It still takes some getting used to to think that we now live in a world where comic book movies are serious works, with real, solid scripts, top shelf actors and audience interest beyond 13-year-old boys and 32-year-old men who still live in the basement of their parent’s home. But that’s the world we live in (for the most part) and it’s great. The truly good ones manage to walk that fine line between making the fanboys happy and appealing to a wider audience who have never cracked open a comic book and it seems to be happening more and more these days.
Some have gotten it right more than others. Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Iron Man and the first two X-Men movies come to mind. One of the things that make these films so good is spot-on casting. I mean, could you see anyone besides Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark? Or Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as Professor X and Magneto. Like I said, it’s a balancing act to get it right to begin with and even more when you start tinkering by, say, casting younger versions of characters you got exactly right the first time.
That is one of two things X-Men: First Class <i>had</i> to get right.
And it did.
Every bit as much as Stewart and McKellen took the roles of Professor X and Magneto and made them their own, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender make you believe that not only are THEY Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr but, when they grow up, they will be Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as well. Both are great in their roles, but Fassbender really shines. He does what Zachary Quito did with Spock in J.J. Abrams Star Trek – he becomes both the character and the more famous actor who originally played the character. More than that, they captured the chemistry established by the earlier actors as well.
The second element that had to be right was the story.
X-Men: First Class is not a story about superheroes or super powers. It’s not about how The X-Men came to be. It’s about Charles and Erik, two men who become friends – brothers – but two friends who are ultimately going to be forced into different, conflicted paths because of the events which formed their lives. Sure, they do it while wearing bright yellow spandex, but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. All the rest is decoration, really, but they do that well as well.
The plot is woven in and around the Cuban Missile Crises, with Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon in another great casting move) as the big bad, who just happened to be young Erik Lehnsherr’s mentor/tormentor as a young boy in a German concentration camp. It hits hard on the theme of prejudice which has always been a staple of The X-Men and which, ultimately, is what draws the divide between Erik and Charles. While there is plenty of action and great effects, it doesn’t get bogged down in long action sequences or super-powered fights that go on forever and accomplish nothing. The movie has a lot of ground to cover and covers it well. Really the only weak part is the training montage, where Charles and Erik are training the new recruits before they go after Shaw. It gets a little cheesy.
I don’t know enough about the complex, convoluted and conflicting origin of The X-Men to be able to judge it from a comic book stand point. I recognized some of the other characters – Mystique, Beast – but weren’t really familiar with the others. Honestly, from reading my older brothers’ comics, I remember The X-Men being Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast (not blue and hairy), Angel and Iceman. Past that, I’m kind of at a loss. But, really, I don’t guess it matters, with the exception of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult), it doesn’t really matter so much to the story.
As much as I liked the first two X-Men movies (I actually enjoyed the third one as well, but it wasn’t even close to the first two. But it was miles better than the 20 minutes or so I saw of the Wolverine movie), I would have to say X-Men: First Class edges out as my favorite of the franchise. It hits on all cylinders – a good story, great performances by McAvoy and Fassbender, and not too excessive on the superhero slug outs. I know there will be more movies in the X-Men franchise coming. Let’s hope they look back to this one in order to get it right.