“A Very Groovy Mutation”: Matt Revisits X-MEN: FIRST CLASS

by     Posted 162 days ago

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[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).

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

Rating: A-

[Tomorrow: The Wolverine]

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  • Drake

    This is my personal favorite X-Men movie. It’s so insatiably fun!
    I would rank the series like so: First Class>X2>The Wolverine>The Last Stand>X-Men>Origins:Wolverine
    Bit of a X-Men 3 advocate…

    • Agent777

      Oddly I find 3 to be the most fun. None of these films are as smart as they think they are, and 3 doesn’t have that smugness, it’s just fun. I remember Ian McKellen saying they partied a lot while making that one.

      • Bob

        Maybe they should have partied less…

      • Aquartertoseven

        3 is the most fun and watchable, the others while better, are darker and you need to be in the mood to watch them.

      • Guy Smiley

        I’m always in a mood to watch X2 or First Class, and the first X-Men will do in a pinch.

        But I am never “in the mood” to watch X3.

      • Aquartertoseven

        Ah, the internet hive mind verbatim. Never gets old. Oh wait, it does. All the time.

  • NICK НΛRT

    this is certainly the most entertaining x men film, but you can definitely tell that the production was very rushed. some weird editing and special effects in there

    • Werefon

      It was. To the point that Matthew Vaughn didn’t have time to create a storyboards. All scenes are constructed by his own visual Sensibility, which is pretty darn impressive.

  • blade

    and this friday we will witness the biggest and greatest movie of all the x-men franchise, can´t wait!!!

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  • Davis

    ‘whose final scene is having her boss dismiss her on the basis of being a woman’

    Well it was the 60′s weren’t the writer just pointing out out females weren’t taken seriously?

    Also apart from Mcavoy and Fassbender this movie was insanely average, but everybody loves the clunky ‘born this way’ dialogue. Also Beast was probably the ‘black’ character, mystique can change her appearance in public so people don’t harass but Beast is stuck.

    • gar216

      I agree that Moira being dismissed for being a woman was correct for the times. Truthfully she probably would not have even had that job if the movie was true to the time period.

    • Guy Smiley

      Yeah, while the 60s certainly was the start of the feminist movement (and a time of sexual revolution) it’s not like there was some big sea change in terms of women being treated as equals in the workplace, etc., during that decade. Hell, women are still having to struggle with many of these same things today.

      (Take, for example, David Goyer’s offensive comments about a certain female comic book character… This a**hole is the guy writing Wonder Woman’s big screen debut?? : http://www.themarysue.com/david-goyer-calls-she-hulk-sex-fantasy/)

      Goldberg clearly hasn’t watched the original Star Trek, or seen any episodes of Mad Men, if he thinks the 60s were completely liberating for women.

  • edd

    i like this movie but they could have done without two scenes:
    mystique saying “oh i have the greatest idea ever! you could be called prof. X and you can be magneto! this line isnt cheesy at all tralalalala”
    and also magneto looking like liberace at the end of the movie

  • Agent777

    As cool as the 60′s setting was, outside the Magneto bits, this films was a big so what. Another selection of arbitrary mutants and another X-Men bad guy (Shaw) who lost his origin.

  • World’s Finest Comments

    Just like X2, First Class understands that X-Men is an ensemble. What ticks me off lately is all the reports asking “Who will be the face of the X-Men after Hugh Jackman leaves?”. There shouldn’t be a face, the X-Men are a team. Focus on the entire body instead.

    • Agent777

      You have a point, but it was Wolverine who serisouly brought X-Men back. The comic series did very badly, I think within 20 issues the A-list talent left, and they brought in the D-list. Then in 1974 Wolverine shows up in the pages of Incredible Hulk and a hugely popular character and deffiently boosted the X-Men’s relaunch in Uncanny X-Men. So he is, like it or not, the poster child for the X-men, and will continue to be so.

      I think if we got a Wolverine who was actually short and gruff, it would provide the breath of fresh air the character needs, and would be alot of fun.

      • World’s Finest Comments

        I’m not trying to discredit Wolverine’s impact or anything. I’m just saying that the franchise can survive without him or some sort of substitute and First Class certainly proved that.

      • Agent777

        Oh yes, I agree. Really, X-Men would be ideal if it was done as a HBO style (minus the porn) series. I really don’t think feature films suit the X-Men. I would really love to see something that focuses on the original team.

      • World’s Finest Comments

        Well it sounded like X-Men: Apocalypse originally met that description, but now it seems they’re going to try and shoehorn Wolfie in there…

      • Agent777

        Yeah, I am a big Bishop fan, and I remember as a kid that Bishop was insanely popular… so of course Wolverine is taking the Bishop roles in Days of Futures Past. Sigh.

      • Doug_101

        If you’re referring to the cartoon, maybe, but in the comics Bishop wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eye when Days of Future Past was released. The person who should be really pissed about this movie is Ellen Page.

      • WAldenIV

        Wolvie = Wolverine
        Wolfie = the fake name used by the T800 for the dog in T2

      • the king of comedy

        Wolfie=Jordan Belfort

    • Aquartertoseven

      Of course there’s a face (or more than one), Xavier and Magneto were the faces of this X-Men team.

  • Agent777

    Was anyone else bothered young Professor X had hair? Didn’t he lose his hair as quickly as Karl Pilkington did?

    • World’s Finest Comments

      I was more bothered how they kept making jokes about how he would eventually lose it. A little too cutsie with those types of winks.

      • Agent777

        Indeed. It’s like the yellow spandex joke from the first movie. Those moment just remind that you would rather see Wolverine in yellow ‘spandex’.

        It also gives you a mental image of how bad he would look as he loses his hair, even though the younger Prof. X at the end of Origins was clearly 100% bald.

      • World’s Finest Comments

        Yeah they went from trying to set the universe in a more realistic world that barely resembled the comics to completely nuking that initial concept and making as many references and Easter eggs as possible.

      • Aquartertoseven

        Seeing Wolverine in yellow spandex, comic fanboys are so ridiculous lol.

      • milo

        I thought that moment was hilarious, it reminded me how bad it would have been if they had put him in the yellow spandex.

  • JK1193

    Any reason you left out Jennifer Lawrence? She and Fassbender made First Class work for me so well, and this was before Hunger Games and Prometheus fame, but after Winter’s Bone and Inglourious Basterds, so this was truly the conformation Of my love for them as actors.

    • RiddleThemThis

      The Mystique character was actually my main problem with this film. I’m not saying that Jennifer Lawrence did a bad job at acting, I was just upset by everything the character did. To me, she came off as a bit of a dunce and the majority of what she did was mope around feeling bad about her appearance. She was one of my favorite characters from the original trilogy and I found this movie to be really demeaning to that character.

      • Redemption

        I thought Lawrence did a poor job as Mystique, but then again I’m not a big fan. She plays the same kind of character in every film, with only Winter’s Bone impressing me. But her story was also really weak in this one. Imagine being able to look like anyone in the world? Why would you ever complain about your appearance? She never had to be blue. Now, imagine being her wife. You could be with Kate Upton one minute and Scarlett Johansson the next.

  • The Flobbit

    This is one I can watch any time. It’s so fast-paced, entertaining, brilliantly acted, and excellently filmed (that score. THAT SCORE!) it truly is a triumph. Singer’s X2 is the better film, more thought-provoking and hard-hitting, but First Class is a smooth, slick example of 60′s cool.

    Btw, James MacAvoy and Michael Fassbender give like, award-worthy performances!

    • Andrew Sanders

      Yes,i would also put this just behind X2.
      And the score was pretty awesome-the music playing in the scenes where Magneto does his ‘thing’ with the satellite dish & sub gives me tingles
      Weak points for me were Darwin & Angel Salvadore,…both pretty much pointless characters.

      • Werefon

        Yep. Also, I like Magento’s main theme which is “Du-Dup-da-da-da-da-Da-Dup”. Henry Jackman was the composer as far as I remember. He is protege of Hans Z.

      • Drake

        Henry Jackman was indeed the composer. And he did indeed work with Zimmer back in the day.

      • Aquartertoseven

        “Magento”???

      • Werefon

        Oh, yes. The world collided because of that typo. Good Job

      • http://www.JustPressPlay.net Lex Walker

        You have to admit, the ability to control magenta isn’t really that useful.

      • Werefon

        Heeey!!! There is always a mutant for Joss Whedon to kill.

      • http://www.JustPressPlay.net Lex Walker

        *gasps*If only…*gasp* I could control red *gasp* maybe this bleeding wouldn’t….uggggggh

      • Werefon

        Suddenly… The darkness fell.

    • http://www.collider.com/ DNAsplitter

      The score was the best of the series. It is truely amazing to listen to. Really captures the 60′s and gives it an edgy feel. I really wish they had kept Henry Jackman for DOFP but I get that Ottoman is Singer’s BFF and he did a fine job w X2.

      • Person

        The Blu-ray has an isolated score option, well worth a look if you’re a fan of it.

      • http://www.collider.com/ DNAsplitter

        Thanks for the info. Will check it out as I own the blu-ray.

      • Andrew Sanders

        Thanks for the info there,…I did wonder who was scoring DOFP.
        Seeing it this Fri so I’m hoping the music is as good as his music for X2.

  • RiddleThemThis

    “I like that First Stand” should be “I like that First Class”.

  • St. jack

    I think you may be looking at the Progressive Attitudes of he 60s with rose colord glasses, Matt.

  • St. jack

    I like j. Lawrence in most movies, but as mystique, when she’s blue at least, I just can’t seem to buy her character. The same goes for the new trailers.

  • Doug

    I can’t believe they killed the black guy first. That’s absolutely insane. I don’t understand.

  • Person

    This is probably my second favorite X film, with only X2 topping it in my book. I just wish the special effects were better, that some of the minor mutants weren’t chosen just so their powers could be featured in the final fight scene (in other words, I wish they fit into the story a little more organically), but most of all, the last 20 minutes or so just feel too rushed, like they were trying to cram everything that tied into the original series in at the last minute.

    Overall though, this is still the only X-Men film I actually own, and I enjoy re-visiting it every few months or so. Fassbender, McAvoy, and Bacon are all exceptional.

    • Sten

      Yep. The final 15 minutes would have made a perfect Second Class movie. A bit rushed. Otherwise my favourite of the lot besides the first one.

  • http://www.collider.com/ DNAsplitter

    This almost ties X2 in my book. Both are such great films. Vaughn’s direction really put the franchise back on course. So excited to see DOFP and where Singer will take the franchise.

  • Aquartertoseven

    Not quite as good as X2 due to the supporting cast being weak. Like Havoc, the stripper bee etc. Fassbender was king though, good Lord! McAvoy and Bacon were impressive too. Jennifer Lawrence was so weak though, worst part of the film, so cheesy and badly acted. When she was naming the mutants, she was unbearably cheesy.

  • McA

    This is also my favourite X-Men film and I’d definitely think it’s better than X2. Loved X2 at the time but since rewatching it recently, I’ve found parts really drag a little bit too much and the tone always felt overly serious. Vaughn got the balance just right between heavy and light – not too serious but but never becoming light enough to be considered camp.

    I think, mainly why I love it so much, is that it showed Wolverine doesn’t have to be front and center of every single X-Men movie. I think Jackman is great but by allowing Fassbender and McAvoy to carry the film, it showed a whole different side to the X-Men movie-verse. The casting, the amazing Henry Jackman score (the score during the submarine being lifted out of the water is so epic) and especially the direction of Vaughn lifted this movie above the average comic book adaptation. I’m looking forward to DOFP but I’m always a little bit sad when I think that Vaughn didn’t continue what he started with First Class.

    • http://www.collider.com/ DNAsplitter

      I agree about Vaughn not returning to DOFP. His direction and Henry Jackman’s score will be missed. Still I think DOFP will hold up well and will rank high with X2.

      • McA

        I think so too, just purely judging by the advanced previews. Looking forward to this Quicksilver scene everyone is talking about. I hear Fassbender and McAvoy don’t share as much screentime in this one which saddens me. Hopefully that’ll be rectified in Apocalypse as those two have amazing chemistry – one of the reasons why First Class worked so well. Had it been anyone else for those parts, just not sure it would’ve worked as well.

  • JBug

    Awesome review, Matt! The biggest weakness in this movie, IMO, was the wasting of a great character and actress in Moira and Rosie Byrne. I wish that was done better. Also, I really disliked the mansion. It looked and felt like a doll house. One thing you didn’t mention that I felt was amazing was the score for Magneto. Also, Jennifer Lawrence neutered Mystique. I would give it a B+

  • Grayden

    This film also possesses one of, if not THE best, cameos in recent film history.

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  • TrekBeatTK

    It’s a bit unfair to complain about the lack of “progressive” ’60s ideals and such. The ’60s you seem to be envisioning are the ’60s of post-1965. This movie is set in the Kennedy era of 1962. Pre-Dealy Plaza ’60s were a different time.

    • milo

      True, but having a female agent strip down to her underwear felt pretty gratuitous. Especially since the movie already had Frost meeting the film’s T&A quota.

  • Truthspeaker

    While this is my favorite X-men movie so far, it would’ve been nice to see it done with the original cast of x-men from the comics. I’m no “purist” when it comes to comic-book adaptations, but I don’t see a need to change the source material. They could’ve had a new take on Jean, Cyclops, Iceman and had a boy Angel. That being said, they captured the beast part of the original team very well. Magneto was flawless. His vengeance scenes were so sinister and chilling… just perfectly captured. It’s easy to see how this movie grew from the idea of a magneto spin-off. Professor X was great as well. I just don’t see the necessity to change the characters up. It’s as if they were just like “who haven’t we used yet that could be similar to the ones we should use?” And the girl Angel with butterfly wings seemed lame to me albeit pretty sexy.

  • Doug_101

    There was a lot I liked about First Class – Fassbender and McAvoy were excellent choices – but for me, it was just a little too campy. Kevin Bacon was awful and his Sebastian Shaw was written all wrong. Not saying they have to be slavish to the books, but at least get the guy’s powers right. But like I said, Fassbender and McAvoy saved this one for me. I would have rathered they just keep Jackman as Wolverine (his cameo was the best part of the film) and reboot the rest. Then, they could have re-cast Cyclops, Jean and the rest.

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