X-Men: First Class

written by David Steffen

The X-Men movies have been somewhat hit-or-miss. X-Men, directed by Bryan Singer in 2000 was a really excellent first movie. It changed a lot of the character relationships, relative ages, and etc, but it did it in a way that was true to the heart of the original characters, and added enough novelty to make it all very interesting. The sequel, X2, directed by Bryan Singer in 2003 was a great followup. X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006 had a new director, and was a crappy story with a bajillion characters thrown in apparently for merchandising. X-Men Origins: Wolverine came out in 2009, and was almost completely worthless, other than an outstanding opening credits montage featuring Wolverine and Sabretooth fighting side by side as brothers in a couple centuries of wars.

So, I came to this movie with a lot of skepticism. The Last Stand managed to suck even with Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, and the rest of the amazing recurring cast. This one has an entirely new cast, many of them relative unknowns. The two actors that I was most apprehensive about were James McAvoy taking the role of a young Charles Xavier (previously played by Patrick Stewart) and Michael Fassbender as Eric Lehnsher (previously played by Ian McKellan). Other names that I recognized were Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique (previously played by Rebecca Romijn Stamos), and Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw of the Hellfire Club.

So, since my biggest concern was those two iconic X-Men roles, I’ll start with those. James McAvoy seems like he might be a good actor, in certain roles, but he was a complete and total failure playing the role of Charles Xavier. My only guess about the director’s choice is that he must have been the only Brit to audition, and he would only take the role with the condition that he would not shave his head. He didn’t shave his head. He didn’t have the Charles Xavier charisma. He was a much too jovial ladies’ man, unconcerned with the ethics of his psychic powers, using them to sway people’s behavior in a way that Charles Xavier never would have. Terrible, terrible choice.

So what about Michael Fassbender? Holy crap, he was amazing. So amazing. They kept the same backstory for Lehnsher as had been used in the earlier X-Men movies, that he had been a young Jewish boy separated from his mother in a German concentration camp in WWII when his powers manifested, crumpling the iron gate that separated him from her. The movie takes place in 1963, when Eric Lehnsher was in his 20’s and is trying to find Sebastian Shaw, the man who killed his mother. Magneto has always been my favorite character in comics because he has powerful reasons for doing the things that he does–he has seen the evil that lurks in the hearts of men, and how humans can go to such great lengths to tear down anyone who is different. With the rise of mutants, Magneto puts himself in a position of leadership to protect himself, but by doing so he tries to oppress humans in the same ways that he himself was oppressed. The earlier movies took place at a time much later in Magneto’s life when he has chosen his course of action and is already well along his way to it, trying to rally mutant forces around the globe. This flashback movie takes place at a pivotal point in Magneto’s development where he is trying to find his path in this world. He is in constant struggle between doing good and evil, and Michael Fassbender does a masteful job showing this struggle. When he does evil things, he scares the crap out of me, as Ian McKellan can do, and when he does good or when he fights back against those who have done him wrong I can really cheer him on. He was easily the greatest highlight of the movie for me.

Another highlight of the film for me was Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, the head of the Hellfire Club, a mutant organization which in the comics was an opposing mutant organization and school that often faced off against Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Kevin Bacon looks the role very well with the impressive sideburns and fancy dress, and he does a very convincing job as well as a German post-Nazi government official who tries to draw out young Eric Lehnsher’s powers. Really fantastic.

Some of the young mutants that formed Xavier’s first team were reasonably cool. Darwin can “evolve” different adaptations at will, gills, army, wings, whatever–not one that I remember from the comics. I wished they’d made a little more use of him. Angel was okay, though I wish they’d come up with a different name, since Angel is already a character name in the X-Men franchise. I liked the Banshee actor, probably because he reminded me so strongly of Rupert Grint (Ron Weaselly in Harry Potter). Havok was all right, although I thought it was weird that they made no explicit mention that he was related to Cyclops, despite both having the last name Summers.

I liked the actor who played Beast, though he reminded me very strongly of Jimmy Marsden (who played Cyclops). But his storyline in the movie represented a continuity error that could be spotted right in the preview. At the beginning of this movie, Beast looks mostly human, other than having opposable thumbs on his feet. Later in the movie he injects himself with something that’s supposed to take away his powers, but instead they turn him more bestial and give him blue fur (that’s not a huge spoiler, he has blue fur on the movie posters). Hank McCoy (beast’s human identity) appeared in a background news shot in X2 (in a scene when Mystique is seducing a prison guard at a bar), with no fur. In Last Stand he shows up again with blue fur. Unless the fur comes and goes like herpes outbreaks, that doesn’t really make sense.

A lot of the rest of the movie was really lackluster. A lot of really weak characters, weak plotting, wasted scenes where better scenes would’ve been better use of the space. If not for Michael Fassbender and Kevin Bacon, I would recommend that you just skip it. But those two really made the movie worthwhile. I hear that there will be some others in the same continuity, and I will likely go to see them just to see Michael Fassbender’s continued performance.