#3 in my ranking of the X-Men franchise.
Matthew Vaughn has become a personal favorite modern action director. Kick Ass and the Kingsman movies embrace a certain anarchic spirit that matches well Vaughn’s visual sensibilities, and all of that is on display here in First Class. He had been attached to direct Last Stand before he pulled out due to personal reasons, going on to make Stardust instead. He came back to the franchise here after the rather dismal pair of Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine with an energetic, entertaining prequel that intelligently uses a real-world event to provide some distinctive flavor to the affair.
The movie begins in the same place as the first X-Men movie directed by Bryan Singer, with the young Magneto being led into the heart of Auschwitz. After using an intricate and clever combination of footage from the first film and newly shot footage of the new actors, we are introduced to the main antagonist of the film, Sebastian Shaw played by Kevin Bacon, speaking German extraordinarily well as he murders Magneto’s mother in front of him in order to elicit his powers. Bacon is really good in this, but Michael Fassbender as the adult Magneto is the best casting decision in the X-Men universe, and possibly the entirety of superhero movies. It also helps that post-World War II, the movie makes Magneto a Nazi Hunter. As Fassbender slips between English, French, Spanish, and German as he tortures a Swiss banker and exacts his revenge on some Nazis hiding in Argentina, Fassbender is the exact kind of focused, dedicated, and cruel man for the job. I would watch a whole movie of Magneto, Nazi Hunter, and that has everything to do with Michael Fassbender.
Concurrently with Magneto’s rise is Charles Xavier, a man with a British accent who lives in New York and attends Oxford University. Played by James McAvoy as an adult, Xavier met the young Mystique/Raven as s child as she pilfered his kitchen for food. He adopted her, and she rode along with him until Oxford, waitressing while he defends his thesis. He’s approached by Moira McTaggert, a CIA agent who witnessed some people with weird abilities in Las Vegas, and Xaver’s paper about genetic mutation might be the right beginnings for an answer to what she saw. The first third of the film is dominated by these two things, and it moves quickly and nicely.
The movie continues to move quickly but not quite as nicely as it enters its second act which becomes a team up film where Magento and Xavier come together to recruit a handful of mutants. This whole section ends up feeling like a distraction. It’s meant to be the beginnings of the X-Men (you know, the titular first class), but it all ends up being too thinly drawn. One of them dies within minutes of being introduced. Another one abandons the group to turn bad and join Shaw at the same time. These feel like characters who should have been introduced at the beginning of the film, not all at once at the start of the second act. This ends up feeling like the movie took on too much to fit within the time frame. Either introduce them earlier, giving us more time to get to know them so that if a death or betrayal comes it doesn’t fall flat, or cut down on the number recruited at this point, and avoid the supposedly big emotional moments that go unearned. Past that, though, the movie improves again.
The deaths happen at a secret CIA base (not so secret, I guess) after Shaw shows up and wrecks havoc. Xavier decides to bring everyone to his manor hour in upstate New York where we get a training montage of the different mutants focusing and using their powers. It’s fine, though the moment where Magneto calls Xavier a good friend comes at the beginning and I feel like it would have worked better at the end of the sequence where they worked together to help everyone (I could imagine it being written that way and then editing got it in the beginning). And finally, the third act picks up and the movie becomes the same kind of propulsive action experience that Vaughn delivers in most of his other work.
Shaw is using the tensions between the super powers to try and ignite a nuclear war. He is a mutant who can absorb energy (including nuclear power when he holds onto parts of the nuclear power source of his personal submarine), and he will lead all mutants into a new era where they are supreme. He helps create the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the X-Men will go to save the day.
Here is where most of the pieces come together to create a fun, big, bright action set piece with a lot of moving parts. What helps is the work put into a set of characters. Xavier and Magneto are the center of it all, their relationship mirroring the conflict of visions between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Beast and Raven have an interesting dichotomy as she wants to be proud of her natural blue appearance, but he’s ashamed of his deformed feet. He uses science (magic? Whatever, comic books) to come up with a cure for the physical mutant leaving the other mutations intact, but it backfires and turns him all blue and hairy. Her desire to be proud of who she is meshes well with Magneto’s eventual turn to mutant supremacy (he wanted Shaw for revenge, not ideological reasons) while Beast’s desire to fit in more easily meshes well with Xavier’s overall approach.
The actual action is very fun. From Magneto raising a submarine out of the water while clinging to the wheels of a jet to the fantastic pair of shots as Magneto slowly drives a Nazi coin through Shaw’s skull, mirrored by a similar camera move it cuts back and forth from of Xavier’s head as he screams, it’s pop entertainment on a wonderful scale and done with wonderful skill.
As an overall film experience, I think the second act is largely mishandled, but the first and third acts are so well done that it easily overcomes the middle flagging section. It’s well cast (especially, again, with Michael Fassbender as Magneto),and told with an almost infectious energy. It’s a movie designed to right a flailing ship of a franchise, and I think it does that with style.