On the airplane over to Europe, I was a bit puzzled by the screening of X-Men 3: The Last Stand, but because I couldn't sleep, I watched it, and remembered just how bad it was. Where the first two X-Men films were fun, and fairly well done, the third felt rushed, overcooked, with no cohesive storyline, characters and action that didn't make sense, but with some definite promise to it. It's unfortunate that it was such a train wreck, and it put me off from the follow-up Wolverine film, which I've still not seen. Thus, the news that there was another X-Men film coming out simply didn't register, until it became fairly clear that this was going to be a film that was somewhat different.
Set in 1962, X:Men First Class turns to a certain amount of nostalgia. There's the old cars, the Cold War, and the origins of the X-Men, looking quite a bit like I remembered from the reprinted versions of the comics that I read as a kid. Then, one of my favorite directors, Matthew Vaughn, came on board to direct. I've almost universally liked his films: Layer Cake is one of my all time favorites, and I got a real kick out of Stardust and Kickass. His attention and film style makes X-Men: First Class stand out, turning it into a film that's notable in the franchise, as well as the superhero genre.
Starting off in the 1940s, we revisit the origins of Erik Lehnsherr, and get a glimpse into the early days of Charles Xavier, as they grow up. Erik is a holocaust survivor, forced to watch his mother's death in an move to unlock his powers at the hands of Sebastian Shaw. Xavier goes to Oxford, studying genetics and mutations. All the while, Shaw becomes a globetrotting super villain, moving back and forth between the United States and the Soviet Union in an attempt to trigger all out war between the two superpowers, eventually leading Xavier and Lehnsherr together, all the while exploring several themes that become central to the X-Men franchise: identity and human nature.
X-Men: First Class succeeds because it's extensively focused on the two main characters, and it sets up, but doesn't quite deliver the epic nature of their friendship. Two opposites with incredible power: one angry, the other calm, one reckless where the other is deliberate. The two men complete each other in a number of ways, while the excellent cast of supporting characters, including Mystique (played by the fantastic Jennifer Lawrence - I can't wait to see her as Katniss in The Hunger Games), Beast, Banshee, and Darwin, who all face challenges of their own: how do they reconcile their abilities with their identity. More importantly, how they are seen by the public. Mystique spends most of the film in human form, torn between hiding and understanding herself. It's a powerful message that'll undoubtedly be relatable to any teenager who watches the film. Watching the film, I was a little annoyed that the filmmakers didn't simply use some of the characters from the original comics, such as Iceman and Angel, which would have made the movie that much better, before being reminded that they've already been used. With that in mind, the film slips into the original film's continuity nicely.
The film does falter at points: it feels rushed, overstuffed, with so much material that we blow past major scenes, some of which feel a bit abridged, rather than taking a bit of time to support the characters a bit. The relationship between Magneto and Professor X has enormous amounts of potential, and is pulled off rather well because of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, but it doesn't feel as true as it could have. Events likewise move very quickly, and it's hard to imagine the US and Soviet Union being manipulated as easily as they appear to be.
That being said, setting the film in the midst of the Cold War is an interesting choice, and it works well. One could make the argument that there's a cautionary tale when it comes to nuclear technology, but I think the bigger point to be made comes from the escalation of forces when you have superpowers at work against one another, and it helps to demonstrate, in a couple of ways how respective militaries can become pawns to larger forces at work. In the final act of the film, we essentially see US and USSR Navy personnel completely constrained by their orders, where they can see the absurdity of the situation, but are largely helpless to do anything about it. In similar forms, there's plenty to be said that can take such lessons and apply them to the modern day, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
X-Men: First Class renewed my interest and 10 year old self in the X-Men, making me want to find my old comics and trading cards from elementary school. It's very well filmed, very well thought out, and is just enough to make one forget about the poor-quality entries in the franchise thus far. But, the filmmakers have understood what really makes the X-Men special, and that's the characters, not the action or the drama, and where it comes to that, the film gets solid marks, and praise, for focusing more on the characters than the explosions. It makes the film something that will last far longer than X3 ever will.