ve done before with these films.
Look, I’m not a continuity nut. It doesn’t bother me that film adaptations of comic books aren’t 100% accurate. I know they’re not and I know they can’t be. And to anyone who points to situations like Sin City, self-contained graphic novels are nowhere near the same as a comic series which has been running monthly for decades, has numerous spin-offs, and has heavy ties to a shared universe that you can’t touch on because of different studios holding different rights. It can’t be accurate, changes have to be made.
But when you start violating the internal continuity and logistics of the film universe you’ve set up, that shows you really just don’t give a shit. And that’s what pisses me off. Even in badly-done movies like Fantastic Four or Ghost Rider, I still got the sense that the filmmakers cared about what they were doing, they just couldn’t do it well. Here, what’s so irritating is that these filmmakers are capable of doing it well, yet they just don’t seem to care.
Here are some examples of the inconsistencies in the X-Men movieverse that First Class causes:
-In X-Men and X2, it’s made very clear that Xavier and Magneto built Cerebro together. In First Class, Beast has Cerebro already built before he even meets Xavier and Magneto.
-In X-Men, Xavier says Scott, Jean and Storm were his first students. They’re not present in First Class.
-In The Last Stand and Wolverine, we see Xavier in the past, played by Patrick Stewart, walking. In First Class, he becomes crippled when he’s much younger.
-In The Last Stand, Xavier and Magneto are seen, played again by Stewart and McKellen, recruiting a young Jean Grey. In First Class, they part ways when they’re much younger.
-In The Last Stand, Moira is portrayed as a Scottish geneticist. In First Class, she’s portrayed as an American secret agent whose memories of the X-Men are wiped clean.
-According to First Class, in the 1960s, Emma Frost is a member of the Hellfire Club. But according to Wolverine, in the 1970s, she’s younger and the sister of Silver Fox.
-In X-Men, Xavier is surprised when Magneto has a helmet that can block his telepathy. Yet in First Class, Xavier clearly knows Magneto stole the helmet from Shaw.
Of course, that’s all assuming this is a prequel, which is what Singer has said. Now if you take this film as a reboot, as other people involved have said, these aren’t problems. But then you have the question of if you’re going to make this a reboot, why are you using obscure characters like Angel Salvadore and Darwin to round out the X-Men instead of using classic characters like Cyclops and Jean?
Again, there are good elements here and it’s not really a bad film. But it just doesn’t work for me. Too many inconsistencies with the established film continuity and a ridiculous story just pulled me right out of it.