Matthew Vaughn has done it again!
While X-Men: first Class may not have the manic energy of Kick-Ass, Vaughn has produced the best film in the X-Men series. How? By honoring the source material without feeling a need to be enslaved by it.
X-Men: First Class is, for the most part, smart, focused and well thought out. While it deals primarily with the friendship between future enemies Charles Xavier [James McAvoy] and Erik Lensherr [Michael Fassbender] – better known as Professor X and Magneto – it also serves up an unnerving villain and a group of intriguing young mutants in a story that pays as much attention to character as effects.
Essentially, we get details on the pasts of Charles and Erik – an expansion on the scene where young Erik attempts to use his power to save his mother’s life; a sequence showing how a young [preteen] Charles met Raven/Mystique – and see how they came together over a failed attempt to corral Sebastian Shaw [Kevin Bacon], the scientist whose actions provoked Erik’s abilities as a child.
Shaw, it turns out, is the head of the Hellfire Club – a group of mutants whose goal is to provoke World War III and take over afterwards. He is aided by weather wizard Riptide [Alex Gonzalez], teleporter Azazel [Jason Flemyng] and telepath/diamond girl Emma Frost [January Jones]. Their initial encounter with Charles, Erik and the Coast Guard prompts the two to recruit their own team.
Through CIA operative Moira McTaggart [Rose Byrne], Erik, Charles and Raven link up with the unnamed director of the CIA’s Paranormal Investigations unit and it is their facility that their team – Angel Sandoval [Zoe Kravitz], Armando Munoz [Edi Gathegi],Alex Summers [Lucas Till], Sean Cassidy [Caleb Landry Jones] and CIA genius and previously unsuspected mutant Hank McCoy [Nichols Hoult] – begins to learn how to use their unique abilities. At least until Shaw and his fellows invade – killing all the non-mutants in the process – and attempt to persuade them to switch sides.
Shaw failed to get the word destroyed while he worked with the Nazis, so now he’s going to try provoking a nuclear was between America and the Soviet Union through what has come to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
With its jaunty tone and pacing – not to mention its international locations, time period  and the clandestine nature of Shaw’s plotting and Charles and Erik’s counter-plotting, X-Men: First Class has the feel of a James Bond novel/Connery bond movie, only with mutants. For every action sequence [and Vaughn does not feel the need to cram an explosive set piece into every ten minutes of the film], there is character stuff – whether it’s conversational, or training sequences. By the time we come to the America/Soviet Union, Hellfire Club/X-Men showdown, we have gotten to know most of the characters at least a little – and some, a lot.
One of the best character beats comes from the kids coming with code names for each other, as well as for Charles and Erik. The giddy fun of the moment emphasizes just how young they are, yet also how smart they are. Another brilliant moment is when Charles shows Erik a better way to access and control his power – a moment, I’m sure, he will regret down the road and yet, an example of how trusting and willing to help he once was. To top things off, there is a surprise cameo that prompts the PG-13 film’s one unprintable line – and gets the single biggest laugh in the film.
John Mathieson’s cinematography is frequently breathtaking and certainly adds to the sixties/Bond feel. Vaughn mixes intimate scenes – like Charles and Erik’s fervent discussions over chess matches – with action set pieces – like Erik’s attack on Shaw’s yacht – that also give us more insight into the characters, and Mathieson makes them look and feel equally important.
While McAvoy and Fassbender give brilliant performances, Lawrence and Hoult are also very good – and some of the kids are memorable even though they aren’t as fully drawn as the leads [Caleb Landry Jones, especially, has little on the page as Sean Cassidy/Banshee, but you can’ help but remember him later].
Bacon matches McAvoy and Fassbender as the nastiest villain in the X-series to date. He absolutely oozes evil – even [or perhaps especially] when he’s being polite. He doesn’t have to chew the scene to project menace – though when it comes to it, he can do that really well, too.
Henry Jackman’s score adds to the sixties/Bond fell as well, with its use of bras and wind instruments adding bombast and soul where necessary. The retro closing credits are also fun.
Other than maybe dragging out the finale action sequence just off Cuba a bit too much, the only other real flaw in the film is the casting of January Jones as Emma Frost. While she looks perfect in the role, her sullen, ice queen routine does nothing to differentiate Frost from Jones’ characters in Mad Men or Unknown – only the wardrobe has changed.
All things considered equally, X-Men: first class is the best film in the X-Men series – and a terrific film on its own merits.
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Photos by Murray Close/courtesy of 20th Century Fox.