Title: X-Men: First Class
Release Date: June 3, 2011
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Release Format: Theatrical
While X-Men Origins: Wolverine did well enough at the box office, it received many bad reviews from critics, forcing Fox to give up on its planned “Origins Series” altogether. One of those origin movies was meant to follow Magneto and his rise to being the villain we all know and love. However, since that was scrapped, Fox’s obvious escape from doing another origin movie was apparently doing another origin movie. Oh, the irony! However, the writers of this new film, knowing the excellent backstory of the character, made the brilliant decision to have most of their plot revolve around Erik Lenshir, how he first met Charles Xavier and how the X-Men, as well as The Brotherhood, came to be. What came of this was X-Men: First Class, a prequel, and semi-reboot, taking place during the Cuban missile crisis that made the timeline even more confusing than it already was but still managed to pull off a decent, often exciting story regardless. Spoilers ahead.
When The Hellfire Club, a secret underground society of mutants led by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), surfaces with a plan to cause an all out nuclear war between The U.S. and Russia, Special Agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) seeks the aid of mutant telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) for help. Their path to Shaw leads them to a young Erik Lensheer (Michael Fassbender), who is looking for vengeance against Shaw for the death of his mother. Lensheer and Xavier form a brother-like friendship and form a team of mutants to help them hunt down the mutant terrorists and save the world from nuclear war.
X-Men: First Class is a movie that reinvents the X-Men film series with a slightly new edge. It takes a lot of risks and liberties with the source material and events in other X-Men films in order to tell its story. Some of these risks pay off and some just really don’t. I know that for many people, this is considered the best or at least in their top two but, for me, I still don’t think it’s as great as people make it out to be. For me, it was on par with X2: X-Men United, if not worse than that. However, in any case, we’ll talk about some of the good first. I think like many people who saw this film, this was the first performance I ever witnessed from Michael Fassbender. To say that his performance was masterful would not be giving it enough credit. He absolutely crushed it as Erik Lensheer / Magneto in a performance nothing short of oscar worthy. The lengths that Matthew Vaughn goes to make Magneto both sympathetic and menacing is just incredible.
X-Men: First Class actually begins the exact same way X-Men (2000) did, with Erik Lensheer as a young boy in a concentration camp, being separated from his mother and demonstrating for the audience his first outbreak as a mutant. However, whereas the first film jumped ahead to present day, this film shows us what happened immediately afterward, setting up Magneto’s journey through the film as well as his personal vendetta against the film’s main antagonist, Sebastian Shaw. It was not only remarkable how much the recreated scene looked like the scene from the first film but, until I did some research on it, I actually thought it was the scene from the first film.
The relationship between Erik Lensheer and Charles Xavier is done beautifully and is undoubtedly the best thing about X-Men: First Class. You see how they become friends, how they teach each other as well as other mutants to focus their abilities and their inevitable split as hero and villain. If you were to ask me what I thought these two would act like as young men, this would be right on the money. There isn’t a single bad acting moment between MacAvoy and Fassbender. When I see these two, I see Magneto and Professor X, perfectly realized. Hell, I’ll go as far as to say I’ve grown to like Fassbender more than McKellen in the role of Magneto. Nothing wrong with either performance, as both are fantastic, but Fassbender delivers a certain ferocity to the character that McKellen sadly lacked.
Kevin Bacon does fine as Sebastian Shaw, although I maintain to this day that Bacon would have been a much better Mr. Sinister (No really, he would have been perfect for that). I’m not sure why Sebastian Shaw is depicted as the man who killed Magneto’s mother, as that is far and away from his comic book counterpart, but they still managed to tell a decent story with it so it’s hard to complain. The action in the film is well shot, especially the Russia scene with Magneto and Xavier going after Emma Frost, but much of it lacks a certain “wow” factor. I’ll also give kudos to whoever decided to have this film take place during the Cuban missile crisis as that was a truly unique setting for a film like this. The whole climax looks and feels outstanding as a result. That scene where Magneto catches all the missiles in midair and launches them back was nothing short of epic. Sebastian Shaw’s plan of having the US and Russia declare nuclear war so he can join with whoever comes out on top was actually a very genius idea.
That being said, for all the good, there is a lot about X-Men: First Class I didn’t like and I’m going to get the biggest thing out of the way right now; January Jones as Emma Frost. I would like to go on record in saying that while I have seen bad performances destroy iconic comic book characters in the past (Toby Kebbell as Dr. Doom, Kelly Hu as Lady Deathstrike, Topher Grace as Venom, etc;), January Jones as Emma Frost is the single worst adapted comic book character I have ever seen on film, period. I will binge-watch Megan Fox playing April O’ Neill until the day I die, as long as it means I never have to sit through January Jones playing Emma Frost again. While actors like Fassbender, MacAvoy and Bacon were bringing their A-Games, January Jones gives all the acting range of a lump of diamond (no pun intended). She stands around with a dumb, blank, emotionless expression on her face and speaks her lines like she’s reading off cue cards. This is one of the worst performances ever put to film. It was so bad it made me want to write an apology letter to Hayden Christiansen… what kind of sick, twisted, vile performance can do that to a person?
I’m sorry, I know I’m rambling a little bit, but this was just so god awful that it needs to be dwelled upon. Emma Frost, in the comics, was a badass telepath, filled with personality. Her loyalties were always shadowed in mystery, so you never really knew what side she was on. She could outwit and outmaneuver any other telepath, even Jean Grey, and Charles Xavier on several occasions. Literally, the only defense I have heard about Emma Frost in X-Men: First Class, is that she looks beautiful. Yes, in all fairness, this is correct. Megan Fox is gorgeous in Transformers; attractiveness doth, not a good actress make. Considering that this character was once slated to be played by Sigourney Weaver when Bryan Singer was still attached to X-Men 3 (didn’t happen, the point is that it should have happened), watching this actress butcher this character and everything she represents makes me yearn to wrap my lips around a GLOCK 9.
And don’t even get me started on her horrible diamond skin effect. While this obviously retcons the Emma Frost we saw briefly in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the diamond skin effect in that film was quite impressive and resembled beautifully the Emma Frost from the comics. In X-Men: First Class, her diamond form looks like Metal Mario from Super Smash Bros. It is pathetic; the perfect word to describe how this character was portrayed in the movie. Not only was Tahyna Valentina MacManus better in Origins (mostly because she could ACT), Finola Hughes did a far superior job as the character in the made for tv film, Generation X. When you are doing worse than made-for-tv, stop making movies! She WAS The White Queen! She is NOW a wood stump! She is NOW a tool! She now only apparently exists to give Sebastian Shaw ice for his drink! We’ve been bamboozled with this character and I will not stand for this!
I’m sorry, I know that rant went on for awhile but I’ve been holding that in for too long. Moving on; Moira McTaggart was utilized well in the film, as was Azazel (Jason Flemying). Both get just enough screen time to leave an impression, with Byrne and Fleming giving good performances. That is more than I can say for the recruited mutants of X-Men: First Class. Yeah, sadly, one of the weakest aspects of X-Men: First Class is the actual First Class. Oh, the irony! While Havoc (Lucas Till), Angel (Zoe Kravitz), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) and Darwin (Edi Gathegi) are visually interesting, they all manage to feel completely superfluous. You could have replaced them with any other mutants from the X-Men Comics and you would have the same movie; not a thing would be different. There’s really nothing special about these characters in regards to this story and it seems they are only here for the purpose of making the final battle look more epic. The only one who of these four that has anything even remotely resembling character development, or presence for that matter, is Havoc and how he slowly grows to respect Hank McCoy. However, even that is pretty vague. Overall, while the actors playing them are fine, them being visually interesting just doesn’t make up for the fact that they have little presence or substance to speak of. I mean, hell, they kill Darwin off shortly after he’s introduced. What was even the point of having him?
Beast (Nicolas Hoult) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) both deliver good performances and, to the writers’ credit, they develop a believable romance. However, I still have so many problems with how these characters were portrayed. In the first two films, Mystique may have been a lackey for Magneto but she was still sleek, sexy and absolutely badass. Any woman that willingly goes toe to toe with Wolverine in a fight has my respect. She barely spoke in those films but when she did it was either meaningful, insightful or badass. As much as I love Jennifer Lawrence as an actress, this version of Mystique in X-Men: First Class was just too whiny. I understand it’s a younger version of the character and she’s still coming into her own but my god, this Mystique is far and away from the one I know.
Her growing up with Charles Xavier as his adopted sister was just stupid. I understand what they were going for and, to be fair, Lawrence and McAvoy do have great chemistry, but the more I think about it, the more I don’t care for it. It feels like too big of a stretch, even for this series. It also begs the question as to why she would try to kill Charles in the first movie if she grew up with him but I guess we can just chalk that up to the other million continuity issues in the film. On another note, what was with her going with Magneto when her “adoptive brother” is lying paralyzed on a beach? I don’t care if Charles said it was “okay”, how heartless can a person be?
Beast, however, was worse for me. None of my issues are with Nicolas Hoult. For much of the film (outside of ONE scene which pissed me off to no end) he did exhibit the characteristics of Hank McCoy, quite well. My issue is more or less with how the character was written. He constantly whines about how he doesn’t want to be a mutant anymore when, in reality, he can blend in and be as normal as he wants. His powers are hidden as the only thing mutated on him is his feet and even his employer, played by Oliver Platt, didn’t know he was a mutant until Charles outed him. He can’t even complain that the ladies would find him freakish because even Mystique is into him. When the most beautiful woman in the room is not only into you and your intelligent nature but also loves and accepts your mutant abilities, maybe your life ain’t so bad. Quit your boohooing!
Then there was that one scene at the end where Mystique changes blue for him and he has the nerve, he has the audacity to say to her “My freakishly large feet and your natural blue form will never be deemed beautiful.” NO! That is not Hank McCoy! He would NEVER say that! Hank McCoy is a dignified, respectable, Shakespeare-quoting scientist who would never say something that disrespectful to any woman. I don’t care what the circumstances are, Hank McCoy would never be that cruel. It’s like they understood the intelligent scientist aspect of the character but not the kind-hearted, respectful nature of him. Just to give you an idea of how pissed off I was by this when he said that line, I wanted to walk out. After Mystique walks out on Beast, he takes the drug to attack his mutant cells, which backfires and gives him the blue beast-like appearance from the comics and… my god is that make-up terrible. Seriously, look at that photo above. Can you say with a straight face that that looks good? He looks like a blue cat creature. When you are making X-Men: The Last Stand look good (to be fair, the make-up for Beast was outstanding in that film), just go home.
Overall, there is a great deal about X-Men: First Class I didn’t like. I won’t even dwell upon the continuity errors (Magneto’s Helmet, Mystique’s relationship with Xavier, Emma Frost, Beast building Cerebro, Xavier becoming Paralyzed, Xavier meeting Erik Lenseer in his mid-late 20’s as opposed to 17, etc) as there are several in the film and they would only get more prominent in later films. It’s at the point where I can forgive the continuity errors as long as they are telling a good enough story as a stand-alone film. Here, they have half a good story but when the film gets something right, it gets it right. The main plot is fine and everything having to do with Magneto in this film is brilliant. The two main leads, Fassbender, and McAvoy are fantastic together and would only get better in later films. The main villain is alright, albeit nothing special, and the setting of the Cuban missile crisis worked for the most part.
Sadly, the film is bogged down by poor representations of certain characters and other superfluous characters who don’t add much to the story or the series. It’s because of these things that the film feels incredibly lackluster at times. While the action looks cool, the scenes lacked serious weight for me because I didn’t care about many of the characters. The first half of the movie trumps the second half in almost every aspect but once we get into the actual “X-Men” part of the story, it begins to deteriorate a bit. I honestly like X-Men: First Class about as much as I did X2: X-Men United so I’ll just give it the same grade I gave that film. I’d recommend X-Men: First Class for a great Magneto story. As an X-Men story, drink a red bull first; You’ll stay awake longer.
- Characters: Erik Lensheer and Charles Xavier are done beautifully in X-Men: First Class. Moira McTaggert, Sebastian Shaw and Azazel are enjoyable as well. The rest of the characters are incredibly lackluster and forgettable while Emma Frost is destroyed beyond repair.
- Cinematography: Matthew Vaughn does an admirable job at recreating the 1960’s. Beast’s make-up looks terrible but everything else looks great.
- Story: Erik Lensheer’s story is brilliantly told and his eventual turn to Magneto and falling out with Charles Xavier is especially heartbreaking. The main story is fine but nothing special, despite the great setting of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
- Acting: The acting was superb with Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy being standouts. I say mostly because January Jones as Emma Frost still makes me want to race through Burger King wielding a chainsaw. Her performances are not awful… awful would have been an improvement.
- Michael Fassbender & James McAvoy's Chemistry
- Magneto's Story
- The Setting Of The Cuban Missile Crisis
- Sebastian Shaw's Plan
- Beautifully Shot Action
- EMMA FROST!!!... I Cannot Emphasize This Enough!!!
- Superfluous New Characters That Don't Add A Thing To The Franchise
- Lackluster & Forgettable Film Score
- Mystique & Beast Are Too Whiny
- Out Of Character Moments
- Fight Scenes Look Nice But Lack Substance
A graduate of Full Sail University with a Bachelors Degree in Creative Writing, Adam is a Writer and Film Critic, looking to make his mark on the world. When he isn’t at the movies, writing for The Nerd Stash, playing Duck Hunt (respect the classics) or delivering pizzas to his neighbors, he is back at school earning his Masters Degree in Film Production.