I’ve never been a big believer in the “jump the shark” theory, especially when it comes to movies, because it seems closed mined in its belief that no series can ever step up its game and come back from a failure. For instance it would have been easy to dismiss the film Star Trek V: The Final Frontier as a “jump the shark” moment that derailed that storied franchise. Under current franchise philosophy the producers would abandon everything that came before and “reboot” the series (something they went ahead and did twenty years after the commercial failure of Star Trek: Nemesis). The thing is, if they had gone ahead and done that we never would have gotten Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, one of the very best of the series. Given that, I should have known better than to dismiss the film X-Men: First Class simply because I thought that the X-Men franchise had been derailed by a hack named Brett Ratner. Yet dismiss it I did, and this was partly out of a misunderstanding of what the film was. I’d assumed that it would be a film about the previously established X-Men like Cyclops and Jean Grey as teenagers, a concept that brought back memories of a horrible cartoon series called X-Men: Evolution which did just that with lame results.
In actuality the film is set long before those characters came on the scene, specifically it’s set in the early 60s and focuses on Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik “Magneto” Lensherr (Michael Fassbender). Both of these men are in their mid twenties and have lived very different lives: Xavier has been well educated and has lived a life of privilege while Lensherr, who experienced the holocaust, has been dealing with a deep-seeded rage. Both Xavier and Lensherr are after a man named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a mutant who’s ostensibly working for the Soviet Union but who has his own agenda. Xavier has been recruited for the task of tracking down Shaw by a CIA agent named Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), while Lensherr is tracking Shaw down because of the role he played in Lensherr’s traumatic childhood. Eventually Xavier and Lensherr decided to join forces and train a team of young mutants including Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and others.
This is a prequel that exists within the continuity of the overall X-Men series and the movie does a better job connecting up with the original X-Men movies then I thought it would. That isn’t to say that everything here would connect seamlessly with the original continuity, but it certainly does a better job than X-Men Origins: Wolverine did. The film also intersects with mid-20th century U.S. history, pondering what would happen if superheroes got involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, a technique pioneered by the graphic novel “Watchmen.” That gives X-Men: Fist Class something that X-Men Origins: Wolverine never even tried to have: ambition and scope. This is a tremendous improvement over director Matthew Vaughn’s previous work and while he deserves kudos for the movie, I think some credit should also go to producer Bryan Singer. It is no coincidence that the X-Men films with his name on them have been dramatically superior to the ones he wasn’t involved in.
The film also has an amazing cast which is murderer’s row of exiting upcoming actors. Michael Fassbender is the clear standout, he turns Magneto into a genuine badass and for the first time I see why people see him as a mainstream star in the making. I suspect that this will launch his career just as successfully as the original X-Men launched Hugh Jackman’s career. James McAvoy plays Xavier as a relatively hip young man filled with optimism, which is a very logical precursor to Patrick Stewart’s take on the character in the original trilogy. The film also sports standout supporting roles by every hip actor from Jenifer Lawrence to January Jones to Oliver Platt.
That said, the size of the cast is a bit of a double edged sword, because this movie can get really crowded at times with something like twenty different distinct speaking roles spread throughout the 132 minute movie. Not all of these characters are equal either, in particular I found the titular “First Class” to be the film’s weakest element. This team of teenage mutants came dangerously close to actually resembling that crappy “X-Men: Evolution” cartoon that I was afraid of, with most of this team of young mutants being played by immature CW network rejects. It doesn’t help that most of the real marquee X-Men had already been used in the previous films, forcing this movie to use a lot of D-list mutants like Riptide, Darwin, and the particularly lame Angel Salvadore whose power involves sprouting dragonfly wings and spitting fireballs. The film is able to do a surprisingly decent job of using these characters and putting together good action scenes with their powers, but they’re a liability nonetheless.
The film leaves a pretty big opening for further X-Men prequels, and with this team of filmmakers on board I’d welcome more. Going into the summer this easily looked like the least promising of all the various superhero movies, but it turned out to be the best of them by far. It’s funny how things work out like that sometimes, and looking back this seems kind of logical; while Thor and Captain America were fixated on playing it safe and establishing brands, this one just focused on putting together a good story and bringing in good actors, throwing in some fine effects scenes didn’t hurt either. It’s easily the best X-Men film since X-Men 2, and probably the best Marvel film since Spider-Man 2.
***1/2 out of Four