Review: ‘X-Men: First Class’ redefines the most important superhero franchise with style

Because I’ve already offered up my first impressions of “X-Men: First Class,” the only way to write a proper review of it is to actually dig into the text of the film.  That could mean spoilers.  If you want the short version of my thoughts on the film, you can read that here, and you can walk into the movie fairly fresh.  If you’re reading this review, you want a real discussion about this smart and stylish redefinition of the franchise that kicked off the modern superhero movie.

Happy to oblige.

“X-Men” in 2000 was a very important moment for the genre.  It introduced some characters and imagery that were stranger and more outrageous than anything in “Superman” or “Batman” or any earlier comic-to-movie transition.  Cyclops.  Storm.  Wolverine.  Jean Grey.  Cerebro.  Magneto.  Mystique.  And while the film gets some things right and some things wrong, it’s got a great energy to it.  And Bryan Singer in ’99 was just the right choice.  A strange choice at first.  But he made an authentic movie about being an outsider, told through a genre prism.  It felt like, underneath all the swagger and special effects, something real was happening.  Something that mattered.  “X-Men” worked just well enough.  They short-changed that first film out of fear.  The studio really struggled with the producers on that first film, the sort of tension on a movie that, in this case, paid off with something that did not feel cookie-cutter, something that didn’t feel like a safe bet.  They got outrageously lucky with the casting of Hugh Jackman, and vice-versa.  He made the character click with audiences, and once they loved Wolverine, they were onboard for the rest of the ride.

Another key to the success of that first film was the chemistry between Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.  Not only did both actors bring weight and class to their roles, but they were able to suggest a real friendship beneath their rivalry, a sort of curdled affection.  Stewart and McKellen are pretty much as classy as it gets, and the idea of recasting the roles younger is a tricky one.  Get it wrong, and you’re screwing up one of the best things about the series.  Thankfully, hiring James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender turned out to be one of the smartest things this series has done, because they’ve not only perfectly captured the characters in those earlier days, but they’ve also given the characters new, more dangerous edges.  It’s exciting because it suggests new opportunities for the series, something that is not the norm with prequels.

Normally, I would argue that that moving backward in time is a narrative dead end, and there are very few prequels you can point at that would disprove my point.  It’s odd, since one of the first megasequels was “The Godfather Part II,” a movie that used that past to illuminate the present in some fascinating ways.  Hollywood seems to have picked up the “backwards in time” part, but not the reasons that was so effective, and as a result, we’ve seen a lot of terrible prequels over the years.  I even hate that word.  Even so, I find myself not just enthusiastic about this newest “X-Men” film, but slightly rabid.  Part of what I love here is how the move into the past has allowed them to weave an alternate history that plays off of real-world events we all know, making mutants an important part of our world even if we didn’t realize it.  I was afraid the move to the ’60s would be pure fetish, and that’s certainly part of it.  It’s impossible to watch this movie without realizing just how much Matthew Vaughn loves the original Connery Bond films, but there’s more to it than that.  He’s given an urgency to the events of the film that we can all understand, and he’s managed to do something that movies like this often are unable to do:  he’s made it feel like the safety of the entire world hangs on the actions of these characters, and like they are the only ones capable of doing something about it.

Superheroics are one thing, but without strong character work, these films don’t work.  There are so many relationships here that click, but a few of them really hold the film together.  In particular, the bond between Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Charles (McAvoy) is so strong here, so well-etched, that it automatically makes the first two films feel sadder in hindsight.  When you see the way Charles reached out to this damaged girl, took her in, gave her a home, you see his philosophy in practice.  He believes that mutants are exceptional, and when he looks at Raven, he sees a glorious future.  He sees potential in her, and in their type in general.  They grow up together, and they are the beginning of Charles’s dream of an extended mutant family.  By the time Raven finally chooses a different path than him at the end of the film, it’s really sort of heartbreaking.  It’s understandable, and neither of them comes across as wrong, which is a remarkable bit of writing to pull off.  The series has always been somewhat on the nose in the use of its central metaphor, and Jennifer Lawrence proclaiming “mutant and proud” is hardly subtle, but that’s fine.  Anyone who feels different can find themselves in the film, and the way the film wrestles with notions of blending into society at large is something people still deal with on a regular basis.

Even before the film puts Erik (Fassbender) and Charles together, it puts them on a collision course, and that might be my favorite stretch of the film.  Erik, who spent time in a concentration camp as a child, has spent his life preparing to track down the Nazis who took his family from him so he can kill them all.  He is a weapon, and little else.  There’s no inner life to Erik because some essential piece of him died in a room where Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) executed his mother in front of him.  All that is left is hatred and vengeance and power.  Charles, on the other hand, is recruited by a branch of the CIA, along with Raven, and the two of them start to work towards a wide-scale acceptance of what they are and what they can do.  Watching Erik move from target to target, getting closer to Shaw with each step, while Charles moves through his world, enjoying himself, you can see the seeds of why they each feel the way they do.  They don’t just pick arbitrary positions on the argument.  They are who they are made to be.  And when they finally meet, it’s a breathtaking sequence, marvelously staged, emotional and thrilling and the perfect kick-off to the rest of the movie.

Speaking of Sebastian Shaw and Kevin Bacon, I loved the way they used him in the film.  The way they reveal his power is very clever and held until just the right dramatic moment, and it’s a really tough thing to visualize, so I give them credit for handling it right.  More than his ability to absorb energy, though, I love the world that Shaw travels in, the casual decadence.  He’s like a Bond villain who has finally grown tired of the sex clubs and the volcano hideouts, and he’s ready to crank it up and reshape the world for his own entertainment.  He sounds like Magneto when you listen to his philosophy, but he’s much darker at heart than McKellen was in the first three films.  He’s not looking to rule mankind, he’s looking to end them.  I wish Emma Frost (January Jones) was used as more than just eye candy in the film, but there’s only so much screen time in the film, and if she’s the character they shortchanged, so be it.

There are other characters who don’t have much screen time but who make stronger impressions, like Oliver Platt as the guy who takes a chance and brings Charles in, or Rose Byrne as Moira McTaggert, charged to handle Charles and Raven in the field.  Byrne’s having a pretty great year, between this and “Insidious” and “Bridesmaids,” and I like the way they set Moira up here for the series moving forward.  Still, all of this is preamble to the actual “first class” of the title, and if the kids didn’t work, I think the film would have a hole in it that would be impossible to ignore.  Frankly, they made me more nervous than anything in the film before seeing it, but they are all well-cast and well-written.  Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), Alex Summers (Lucas Till), Sean Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones), Armando Munoz (Edi Gathegi), and Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz) are all engaging and they have a great easy chemistry as they are all brought together by Charles and Erik.  That section of the film, where they first use Cerebro and start to locate and recruit mutants, works very well, and contains one of the film’s few explicit nods to the Singer movies.  There are two, and instead of feeling shoehorned in, they both comes as character moments, funny but also pointed and purposeful.

Much of the movie is given over to character rather than action, but there’s a propulsive pace to the thing that makes it all feel urgent and important, and in the end, “X-Men: First Class” works simply as storytelling.  It is a nice reminder that you can throw all the high concepts and action choreography and special effects you want at something, but unless you tell a good story, tell it well, and create engaging characters, none of that matters.  “X-Men: First Class” works as stand-alone story, as prequel, as set-up to a new series, and as homage.  It is a minor miracle, and it makes me feel like the franchise, one of the most valuable in Hollywood, is back on the right track.  I hope they drop the “X-Men Origins” brand entirely and simply use this as the point of origin for whatever comes after this.  This is summer moviemaking the way I love it most, smart and bold and splashy and with just enough weight to matter, and I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.