I enjoyed the first two X-Men films, particularly the second one. But the series took a nose dive with the last two installments, depending more on effects and include as many characters as possible, at the expense of showing us what this world is truly like and how the characters deal with their outsider status.
X-Men: First Class is a dramatic improvement. It is probably the second best of the films (after the aforementioned second one). But it still has many problems – namely the fact that too much happens. The filmmakers felt that each of the characters had to already be where they were in the first film. It’s the problem with most prequels, but here it gets quite grating. By the end, characters are giving speeches in total contrast to the sort of person they were at the beginning. This would be good if these speeches were tiny step, but no – Magneto pretty much announces his intention to become a supervillain and adopts the persona of a character he despises. Shouldn’t such a change be more gradual? Not according to this film.
The film opens in a Nazi ghetto, where a young boy named Erik Lehnsherr becomes enraged upon being separated from his parents and bends a metal grate with his mind. He catches the interest of a Nazi scientist named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) who kills his mother to trigger his power. Meanwhile, in New York, a young boy named Charles Xavier finds a curious blue girl named Raven in his kitchen. Flash forward to 1963, and Charles (James McAvoy) and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, from Winter’s Bone) are in school, Charles having adopted Raven as a sister. Erik (Michael Fassbender, the British film critic spy from Inglourious Basterds) is seeking out Shaw, who is trying to plant missiles in Cuba so he can start a nuclear war and wipe out humanity. The CIA catches wind of these mutants, and creates a team to stop Shaw.
The element that I found the most appealing about the first two films was the dynamic between Magneto and Professor X. It was interesting how those two characters were viewed beyond the realms of good vs. evil. Magneto was not always morally wrong, Professor X not always morally right. They also both had the same goals, and genuinely seemed to like each other. That definitely comes to play here. The one thing I wanted to see was how these two had ever managed to work together. Surprisingly, both were an enormous benefit to each other. It is easy to see how those two still ended up acting the way they did in later films.This was really their film, and I am glad director Matthew Vaughn realized it. The two men also give great performances, which demonstrate knowledge that is usually only attained later in life. It is easy to see how these two men would become the figures we have seen in later films, and how they would still act so friendly toward each other.
Trouble is, the other well-known character’s development are sacrificed. Mystique is given the short stick, because what we learn here contradicts what is seen later. Never did she have any sort of glimmer of recognition for Charles, and her transformation doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It was hard to see how she managed to turn into the character we see later. Ditto Beast, whose origin is revealed but doesn’t give the character much time to react to the dramatic changes his body undergoes. It just sort of happens, and he accepts it as if it was destiny. The other characters are not given any sort of time to develop. They are either killed off, or shown, trained, and then sent to fight. They never think about why they do what they do, or about the way that the world views their kind.
It is a very hard thing to pull off. Developing characters equally in an ensemble piece is something few films can do. Not even the first few X-Men films managed to do it, but they did try. This one seems to skip over that whole aspect. So many of the characters are just not developed at all, and seem to arrive at their philosophies out of duty rather than out of development.
Still, maybe I am over analyzing the film. After all, in a summer that is so far starved of quality, this film is a step in a right direction. It features the usual explosions, but in a smart way (the whole reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis was a nice touch), the performances are great, and the first two acts are really well set up. Plus, the special effects are also actually useful. The scenes with Emma Frost could not have been produced in a tradition way, and actually help the plot. It’s been some time since I have seen effective special effects.
So, there is a lot to like about the film, and it’s one that actually won’t waste your weekend. But it is not as good as many of the other comic book movies that have been released. If you are looking for simple entertainment, you are at the right place. But if you are looking for something deeper, like some of the previous X-men films tried to be, then look elsewhere.