[With X-Men: Days of Future Past opening on Friday, I'm taking a look back at the X-Men movie franchise. These reviews contain spoilers.]
As I said in my X-Men: The Last Stand review, Professor X and Magneto were the pillars of the franchise’s narrative. X-Men Origins: Wolverine wasn’t an outright flop, but it certainly underperformed, and combined with the scathing reviews from fans and critics, the X-Men franchise wisely returned to a central problem about how to fight persecution—with peace or with fury? Then they brought these characters to the forefront, and wrapped the subtext in a movie with vibrant visuals, humor, charming performances, and terrific action. By going back to the beginning in more ways than one, X-Men: First Class was giving the X-Men franchise a fresh start.
Hitting the restart button on the franchise, it’s fitting that First Class begins precisely where Bryan Singer‘s X-Men began—a young Erik Lehnsherr (now played by Bill Milner) at a concentration camp. We then spend a little more time with Erik and discover that he was a medical experiment at the hands of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who killed Erik’s mother. Meanwhile, over in America, a young Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher), who lives in a mansion, befriends a young Mystique (Morgan Lily).
We then step into the main plot, and like X2, it never forgets that the internal divisions are more important than the external ones. In First Class, mutants are still secret, so the open war with the humans doesn’t arrive until the end. Instead, it’s mutant vs. mutant from the get-go as Shaw experiments on a fellow mutant. From there we see not only the ideological conflict between Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), but also between the Hellfire Club and the nascent X-Men when Shaw infiltrates the CIA base, recruits Angel (Zoe Kravitz), and kills Darwin (Edi Gathegi). Then there are the fissures among the good guys as Beast (Nicholas Hoult) doesn’t even want to openly admit he is a mutant. In addition to wanting to “cure” his mutation, he also has the film’s one gay civil rights line when he tells Oliver Platt’s character, “You didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell.” And then there’s Mystique who can’t come to grips where her own skin color.
The African-American Civil Rights Movement is never directly seen or mentioned in First Class, and the movie doesn’t quite know how to handle it. Xavier and Magneto have come to serve as representations as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively, but in First Class, Mystique is the best representation of racial conflict as she can be compared to African-Americans who were light-skinned enough to pass as white. But as Erik tells her, it’s a poor use of her focus, and a way of hiding who she truly is. Even if you remove the civil rights aspect, it’s a universal concept of hiding away who you truly are in an attempt to make others happy. It also reveals one of Charles’ core hypocrisies as he seems more concerned with bringing mutants together as long as their mutations aren’t unsightly. At best, he takes a Booker T. Washington approach by wanting to take a more gradual approach towards equality.
However, in practice, First Class is a bit regressive in its race relations. The movie has two black characters: Angel and Darwin. Angel decides to leave to become one of the bad guys and Darwin engages in the tiresome, outdated trope of the minority character nobly sacrificing him or herself for the good of the group. This leaves an entirely white team of heroes (Mystique may be blue and the film’s best representation of an African-American character, but they still chose to cast a white actress; you can argue that’s because Rebecca Romijn is white, but Mystique can take any form). I won’t go so far as to say that First Class is hypocritical film, but it’s certainly disappointing in how it doesn’t fully practice what it preaches.
Along with Darwin’s death, the film’s handling of Moira (Rose Byrne) is what stings the most in X-Men: First Class. While Mystique is a good female lead, Moira is reduced to eye-candy from the start as she’s able to break into the Hellfire Club because apparently she decided to wear her sexy underwear that day. From a plot perspective, she could have added a lot to the film by showing the goodness of humanity, but instead she’s relegated to a background character whose final scene is having her boss dismiss her on the basis of being a woman. Also, if you watch the deleted scenes, you’ll see that the ones with Moira are just her being wooed by Charles. For a film set in the 1960s, it doesn’t share the time period’s progressive attitudes.
Admittedly, I didn’t pick up on these flaws the first time around because X-Men: First Class is so (no pun intended) magnetic, and it’s easy to get lost in director Matthew Vaughn‘s exciting vision. After two visually bland features, X-Men roared back to life with a style that didn’t shy away from the flashy 60s aesthetic, but never made it so distracting as to render the film a parody of the era. Vaughn also reeeeally likes his wide-angle lenses, but it gives the film a more expansive feel, although shifting the focal points can be a bit distracting a times.
The movie also scored big on casting. Fassbender and McAvoy wisely avoid impressions of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, respectively, and instead try to tap into what these characters would have acted like as young men. They’re not completely disconnected and you can believe that the Charles and Erik we see in First Class will grow into the men we saw in the first three movies. We also know they’ll grow apart, and that’s where McAvoy and Fassbender’s chemistry is so important. There has to be friendship, not just mutual respect. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Charles’ reads Erik’s mind and sees his memory of Hanukkah. It’s a crucial moment not only because it creates a deeper bond between Charles and Erik, but because it shows that even a happy memory can still be a driving force for good or evil. Magneto agrees with Shaw’s beliefs, “But, unfortunately, you killed my mother.”
As for Xavier, McAvoy doesn’t just bring a nice sense of joy to the role, but also reveals Xavier’s darker side, which was hinted at in The Last Stand. Magneto may be angry and vengeful, but he’s almost always in control and steadfast in his beliefs. By comparison, Charles is reckless and disturbingly arrogant. It’s a little surprising he doesn’t decide to control everyone’s mind, and I like that First Stand doesn’t shy away from showing how he wasn’t always a saint. However, it does go a bit far at the end when he decides to erase Moira’s memory. It’s difficult to believe Charles truly has faith in humanity when he’s unwilling to trust someone who should be one of mutantkind’s most trusted allies.
Even though First Class is a prequel, it’s really more of a reboot, and the franchise is the better for it. It’s a movie that gets the best of both worlds as it uses familiar characters and then alters their dynamic. The movie even goes so far as to simply discard pieces of the previous movies that are inconvenient. In X-Men, Xavier says he and Magneto met when they were seventeen and built Cerebro together. Rather than bend over backwards to fit these lines of dialogue, First Class just ignores them in order to tell a better and more convincing story. Keeping the core of Xavier and Magneto’s relationship was paramount, and X-Men: First Class excelled at creating their bond, breaking it, and moving them to their destinies.
The X-Men franchise had adapted to survive. Now it was time to return to a character who could survive even the most brutal injuries.
[Tomorrow: The Wolverine]