Redo The Evolution
by Jay Santiago
X-Men: First Class (2011)
D: Matthew Vaughn
S: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence
If there’s anything that I’ve learned since the X-Men’s initial onscreen incarnation by Bryan Singer in 2000, it’s that lowered expectations are the best thing you can arm yourself with when faced with a movie based on your favourite mutant adventurers. Okay, loosely based. After all, it’s hard work abbreviating extensively complex character histories that span decades’ worth of comic books in just 131 minutes, but in X-Men: First Class, director Matthew Vaughn makes a commendable and altogether watchable effort.
For months prior to its release, scores of fans (including myself) were rabidly dissecting every single shred of data about the film that leaked online, and with good reason. After 2003’s phenomenally executed X2: X-Men United raised the bar for comic book movies up to that point, the franchise took a tragic nosedive with the bloated, soulless X-Men: The Last Stand and the equally abysmal X-Men Origins: Wolverine. If I had telepathic powers that equalled Professor X’s, I would wipe both those movies from everyone’s collective memory just so they can enjoy this “preboot” and its fresh, invigorating spin on things. Or maybe I would’ve just convinced Vaughn to take the reins for the third X-outing as was originally planned.
In any case, prior to this current mutant flick, Vaughn had already proven that he was capable of entertaining, effects-laden adventures based on treasured fantasy fare with films like Stardust and Kick-Ass allowing him to showcase a wry sense of humour that helped mark both films with a distinct sort of appeal. His big budget visions never seemed to take themselves too seriously, so you never felt like you, as a moviegoer, had to either. The same can be said about his Kennedy-era coming-of-age tale centred on the genesis of the deep friendship between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender). We’re all aware that this kinship would eventually become one of the most intense schisms in comic book mythology, but here, the two share a common enemy in mutant megalomaniac Sebastian Shaw (the effectively menacing Kevin Bacon), whose own motley crew of super-powered misfits give CIA operative Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) license to enlist Xavier and Lehnsherr’s assistance in assembling a mutant team of their own. The collective power of Shaw’s more experienced operatives provide the fledgling recruits (and the world’s superpowers) ample reason to tremble but ultimately, catalyze them to take up arms and discover what they’re capable of.
It’s hard to assess the rest of the cast who are somewhat formidable in their own ways, but as is a common problem in most movies with multiple characters vying for screen time, many fade into the background. January Jones tries her best, but her Emma Frost doesn’t quite achieve the level of icy steeliness the White Queen deserves. Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence does manage to make a minor impression in revealing future bad girl Mystique’s vulnerable side, and Nicholas Hoult’s prodigious Hank McCoy has enough geeky, angst-ridden awkwardness to make the teen girls fall for him (at least for most of the movie). If he doesn’t, there’s always the predictable choice in tough, jock-type Lucas Till as Havok AKA Alex Summers, younger brother of Scott Summers AKA Cyclops. However, this film doesn’t mention this relationship at all (or even if it did allude to this, I may have missed it). That’s where things get a little messy. If you’re a fan of the comic books, you’d know that a lot of the origins revealed here stray from the source material. Case in point, the first class line-up seen here differs greatly from that in the comics. Actually, even if you just follow the continuity of the X-Men film franchise, there are several inconsistencies that spring to mind that I’d rather not get into so I avoid sharing any spoilers. It’s been suggested that the best way to enjoy First Class for its individual merits is to consider that the events unfolding here take place in an alternate reality than the previous instalments, as has been done countless times in comic books or even in film franchise reboots like JJ Abrams’s Star Trek.
The film does make the most of its period setting with Vaughn’s admittedly deliberate nods to James Bond and other spy capers set in the Cold War era, evoking a sense of vigour and excitement, intensified by two engaging actors who are absolutely mesmerizing. McAvoy and Fassbender both bring a real gravity to their respective characters, each with different motivations but with similarly unshakeable determination. It is perhaps for this very reason that we see their bond forged swiftly. If McAvoy seems to be channeling Sean Connery’s cocky, devil-may-care 007, then Fassbender captures the dark and dangerous secret agent Daniel Craig gave us in Casino Royale. In fact, it may even be worth noting that Vaughn was instrumental in Craig bagging the Bond role after helping him deliver a highly praised performance in his directorial debut, 2004’s Layer Cake.
So even if X-Men: First Class eventually gets tripped up by its attempts at making serious statements with rather trite dialogue, you can rely on Fassbender to deliver that oft-awaited event in a summer blockbuster: the materialization of a leading man worth watching till the very end.