Reflections in Film: X-Men First Class

X-Men: First Class

First Class
First Class

History: The X-Men film franchise began over ten years ago in 2000 with the first X-Men film, directed by Bryan Singer, which introduced the world at large to one of the largest pantheons of comic book heroes: the mutant “x-men”. Gruff Wolverine aka Logan (Hugh Jackman) and scared, traumatized Rogue aka Marie (Anna Paquin) were the world’s first look at the mutant problem from an intensely personal angle. Mutants were people who were given extraordinary, lethal, or inconvenient “powers” through alterations in their DNA, making them the next wave of human evolution.

The movie sought to answer one question: what would a mutant do with their powers? Would they seek to overthrown humanity? Would they seek to hide from ridicule, hate, and prejudice? Or would they work for world peace? Two of the most powerful, and oldest, mutants were Erik Lehnsherr (Sir Ian McKellen) and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the former a manipulator of metal and a Holocaust survivor, the latter an English professor and a telepath. Erik was Magneto, and due to his personal trauma and superiority complex he sought to rule over mere humanity. Xavier took the high moral ground and worked his entire life for mutant and human peace.

The first film revolved around Magneto’s plot to induce mass mutations in the world’s leaders at a peace summit on Ellis Island, and his nefarious scheme to use Rogue to do it, an action that would result in her death. As an incidental figure, Wolverine moved from a life of personal exile on the fringe to a member of a group larger than himself. The film was a little campy, but it had its humor, emotional impact, and solid character development.

X2, released in 2003, was about one man’s vendetta against the mutant community with a side lesson in accepting people for who they are coupled with Wolverine’s search for his past. Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox), a long time military man and hater of mutants, hatches a plan to wipe out all mutants everywhere using Xavier and his immense telepathic power. Wolverine discovers that he was once a mutant experiment of Stryker’s while a new mutant character, Bobby Drake aka Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) deals with “coming out” to his family about his being a mutant. X2 was solid. It had the best opening sequence of any X-Men film, and of most films, and the character development continued from the first film and set up the third one nicely. It had plenty of good action, but I feel that the plot to use Xavier to kill all the mutants was a little thin.

X3: The Last Stand, released in 2006, was about a final battle between Magneto and humanity over a new cure for mutantism. Xavier’s students get caught in the middle as some are desperate for a way to be normal and some offended by the very idea of a cure. A massive subplot of the film focused on the resurrection of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) as the most powerful mutant alive, Phoenix, and her place as an force of nature while both Xavier and Magneto try to control her to their own ends. Wolverine completed his story arc from loner to leader and became a full-fledged member of Xavier’s school. Overall X3 rushed its way through a story that should have been handled with care and relied too much on mutant power eye candy instead of real story to drive the film. Bryan Singer had handed over directing duties to Brett Ratner and the film suffered for it.

Staying on pace with a release every three years, X-Men Origins: Wolverine was released in 2009. This film went back to basics, literally, to tell the story of the first ever mutant (as far as anyone knows): Wolverine. Logan’s back story was explored extensively throughout the trilogy, but only so far as his interactions with Colonel Stryker were concerned. Little was shown or told about this life before the 1970s, mostly because at some point Wolverine had contracted a little amnesia.

Wolverine focused on Logan, obviously, and his half brother Victor Creed aka Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber), who were children in 1845 era Canada. Following a drunken outburst and a case of mistaken identity, young Logan murders his father and he and Victor go on the run. Through the decades the duo fight in, and survive, every major war from the American Civil War through Vietnam due to their shared mutation of claws, and the ability to endlessly regenerate. Throughout their history, Victor shows tendencies of becoming more and more violent and animalistic, as does Logan, though Logan resists his darker impulses. During Vietnam, Victor loses control and kills and officer and both are condemned to death. Surviving their execution, they receive an offer from young Colonel Stryker (Danny Huston) who admits them into his mutant black ops team. The story then follows Wolverine as he quits, sickened by the killing, and Stryker who endlessly experiments on mutants, ultimately trying to create the perfect mutant killer who is a combination of the most powerful offensive mutations he can identify. Along the way he conns Logan into an experiment which results in the grafting of an indestructible metal called adamantium onto Logan’s skeleton. Eventually Logan hunts Stryker down and tries to kill him, but the Colonel manages to shoot Logan in the head with adamantium bullets, which erase his memory but fail to kill him.

Wolverine excelled in that it focused on three men fairly exclusively and kept the mutant eye candy to the peripheral. Logan’s character arc was good, but a bit quick, in my opinion; I loved the brother dynamic between Logan and Victor. The acting was good, and the action was even better.

Hype: With all the past 9 years had produced, I was looking forward to a second origin story in First Class, this time focused on Xavier and his school and Magneto. All new actors for the two mutants were introduced, James McAvoy for Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. I had seen McAvoy before, and was having trouble accepting him as Xavier. Fassbender was new to me, and he seemed to at least look the part. It wasn’t until I started seeing previews that I began to see the potential genius in the new casting choices. Centering the story around the Cuban Missile Crisis made me nervous as Hollywood movies which make money on glitz and action rarely pay the proper respects to history.

Also, I was looking, as always, for character development over mutant flash.

The Good: The casting was the most excellent part of First Class. McAvoy and Fassbender absolutely nailed their roles, paying homage to the performances that Stewart and McKellen gave the world without actually copying them. They both made me believe their passions and struggles were real. McAvoy’s talent for portraying emotion is on a very high level. The villain of the film was Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and the casting choice there was brilliant. Bacon was able to make his villain suave, ruthless, gentlemanly, and completely insane without ever breaking the camp barrier.

The movie revolved primarily around Xavier and Magneto, with most other mutants barely tripping the radar. The title became a bit of a misnomer as the entirety of Xavier’s first class with his mutants was relegated primarily to a montage of scenes with a strong musical background, but I loved seeing how Xavier was able to personally connect with each person and help them find their calm centre, and the secret to controlling their mutations in beneficial ways. I especially loved the few educational interjections Magneto made along the way, which gave the audience a chance to see the future villain contributing in benevolent ways to other people.

The action was good, but mostly only were necessary and never too much out of control. Also, despite the superhero nature of the film, the CGI was kept as unobtrusive as possible. I always appreciate a director who can keep the computer in the back room.

Finally, while Bryan Singer did not return as director, he did produce the film and engineer the story, which is part of why I think this film succeeded where X3 and Wolverine suffered.

The Ugly: For me the failing of this film was setting the action around the Cuban Missile Crisis. Shaw personally meets with key members of both the American and Russian governments and threatens them into the series of actions which became the Crisis in an attempt to start World War 3. I found this scenario extremely unlikely, and it was also unfair to the historical period, which was one of extreme paranoia and not at all as simple as the film made out.

I just couldn’t see one mutant, no matter how flashy or persuasive, being in a position to influence governments to that degree, and, if he could, I fail to see why he couldn’t have simply pushed the launch buttons himself. Ultimately, I wondered why he even bothered with an extremely clumsy plot to try to force two superpowers into a reluctant war when he could have started one singlehandedly without any coercion at all by utilizing just a little misdirection. When one has a teleporter and a telepath as one’s friends and collaborators, one usually doesn’t need to muck about with bureaucratic and governmental middle-men.

The Personal: As Professor X says: “I believe the true focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity.” This film gave me a chance to understand and explore the power both rage and serenity provide and understand a way to incorporate both into my psyche. Being a human is all about balance, and while society, religion, or culture might want to eradicate evil and darkness entirely, I think that humanity would be incomplete without both sides of innate natures. Ultimately, that is what the X-Men franchise is all about: everyone has the power to do great things, and the question is, how do we handle that power? If X-Men: First Class achieves anything, it is that it makes that dilemma accessible to its audience by cloaking it in mutant struggles, bypassing mental defense through the guise of entertainment, and that is what art and film should be all about.

Bonus:
Xavier: “Want to see another parlor trick?”
Man in Black: “Sure!”
Xavier (exerting telepathic effort): “Get in the car.”
Man in Black: “What a great idea!”

Final Score: 3 out of 5 Jedi mutant mind tricks.