It’s been nearly two weeks since I saw X-Men: First Class, which is perhaps an indication of the conflict I’ve had in compiling my thought about it. Part of it is to do with my years of reading the Chris Claremont X-Men, part of it is some parts of the film itself, and another part of it is the general reaction to the film in the press. To sum up, if you don’t want to read my jumbled ramblings: it is a generally good film, with some very good bits, but it’s not great (despite what current X-Factor writer Peter David might think), mostly due to various problems with the story.
Let’s start with the good stuff. Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are great as Magneto and Charles Xavier, respectively. Fassbender is cool and tough as the spy-with-superpowers going after Nazis (very James Bond, but even cooler); McAvoy is charming, funny (he gets some good lines) and has the right sense of optimism and amazement in mutant powers. Together, their relationship is the beating heart of the film and it would have been great to see the entire film devoted to them alone.
The film is rather groovy. The reference to Bond is appropriate, not just the 1960s setting: the clothes, the production design, the globetrotting (Oxford, Argentina, Russia, Cuba), Sebastian Shaw as a classic Bond villain – the various secret headquarters (the submarine is a particularly nice touch), the cool hench-people and a silly plot to destroy the world. Everyone looks good, although the female attire perhaps goes too far, and there is a nice feeling of historical authenticity, even with the unfortunate attitude towards women. The action is good as well – the scene with Magneto in Argentina was particularly badass – and it flows at a good pace. And three cheers for not being in 3D.
Can I just say: greatest cameo ever, even if it doesn’t make complete sense. I laughed out loud, I’m not afraid to admit.
There are lots of nice touches, and the film makes sure it fits well with the first two X-Men films (Bryan Singer, producer on this film, seems to have a thing about making a new film based on only the first two films in a series, if this and Superman Returns are anything to go by) – the relationships between various characters, the development of Cerebro, the Blackbird, showing how Xavier ended up in a wheelchair, Magneto’s helmet. It is also unashamedly comic booky – Banshee flies on his stretchy wing things, the CGI visualisation of Shaw’s absorption of energy, Emma Frost’s diamond form, Darwin visibly mutating to display his adaptive power, the costumes, Magneto raising a submarine from the sea, the whirlwind powers of Shaw henchman Riptide (although he’s not named in the film, or even speak).
Time to talk about some of the things that weren’t so good. Although I enjoyed the presence of so many characters from the X-Men universe (apart from those mentioned, the film has Havok, Beast, Mystique, Angel, Azazel, Moira MacTaggart [albeit an American CIA agent instead of a Scottish doctor]), there are too many characters in the film. If it had been more about Xavier and Magneto, even if they were facing against Shaw on their own and realising that a team is needed, it would have been a tighter narrative. Matthew Vaughan and Jane Goldman do a great job of including all the characters and giving their moments, but it diffuses the story and loses focus.
The story itself, with an epic scale that revolves around the Cuban missile crisis, seemed implausible – even with a telepath, I couldn’t see how one man could influence the specific individuals to bring the world to the brink of war. It’s a classic Bond villain plot, with the big idea with a stupid reason, but that shouldn’t be an excuse.
The large cast means that few of the cast stand out. January Jones is a non-entity as Emma Frost – bland, looking very uncomfortable in the costume, and I really don’t like the diamond form (I didn’t like it when God-of-all-comics Grant Morrison introduced it and I like it even less here, where it looks silly). Riptide is a pointless appendage in the film; it’s like he was only kept around for precipitating the final action sequence. The actors playing Havok, Banshee, Darwin and Angel don’t make an impact (Angel is played by Zoe Kravitz, the daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet, so she knows something about good genetics), and I feel sorry for Jason Flemyng for such a non-role as Azazel. Jennifer Lawrence, who was so good in Winter’s Bone, is fine as the young Mystique but seems flat here. Kevin Bacon doesn’t really work as Shaw – he doesn’t bring the menace necessary for the role.
The biggest problem I had was the inadvertent racism. Darwin, a black man, is the first die in the film. Not only that but he goes out in such a lame way – he is a character whose power is to adapt to any danger, but he is killed by Shaw putting energy in his mouth (Ed Brubaker, his creator, must be a little upset about that). In the same scene, the only character in the proto-X-Men to turn evil is the only black woman. I’m not saying that, to address the years of racism inflicted upon black people, all black characters in film should be good guys and not die; however, in a film that is an allegory for racism and is filled with nearly all white characters, the filmmakers made a huge error in their uncalculated use of Darwin and Angel.
The other things that niggled were minor: the hands-as-feet mutation of Hank McCoy was very silly; Riptide having whirlwinds coming out of his hands looked very stupid for some reason; the lack of sense behind Emma Frost’s diamond form; I don’t like that Sebastian Shaw is one of the first mutants in the film continuity, or that Scott ‘Cyclops’ Summer is not the first pupil of Xavier, but the continuity of the Fox X-Men films is quite messy anyway (e.g. the age of Xavier in this film and Wolverine: Origins, or the presence of various versions of Cyclops and Emma Frost in that film), so I guess I should get over myself. The film also suffers from the ‘more characters means a better superhero film’ problem of late (e.g. Spider-Man 3, or Wolverine: Origins, which seemed counterintuitive when examining the story of a loner hero). These niggles also extend to the promotion of the film – the original teaser trailer was a terrible indication of the film and the terrible Photoshopping of the posters are an embarrassment. However, the film is fun and worth a watch overall, even if Thor is still the current leader for best comic book superhero film of 2011.