There was a time when I loved superhero movies. Then I grew up! Well, maybe I haven’t really grown up but over time I’ve come to realize that apart from a few legitimately great films, a large majority of movies in the genre tend to be populated by derivative drivel, conceived and marketed to a nation of pubescent and immature teens. Harsh? Perhaps, but I state facts. Think about it… If more thought and effort were put into superhero films as dramatic actioners instead of childish soap operas, you’d have a ton of R-rated pictures with complex storylines and characters that are human instead of mass-marketed brain-dead popcorn flicks with paper-Mache caricatures. Now, I’m not insinuating that I dislike comic books and the culture surrounding it. That would be ignorance. This is a Hollywood issue.
Still, as I stated earlier, there are some genuinely fantastic superhero films that have transcended the conventions of the genre to be actually considered excellent films in their own right. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are examples. So are Sam Riami’s Spider-Man 2 and Brad Bird’s The Incredibles and Bryan Singer’s X2: X-Men United. Now, I can add Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class to that list.
Although it opens with a disturbing sequence set in the concentration camps of World War 2, most of X-Men: First Class is set in the stylish, swinging 60s and at the heart of the Cuban Missile Crisis when both, the United States and the Soviet Union, were one press of a button away from World War 3. In the alternate universe mapped out by Vaughn and his team of writers, the orchestrator of this crisis is a powerful energy-absorbing mutant named Sebastian Shaw (played superbly by Kevin Bacon in a devilishly slick performance) who plans to destroy humanity by playing the U.S. and U.S.S.R. against each other, and in doing so, birth a new society populated by mutants or Homo superiors.
To combat Shaw and his team of associates including telepath the gorgeous Emma Frost (a conveniently chilly January Jones), Riptide (Alex González) and Azazel (Jason Flemyng), CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) seeks the assistance of the charming Charles Xavier (James MacAvoy), a young specialist of genetic mutation who also happens to be a powerful telepath, and his foster-sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) a shape-shifter. On a mission to apprehend Shaw, Xavier and company bump into Eric Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), a vengeful and bitter young man who, with his ability to manipulate metal, has been scouring the globe, hunting for the Nazis responsible for torturing him and murdering his family in the concentration camps of World War 2. With Shaw being the last remaining Nazi on his list, Eric reluctantly joins Charles in his mission to recruit and train young mutants against Shaw. Their first class of recruits includes Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz), Armando Muñoz/Darwin (Edi Gathegi), Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), and Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till).
The first thing you’ll notice about Vaughn’s film that separates it from the previous entries in the franchise (apart from the ultra groovy 60s-setting) is its mood. Though it may have its share of laughs (the biggest comes during a cameo by one of the series’ biggest stars), this film is an all-out adult enterprise created by and for adults. With concentration camps, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Nazi hunting on its plate, how couldn’t it be? And unlike the other films that focused on the two factions of mutants battling each other, this one is primarily focused on the relationship between Charles and Eric – their friendship, bond and eventual tragic partition over their differing beliefs. It’s this friendship that dominates most of the picture and is the main reason First Class should be on your must see list. It greatly helps that the two characters are played by James MacAvoy and Michael Fassbender, two supremely gifted British actors who deliver the two best performances in the entire series, bar none. Fassbender in particular, is mesmerizing as the tortured and hate-driven Eric.
Matthew Vaughn continues his rise as one of the best action directors in Hollywood with his superhero prequel X-Men: First Class, which stands alongside Bryan Singer’s X2: X-Men United as arguably the best film in the decade-old franchise. Not only is the film a highly entertaining superhero movie, it’s also a phenomenal film that transcends its genre with excellent performances from Michael Fassbender and James MacAvoy, impressive action sequences, and most significantly, a brisk, multi-layered and engaging plot that doesn’t dumb itself for kids while simultaneously injecting new life into a series that had lost its way after the subpar X-Men: The Last Stand and the atrocious X-Men Origins: Wolverine.