“X-Men: First Class—Michael Fassbender Tears It Up” by Matilda Dixon-Smith

Posted on June 11, 2011

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I’m almost scared to say it, lest I lose my Callous Lady-Tongue street cred. Oh heck, I’m just going to speak my mind on this one: I AM SATISFIED WITH THE OUTCOME OF THIS VENTURE.

When I discovered many months ago that they were rebooting the X-Men franchise (a comic-book series I have a long-standing engagement with), I was a little worried. There is a danger, I feel, in going down the rewarding Batman Begins road but not being able to handle it. In the final installment the 2000s trilogy, X-Men: The Last Stand, cruel, selfish film-makers ruined the best story ever told in comics. Considering this, how could I be certain that X-Men: First Class would be any good at all? I mean, let’s not even mention Origins: Wolverine. Just don’t, it hurts too much.

Epic…no?

First Class begins in 1944, where Erik Lehnsherr (young Magneto) is being dragged from his mother by Nazis in a concentration camp. Fighting for his family’s life, Erik destroys a metal gate with his mind and is subsequently set on the radar of Dr. Schmidt (Kevin “Jump Back” Bacon). The Doctor does mean things in order to unleash the full extent of Erik’s powers, and we’re left with a feeling that Erik is going to be hell-a pissed at Kevin Bacon when he grows up. Oh boy.

In 1962, telepath Charles Xavier and shape-shifter Raven (James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence) are gallivanting around Oxford, Raven sulking and Charles trying to pick up lasses. Elsewhere, grown-up Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is proving just how pissed off he can be by going around and killing a bunch of Nazis. The CIA, who are TOTALLY FREAKING OUT about the Cold War and bombs and stuff, ask Charles and his mutant buddies to help them destroy the Russians and bad-guy Sebastian Shaw, formerly Dr. Schmidt, A.K.A Kevin Bacon. Shaw’s sidekick is seriously breast-tastic January Jones, who portrays diamond telepath Emma Frost. Erik and Charles become mates and construct a team of young mutants to fight against Shaw and the Russian threat. The team includes Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy (later Beast) and Rose Byrne as Dr. Moira McTaggart (a non-mutant CIA officer who serves as Charles’ paltry love interest).

L-R: Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee, Michael Fassbender as Erik, Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique, Rose Byrne as Moira McTaggart, Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast, James McAvoy as Charles and Lucas Till as Alex Summers

First Class has a tonne more pizzazz than Brian Singer’s 2000s franchise, and a camp edge that feels like a throwback to the 1990s X-Men: The Animated Series. I feel that if there was one mistake made in First Class, it was in not fully embracing the fun and games of the cartoons and the comics. There is an element of fun in this film, yet it is sadly restrained. Regardless, First Class is—I just must say it—a CLASS ACT. It is graceful story-telling with delicate handling of some potent issues, though Michael Vaughn (director) and his team were a little heavy-handed with the overarching message: “I’m a Mutant, and I’m Proud.”

Being “proud”. Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult (Raven and Hank)

The script has a playfulness that is highly endearing. Charles has some wonderful lines, including trying to crack on to a lass by calling a mutation “groovy”. The director/screenwriting team handle the fast-moving plot well, fitting in a WHOLE lot of comic-history and actual-history. There is subtlety in the manufacturing of the political subtext; one I wish existed in the aforementioned promulgations concerning “otherness”. The film has moments of true humour to combat an action-heavy final third. The rendering of the time period is kind of genius. Despite a couple of script hiccups (i.e. Zoe Kravitz’s devastating use of “daddio”), the 1960s vibe is created with less kitsch than you’d expect. Fantastic mod furniture and mini-skirts, the art direction team are clearly cashing in on the retro street-cred up for grabs at the moment.

Woops…Alex Summers is tearing it up.

There are lovely performances from some supporting actors. Hoult is very much how I would imagine a young Beast; earnest, reserved and gentle. Jennifer Lawrence is a good Mystique, giving her a sullen teenage edge and navigating the complicated relationship with Charles well, though she’s not quite a patch on Rebecca Romijn from the first X-Men films. A less impressive performance comes from truly Dull City January Jones. I always hated Emma Frost in the comics but at least she had balls. Jones behaves in First Class as though she cannot act. Since she is fiery as Betty Draper in Mad Men, I find her apparent lack of zest difficult to comprehend. Perhaps her only directions were: “Push your tits out, have a super-PMS look on your face always, look as much like Claire Danes as you can.” Also, Rose Byrne (whom I love) was not just Dull City, but Dull Universe as Moira McTaggart. Though I feel any really good actor can liven up a dull part, she was severely ham-stringed at having to fill the role of “Mutant Sympathiser/’Love Interest’” The ‘Love Interest’ thing is pretty dubious though, as she and Charles have  zero chemistry. I’d say the standout (in the supporting performances) was Kevin Bacon having so much fun as Sebastian Shaw. Bacon is cool and funny as the playful villain.

Kevin “Jump Back” Bacon and January Jones (Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost)

Certainly, the special thing about the film is Charles and Erik’s engrossing relationship. As stand-alone protagonists, and as a troubled duo, McAvoy and Fassbender outstrip the other performers with startling and unexpected mastery. As Charles, McAvoy commands rakish, ego-fueled charm. Though Charles directs his troops with care and wisdom, his cheeky arrogance is quite enigmatic. I think his performance is overshadowed somewhat by a powerhouse Fassbender, but McAvoy portrays Charles with charisma, whimsy and understanding. Fassbender is nothing short of epic as the complex Erik Lehnsherr. He is lean and brooding, and his impressive output of emotion ranges from debonair cynicism to maniacal rage. Omigod, he’s such a babe, and though I respect that they didn’t have him undress unnecessarily one billion times so we could see him shirtless, you can tell underneath all those turtlenecks he has a rockin’ bod. He basically tears shit up on-screen, and his performance prickles with electricity.

Look, LOOK!

Curiously, the relationship between Charles and Erik, which you’d think the film’s creators couldn’t help but overdo, is achingly restrained. Their friendship blooms just as you’d expect, but what it manifests into is surprising. There is real tenderness between the two: Charles’ calm strength grates against Erik’s barely-contained agony. The old adage, explored in many stories like this one, is that power can corrupt, and it is the stronger individual who learns control. There is quiet desperation in Charles casting off his ego and scrambling to help Erik retain his humanity.

McAvoy and Fassbender (as Charles and Erik). Mmmm. Good.

The film moves at lightning pace and it could be hard to keep up, but it is well worth the effort. There is a tonne of action, but intelligent and engaging action (avoiding the Michael Bay bombs and boobs everywhere-fest). It is a small bliss in life that occasionally our favourite things are spared from ruin. Sure, they mucked up the Dark Phoenix Saga in X3. With First Class, all is forgiven.

X-Men: First Class is playing in cinemas everywhere. Grab a mate and get in to see it on the big screen while you still can!  

The original, and the best!

In the meantime, share your thoughts on First Class, the X-Men comics and characters, or on other comic-book-film franchises below:

 

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Posted in: Movies