X-Men: First Class

a film by Matthew Vaughn

Sure, director Matthew Vaughn may play a bit fast and loose with the origins of everyone's favourite team of superhero mutants (as did Bryan Singer before him, and for that matter all the folks who have been tinkering with Marvel Comics lo these past few years) but continuity with the comics aside, this latest superhero reboot (or genesis project if you will) is, thanks to a nostalgic comic iconography and subtle (and not-so-subtle) winks and nods to those of us in the know (don't call me a fanboy!), quite fun indeed. All this and one of my favourite actors, the splendid chameleonic Michael Fassbender (that Inglourious Basterd who knew his Weimer period cinema but not how to gesture the right number three) playing my all-time favourite comic character, that Master of Magnetism himself, Magneto (yeah, I'm one of those people). I suppose one could say that I have my cake and I can eat it too.

Actually this is not so much a reboot (a popular way of going about blockbustery franchises these days) as it is a prequel, going back to 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis - here secretly concocted by Sebastian Shaw, head of the Hellfire Club (played by Kevin Bacon with an especially campy glee that perfectly suits the setting and makes us wish he had more to do in the film) and therefore we get to see several of the characters from the original trilogy as younger, very different characters. Perhaps this is just a way for the filmmakers to put their superheroines in skimpy, mini-skirts and gogo boots (not that I am complaining about that - though a little research would have told them the miniskirt would not make its debut for another three years) and therefore cash in on the nostalgia craze for this period that was started by AMC's Mad Men. But then again, this is where the story began (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby debuted their X-Men in September of 1963) so it too must be where an origin episode must begin.

Here we get the steely determination of a young Erik Lehnsherr (the aforementioned Mr. Fassbender) making his way from the concentration camps of his youth (played by Bill Milner as a boy) to his anger-fueled revenge on those responsible for such atrocities (an early scene set in Argentina and done mostly in German reminds one of a certain scene in the belly of Inglourious Basterds) and finally to his inevitable turn toward the supposed dark side and evolution into the man known simply as Magneto. One of my reasons for finding this character (in comic and movie both) so fascinating is the inherent emotional turmoil brewing inside of him. He is neither a villain nor a hero, but at the same time he is both (in fact for a while in the comics he Magneto actually led the X-Men in Xavier's absence). Originally this film was meant to be one in a series of origin stories, following up X-Men Origins: Wolverine, that would tell the tale of Lehnsherr/Magneto just like the previous film had told of Logan's early life. It would eventually evolve into this tale, but still the torment of Magneto is at its core.

Here we also get a young Charles Xavier (the always fun-to-watch James McAvoy) before he became the austere professorial type played by Patrick Stewart in the original trilogy. We find this pampered rich kid at Oxford in the beginning days of the "swingin' London" era, made out to be a rather snarky player (wooing coeds with his brainy charms) as well as quite vain and cocksure (inside joking about how much he likes his hair). This vanity (and the fact that he looks no different than regular humans and therefore, unlike those whose mutations have taken on more physical attributes, has no qualms about coming out as it were) is what drives a wedge between Charles and those close to him. Playing Martin Luther King to Magneto's Malcolm X, Xavier wishes to become unified with the non-mutant population and coexist peacefully while his angrier counterpart says "peace was never an option". Of course an argument can be made for either side and in truth it needs to be a combination of both viewpoints (not the stubbornness of both Lenhnsherr and Xavier for their causes) to make any sort of future work. This basic moral war is what is at the base of this story.

McAvoy and Fassbender actually play perfectly off of each other (almost as if they really were the two sides of the same coin they are portrayed as in the film) and it is in this friendship and eventual betrayal that Vaughn's film finds its strength. The rest of the cast, though some are very good, never quite reach this level of compatibility that McAvoy and Fassbender seem to have. Playing the blueskinned shapeshifting Raven Darkholme, aka Mystique (previously portrayed by Rebecca Romijn), Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar nominated for Winter's Bone last year, never gets the chance to stretch too much (she has many poignant emotional dilemmas but still gets overshadowed in them by McAvoy and Fassbender). As for the others, January Jones (didn't somebody mention Mad Men earlier?), looks quite spectacular in the iconic outfit of the White Queen, Emma Frost; Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggart (here, unlike in the comics, made to be a CIA agent) is also meant as mostly eye candy (baring almost all while sneaking into the Hellfire Club as a paid escort); and English actor Jason Flemying as the redskinned teleporting demon Azazel (and eventual father to stalwart X-Man Nightcrawler) is a hell of a lot of fun to watch go bamfing all about. But then again, it is less the portrayals than those being portrayed that throw this comic book nerd off his kilter.

As a not-so-secret fanboy (didn't I tell you not to call me that!?) I must admit to a few quite nerdy disappointments in the film. First and foremost of course being that these are not the real first class at Xavier's Academy - the one's represented in that now quite expensive first issue of X-Men from September of 1963. Well okay, Hank McCoy (aka Beast) is here, but no Cyclops nor Iceman nor Angel nor even every young schoolboy's fantasy, Jean Grey. Yeah yeah, you don't have to tell me - the continuity (the integrity if you will) was already skewed from day one of the first trilogy and therefore would not allow certain characters to be here in 1962 where it all began. We do get Cyclops' little brother Havok, which again musses with any sort of coexistence between the Marvel Comic Universe and the Marvel Movie Universe - but there I go being a nerd again. Actually one can easily put aside these notions of foul play as merely an alternate reality from the one we comic book nerds grew up with - something the comics themselves play at all the damned time. Of course, as someone with more than a bit of Irish in him, I may never forgive the inexplicable Americanization of Banshee (wow, I am a nerd, aren't I). But I digress.

What it all comes down to though (comic purism aside) is whether one has a good time watching or not. This isn't meant to be Antonioni or Tarkovsky (although just the prospect of one of these auteurs, in some obviously alternate reality, making an X-Men movie fills this cinephile and comic book nerd with quite a giddy sense of glee). This is meant as pop entertainment and therefore should be graded as such - so the question remains, did I have a good time watching X-Men: First Class? Well of course I did. Perhaps it isn't in the upper pantheon of the genre (the heft and depth of Nolan's The Dark Knight helps it lead that realm) and maybe it doesn't have the inherent charm brought to Iron Man by Robert Downey Jr., nor is it as rich as the first two X-Men movies (we can all forget number three), but the combined one-two punch of McAvoy and Fassbender, the early sixties setting, the splash-inducing finale wherein Magneto gets his oats finally accepts his destiny, and the best damned superhero cameo ever (involving the perfectly-dropped lone F-Bomb of the film) make for a very fun movie indeed. Now let's bring on Chris Claremont to write the next film in the series and see what happens then. If you have no idea of whom I speak, then I suppose that makes you safely one of the non-nerds. If you do know, then you know what great things could come of it. Mutant and proud. [06/04/11]