X-Men: First Class is the greatest of all the X-Men movies for two reasons, one obvious, the other natural. It is living, breathing, pulsating proof that an X-Men movie can survive, and indeed flourish, without Wolverine, who has inexplicably taken over the reins of franchise hero. I used to love Wolverine when I was a kid. His animalistic nature fit perfectly in the realm of my fantasy and was the right foil for a ten-year old’s short attention span. He’s good now too, I must say, at Marvel Vs. Capcom, a video game where his basic set of actions and manoeuvres come in handy. In the movie world, with dialogue and stories, not so much.
But the real reason for First Class’ victory is its favouring of character over superpowers. We grow to admire and connect with Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, two friends in the prime of life who later become ideological enemies and have no choice but to go their separate ways. Charles becomes Professor X, and Erik, Magneto.
Yes, a lot of First Class is generated by computers to highlight a tonne of superpowers — I’m amused by the laconic stately fellow who can conjure tornados and whirlwinds — but they serve the story as best they can without drawing attention away from it. By the end of the film, we remember all the planes and submarines that crashed, all the soldiers who got tangled in barbed wire, all the missiles that turned on their warships, but the struggles of the characters are what we take home with us.
The most conflicted is Mystique, played here by Jennifer Lawrence, who has to juggle affection with loyalty and purpose. She grows up with Charles (James McAvoy) as his adopted sister. But Charles is a diplomat. He believes in equality and integration, and enforces the idea that for humans and mutants to live in harmony, the mutants have to blend in (this in itself raises interesting areas of debate).
This would be wonderful, except Mystique has natural blue skin and yellow eyes. Blending in requires effort, effort she’d rather spend elsewhere, on romance, for example.
Enter, Erik (Michael Fassbender). After witnessing the death of his mother at the hands of a Nazi sympathiser in Auschwitz, he bends his life around revenge and teams up with Charles and Mystique to get closer to the man responsible. He and Charles form a friendship out of no other reason than convenience, since they are mentally opposed from the start and get dragged further apart as the loopholes in their respective principles surface.
Charles wants peace through methods of peace. Erik wants peace through violence and action. Their quarrel brings to mind the adventures of The Sea Shepherd, the environmentalist frigate that rams and boards illegal fishing vessels while the governments of the world look on and wag their disapproving fingers. Erik is the proactive Shepherd, Charles the inactive governments. Violence is wrong, yes? But what happens when the peaceful approach yields no result? Is another, more aggressive course of action not warranted?
So you can see where Charles and Erik are positioned. They have given themselves real issues and serious stakes, as a comic book movie of this sort will allow. Director Matthew Vaughn has found an elusive balance between the inner turmoils of both the heroes (and Mystique) and the crash bang boom of the special effects so that the movie deals with conflicts of ideologies while still finding the space to be a thunderous action comic book movie that will please general audiences. Some of the effects are spectacular, as when Erik raises a submarine out of the watery depths. Some are iffy — does Lawrence not look like she’s lying in a green room, plastered into Erik’s bed? And Beast’s false teeth look eager to escape his mouth. But there you go. They are what they are.
I forgot to mention that the plot is set against the climax of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as the Russians inch closer to American borders and all the American officials in the War Room reenact famous scenes from Dr. Strangelove (1964). The villain is Sebastian Shaw, played with the usual snakelike charm by Kevin Bacon. He wants the missile crisis to escalate, so that mutants can parade over the ashes of humans. You could see him as Magneto’s ideological guru, or, since First Class is a prequel, a copycat. Either way, rejoice — there’s no Wolverine.
Best Moment | There are many noteworthy moments. Erik raising the sub is one. Many found Erik’s stopping of the warheads on the beach to be hilarious, but I thought it was rather awesome. Shaw’s infiltration of the CIA base is also splendid.
Worst Moment | Banshee’s and Angel’s ridiculous duel over the decks of the warships.