X-Men: First Class continues with the origin stories that began with the widely panned X-Men Origins: Wolverine, going way back to show us the beginnings of Professor X, Magneto, Mystique and a few other mutants who aren't half as interesting.
Director Matthew Vaughn (maker of Kick-Ass) does a fantastic job with the origin stories of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, aka Professor X and Magneto. Charles is free of his wheelchair, with a head full of hair; he's played with boatloads of charm by James McAvoy.
Erik gets his hellish start in a concentration camp, and grows up to be a handsome, menacing revenge artist who can do a lot more than move coins with his mind. Michael Fassbender gives the future Magneto a core sadness that makes him quite the sympathetic badass. Fassbender and McAvoy do Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart proud.
Recent Oscar-nominee Jennifer Lawrence lends a certain sweetness to Raven, aka Mystique (played previously by Rebecca Romijn). The scene where Charles and Raven meet as children provides a nice background of understanding for the two. Who knew that Professor X and Mystique were once like brother and sister?
The story takes a sort of Hogwarts approach to the younger mutants like Mystique, Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Havok (Lucas Till) and Darwin (Edi Gathegi). This portion of the story isn't half as enjoyable as the part focusing on Charles and Erik. In fact, the movie often feels like two separate films, with the story of the younger mutants feeling a tad incomplete.
The film cleverly uses some real history to drive its plot along, incorporating the Cuban Missile Crisis into the X-Men universe. Turns out World War III was averted not due to the shifty strategies of John F. Kennedy and his military men, but thanks to some meddling mutants trying out their wares for the first time. It is here that Vaughn and company keep the movie crackling.
Credit also goes to Kevin Bacon, who tears into the part of billionaire Sebastian Shaw. An older-looking, German-speaking incarnation of Shaw terrorized Erik in the concentration camp, conducting experiments that made Shaw younger in appearance. Shaw is also bursting with evil mutant energy, and looks to wreak havoc upon the world. Bacon embodies pure evil, giving fans of the franchise a villain who rivals the nasty greatness of Magneto.
The movie stumbles a bit in the story of Mystique. Her character arc seems rushed, and her final motivations a bit strange. Fans know that she will become one of the evil ones, but her switchover occurs in the last few minutes of the movie, and her decisions are hard to understand. The film hints at a romantic subtext between her and Magneto, but it's never fully explored. I'm thinking Vaughn left quite a bit on the cutting-room floor.
Perhaps the film's biggest goof is the casting of January Jones as Emma Frost. Jones, who looks incredible in her skimpy outfits, totally ruins the party whenever she opens her mouth. She must be one of the worst actresses getting steady work these days. She wasn't very good in the Liam Neeson thriller Unknown, and she is merely serviceable on Mad Men. (She was also awful as a Saturday Night Live host.) While Emma Frost often takes the form of a diamond, Jones is as wooden as the desk my computer currently rests upon.
The production looks sleek, for the most part, although Hoult looks like something straight out of Fraggle Rock when he shows up in his full-blown Beast costume; Emma Frost looks a little clunky when she takes diamond form, too. However, coolness reaches an apex when Erik/Magneto grabs a submarine out of the water while dangling from a helicopter.
In the X-Men movie canon, I would put First Class above the third film (X-Men: The Last Stand) and Wolverine, but below the Bryan Singer-directed first two movies. I've enjoyed all of the X-Men movies, but I thought the third, like this one, was a bit overstuffed. Wolverine was goofy, but Hugh Jackman made it worthwhile. His general absence from the latest installment is a little discouraging.
As for where the franchise goes from here, it's hard to say. First Class opened to the lowest box-office haul of any X-Men movie, largely due to the absence of a big star. Time will tell if it holds its own, turns a profit and warrants more X-Men movies. Something tells me a future installment won't happen unless Jackman shows up in a starring role again—or someone like Brad Pitt signs on to play Magneto.