Since their introduction in the early 1960s, the X-Men have become one of Marvel Comics’ most iconic and popular franchises, and central to the franchise are the characters Charles “Professor X” Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), better known as Magneto. Over the decades the two have embodied an ideological clash of peaceful coexistence versus mutant superiority. In 2011, in keeping with the proud comic-book tradition of retconning, rebooting, and generally playing fast-and-loose with continuity, Marvel Entertainment Studios both revisits and re-imagines their origins with X-Men: First Class.
As their respective mutant leaders, a lot of weight rests on McAvoy’s and Fassbender’s shoulders, and the two deliver. Fassbender is by far the show-stealer here. As the film’s antagonist, a Nazi collaborator named Sebastian Shaw, psychologically tortures the young Erik Lensherr to release his mutant powers, the doctor notes, “We unlock your gift with anger, Erik—anger and pain.” Fassbender as the older Magneto displays the anger and pain of his childhood with a calculated, vengeful genius. When he forcibly pulls out a man’s iron fillings to extract from him a lead on Dr. Shaw, the audience can identify with the emotions that drive his viciousness. Similarly, McAvoy’s Professor X is less straight-arrow than Patrick Stewart’s portrayal in the X-Men film trilogy; he often drinks, uses his knowledge of genetics as a pick-up line, and manipulates others with his psychic powers much more casually. Much of the film’s fun comes from watching Charles Xavier mature as a leader—and watching Lensherr torn between an ethic of revenge and the hope for peaceable change that his colleague extends to him.
A strength of the X-Men franchise has always been how it addresses social themes and issues of identity through metaphor. Notably, X-Men: First Class presents a nuanced view of choice. Most superhero movies deliver a simple message: “We all have a choice to do good or evil (say, by throwing a truck at the bad guys)!” XFC, however, questions to what extent our choices are shaped by our histories and how we interpret them. Cautioning Lensherr against pursuing revenge, Xavier warns, “Killing Shaw will not bring you peace.” Lensherr responds, “Peace was never an option.” While Lensherr views the present through the lens of his childhood experiences of human prejudice and cruelty, Xavier’s privileged upbringing gives him a reason to believe in the possibility of peace. The film confronts the uncomfortable prospect that, at least to some extent, where we come from and how we choose to view our past may well predetermine our present actions.
XFC also employs superhuman spectacle to develop its themes. A superhero movie without over-the-top action would hardly be worth seeing, and this movie delivers, as when Erik tears a ship to shreds using the chain of its own anchor. Characters employ their powers tactically, making battles play out like chaotic games of human chess. The devilish-looking teleport Azazel brings particular strategic menace to his fight scenes. He uses his powers to disorient, lacerate, and transports foes to enormous heights and dropping them before teleporting away, attack methods that are both visually impressive and tactically sound. Throughout, director Matthew Vaughn doesn’t overdo the action. He plays with dramatic tension through the fights in such a way that when Xavier mind-controls a foe at a critical moment, it’s almost as awesome as Lensherr’s submarine stunt. Almost.
Unfortunately, for all it gets right, the film also gets plenty wrong. It suffers from jerky pacing, and as it jumps forward through space and time, the plot gets broken into loosely-connected geographical pieces, Argentina to the US to Russia to Cuba. Gratuitous sexuality mars the plot as well; in more than one scene, lingerie-clad prostitutes flirt with partying bureaucrats and businessmen before retreating to intimate quarters. The sexual content does little to develop character or advance the plot.
While Xavier, Lensherr, and a few other major characters see ample development, much of the ensemble cast gets short shrift. Xavier’s superhero recruits introduced late in the film get a token nod to development through a cliché training montage, while supporting villains are lucky to get a line of speaking dialogue. Emma Frost (January Jones) embodies these two flaws at once: her character in the comic books could have all the engaging backstory in the world, but you wouldn’t know it from this movie. With her midriff-revealing, low-cut tops and uncompelling acting, her role is reduced to mere fanservice.
XFC digs deep in some areas, mining its source material for some unique glimpses into human nature and the nature of choice, but elsewhere it leaves a lot of untapped potential. Ultimately, the gratuitous sexual content sank this ship for me, and the pacing issues made it difficult to enjoy. You may find it to be worth your eight bucks, but my advice is to skip it—and if you haven’t already, go see Thor.