So, an X-Men origin movie without Cyclops, Jean Grey or Iceman. Crazy right? Possibly even crazier than three of the oldest X-Men not being in an origin story are the inclusions of Mystique, Banshee, Havok, Darwin and Tempest in their places. It’s different, that’s for sure. It’s different, it’s risky, and it completely undoes the X-Men franchise we’ve all been watching since 2000 (and trying to forget since 2006).
And I enjoyed the hell out of it.
Fair warning, I’m going to try to stay mostly spoiler-free, but unless you’re largely unfamiliar with X-Men in general, there’s probably not too much to spoil.
I tried to go into this movie with no expectations at all. After all, we have both the 616 Universe and the Ultimate-verse in Marvel, so the films not exactly staying true to canon isn’t a huge problem, when X-Men comics themselves often don’t follow their own timelines and histories. So a universe where Alex Summers and not Scott Summers joins the X-Men first doesn’t bother me much. But that doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t have its problems.
While I’m a fan of January Jones on AMC’s Mad Men, I have to say, I was largely unimpressed with her version of Emma Frost. I’m sure a lot of it was in the writing, but I kept looking for the badass queen of the Hellfire Club that I know from the comics, only to be severely disappointed. Frost was mostly reduced to Sebastian Shaw’s lackey eye-candy, and largely underused, I felt. If you’re going to put such a fantastic character in a film, at least give her something worthwhile to do. Give her someone to talk down to, or some more lines, for godsakes.
And perhaps people largely unfamiliar with Sean Cassidy (Banshee) and Moira McTaggert won’t be bothered, but I was distracted by the two characters’ sudden change in nationality, both changed to Americans instead of Irish and Scottish, respectively. But I suppose the change was to accommodate Moira’s new backstory as a CIA agent instead of a geneticist. An American-born CIA agent is just an easier sell in a period piece like this.
And while they may have done a decent job of selling Moira McTaggert as a CIA agent, what they didn’t manage to sell (at least to me) was minor mutants Riptide and Azazel as important and menacing. Okay yes, Azazel is canonically Nightcrawler’s father, but honestly, it’s like they’d already filled their roster of good guys and dug into the bottom of the barrel to find accomplices for Sebastian Shaw. With so many mutants to choose from, you have to wonder how Riptide made the cut at all.
But my dislike of the film stops there. X-Men: First Class is a fantastic reboot of the X-Men film franchise, fully taking advantage of its 1960’s setting by giving us a fantastic near-period piece. I recently read someone else refer to the film as having a James Bond-feel, and I definitely see where they’re coming from, because parts of the retro-asthetic make you feel as though you’re watching a spy film.
But how do the mutants stack up?
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lensherr (Magneto) are fantastic, and while you spend the first bit of the film waiting for the two of them to finally meet, the pay off is fantastic, because the two of them have amazing chemistry and compliment each other in just the way Lensherr and Xavier should. In fact, it makes it all the more sad that you know they’re going to be on opposite sides of the fight eventually. I guess that was the thing about the first three movies in the X-Men film franchise: while you knew that Magneto and Professor X had once been friends, you only got to see glimpses of it; X-Men: First Class gives you a glimpse of just how close the two of them actually were. I absolutely loved them together, and Michael Fassbender is just as badass as Magneto should be, while making you feel for him at the same time. I could honestly watch an entire film of the two of them just being mutant collecting bros.
Nicholas Hoult does a fantastic job as Beast, though I have to begrudgingly admit that X-Men: The Last Stand did a better job with make-up wise when it comes to Hank McCoy. But my criticism of the makeup may have to do with the fact that McCoy spends the majority of the film without his secondary mutation, and by the time he’d become the Beast we all know, I mostly just found the makeup distracting. Havok and Banshee weren’t my favorite parts of the film, but there are some great gags involving the two of them learning to control their powers that enamored me to the two of them.
And while I was largely unimpressed with Emma Frost’s role in the film, I adored Mystique. She was mostly a wordless lackey in the first three X-Men films, but we’re given a glimpse at her motivations in First Class, and she becomes a much more three-dimensional character. I hope Jennifer Lawrence will be back for future franchise installments, because she’s done something great with the character, despite a bit of cheesy writing that became just a bit cringe-worthy for me by the end of the film.
Perhaps my favorite part of the entire movie though, are the subtle references to the X-Men franchise we all know. There are a few great cameos that I won’t ruin here, and if the flashback footage of Erik isn’t the exact footage from X-Men, they’ve done a fantastic job recreating it for this film. The nods to what we all know is going to happen to these characters later on are fantastic, and they’ve set up this film in a way that a sequel is pretty much inevitable.
I will definitely be there.