X-Men First Class Review: Does the Latest Installment Score Top Grades?

Over the last few years, it feels like the cinemas have been overrun with either comic book movies or sequels/prequels or reboots/re-imaginings or films designed to kick off a franchise. X-Men First Class proves to be a real keener by actually being every single one. Considering how many failures there have been with reboots or comic films or sequels or any of those previously mentioned, you'd think a film aiming to be all those things would be a perfect demonstration of a cinematic car wreck. Sure, Batman Begins also aspired to do all those things to a certain degree (other than it didn't bother to try to tie in previous films), but how many Batman Begins should we expect within a ten year time frame. The answer is at least two. Despite an unappealing trailer and a glutton of Marvel films being pushed into movie theaters, X-Men First Class succeeds at being one of the summer blockbusters that is actually a quality film.

X-Men First Class
has been marketed as a prequel, but it is better described as a reboot since it presents a completely different feel and time period than the original film series (actually it is closer to the roots of the original X-Men comic book series). You quickly realize this is a much more adult-centric and grittier film than the originals, when the film opens up in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944 and you witness a young boy being torn away from his parents. The film doesn't shy away from darker material and is willing to explore the vilest forms of discrimination and persecution. Though the film isn't all bleak and morbid, it also embraces the more colorful and lighter is of the '60s (where the majority of the film is set), with the era's style and fashion creating for an attractive film. Plus it still remembers it is a comic book movie and thus it needs to be fun and full of action. It happens to be a film that provides the action and thrills, while still surrounding it with a deeper tale that looks at discrimination and persecution.

In any great story, it is the character development that allows things to evolve into something special and it is the actual characters that help drive the plot. In X-Men First Class, it is the startling juxtaposition between the two main characters, Charles Xavier/Dr. X (played by James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsher/Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) that is so fascinating. The film adds a special dose of depth and allows the audience to truly understand what caused the two mutants to form into their more well-known personalities. For the majority of the film, the two are best friends and fighting alongside each other, but the story lays out exactly why the characters ended up in their more familiar positions of 'hero' and 'villain'. It's even been argued in past X-Men films that Magneto isn't really a true villain, or at least not the same vein as a psychopath like the Joker, but rather a figure pushing for a noble cause in a very radical way. This film explores this route even more and makes Magneto a rather sympathetic figure and sheds more light on why he becomes the antagonizer to the human race.

The film effectively explores the opposing backgrounds of the two main characters and gives a rather effective commentary on how environment and events can alter how one perceives the world around them. You're introduced to Eriks Lehnsheer, later to become Magneto, in a German concentration camp where he is torn form his parents and he is witnessed to the ultimate acts of human cruelty and discrimination. On the other hand, Charles Xavier is raised in a mansion and afforded the best education and becomes a bit of a minor celebrity for his renowned thesis on genetic mutations. Magneto is forced to see the evils of humankind and how they are capable of horrendously treating those deemed different. Xavier is surrounded by potential and hope and idealism, and this leads him to believe of a future where mutants and humans are able to peacefully coexist. X-Men at its heart has always been about civil rights and the dangers of prejudice, and the parallels between the Malcolm X vs. Martin Luther King relationship and the Magneto vs. Dr. X relationship have always been apparent, but this time it becomes much more profound. This film tries to explain why two men can try to achieve the same thing in such different ways.

The film is much more than just a social commentary or a 2 hour origin tale. It is an action movie with jaw dropping effects and an exciting crisis that can only be solved by powerful mutants. The film is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and adds some twists that explain that these events actually were caused by some power hungry mutant baddies. The film does an effective job of weaving actual historical events and footage with fantastic fiction. It is far from a historical fiction film, and there is absolutely no need to actually know any of the intricate histories of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It just happens to be a movie that is set in the 60s and decides to use a real life crisis to steer along the plot. I do appreciate that there is several moments in the film that are subtle winks to people that do know a little about the Cuban Missile Crisis and thus can enjoy the fictional reworking of the almost disaster.

The strength of the film is that it can contain the deeper social commentary, the historical references, the nods to X-Men comic history, but as a standalone film being viewed by someone uninterested in all those things, it is still a thrilling and enjoyable way to spend 2 hours. It has several great action sequences and the special effects are top notch and far more easy to take than some of the recent overly CGIed blockbusters of the past few years (I'm not saying this film isn't full of CGI but it isn't as blatant or obvious). X-Men First Class is a movie that can be enjoyed on many levels, but most importantly, it is just an outright fun and enjoyable summer popcorn muncher.

I'm sure that some diehard comic fans will moan about it not following canon, but I've always thought that to be a rather pointless exercise. The reality is that films based off comics or video games or novels are better seen as a different take on the same basic story or premise. I think the strength of this film is that director Matthew Vaughn does take a fresh look on the franchise and try to do something very different with it. This is part of the reason it is more of a reboot than a legitimate prequel. Though I did really enjoy the two cameos that paid homage to the original film series (and both I feel were more a way to show they weren't taking themselves too seriously rather than any real attempt to connect this film to the past series). I think this fresh direction allowed for a stronger film, since it wasn't trying to fill in any possible plot holes or expectation from the prior films or comic books. At the same time, I enjoyed the shaping of the back story and the explanations of why certain characters ended up the way they are. It is the strength of the storytelling that it doesn't become a movie about explaining the character's past or back story (like the Star Wars prequels essentially were), but rather a strong stand alone film that just happens to be approaching well known characters before their more accepted stage (which involves events that drastically shape them for the future).

X-Men First Class has to be one of the most enjoyable surprises of the past several years. I despised X-Men Last Stand and wasn't seeing anything special coming from this movie, especially since I'm worn out on reboots and sequels and prequels. This is a film that proves that reboots or origin tales don't have to be laborious bores, and that it just takes some creativity and solid storytelling. X-Men First Class is a solid story that contains some deeper points that can inspire discussion, but also provides the necessary roller coaster elements you demand from your summer blockbuster. X-Men First Class is definitely one of the best comic book movies ever (hanging out near classic films like Dark Knight and the original Spider-Man), and is simply just a really great movie that properly kicks off the summer season.


  1. Anonymous8:10 pm

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