Contributor: Henry T.
Story by Bryan Singer and Sheldon Turner
Screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zach Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Let me first say that I love the X-Men more than any other comic book superhero. I was not a huge fan of comic books when I was younger, but X-Men really stuck with me. It was one of the few titles I actually read and followed, mostly due to the Fox cartoon that ran in the 90′s. So “X-Men: First Class” should be right in my wheelhouse. It’s a prequel to the generally well-regarded Bryan Singer films from earlier this decade. In fact, Singer has a writing and producer credit attached to this film. As a weird sort of echo or tribute to those films, this one unfortunately fails. It starts out well enough, if a bit rushed, then has to fall in line with its clear devotion to what occurs in the Bryan Singer/Brett Ratner canon.
For me, the pacing of the film was the major problem. It rushes through the assembly of the first X-Men team, and when we’re primed for what was thought to be a wild ride or romp through 60′s-era alternate history, it starts grinding to a slower speed as it deals with the major conflict that arises. There are so many subplots up in the air by the end that it had to feel like a consequence of having too many cooks in the kitchen, as evidenced by how many writers are credited with the film’s plodding script.
It’s ironic that my main criticism about the Singer “X-Men” films was filling them with too many characters. Some get short-changed in place of others. “X-Men: First Class” makes a concerted effort to have a compact size for the first team of X-Men. Yet, it doesn’t work. Characters are inserted into the plot with no concrete explanation, aside from Magneto and Mystique. When you look at the film as a whole, the characters have no depth. I think it’s because the writers substituted plot for characters, and that’s rarely a course that works.
Compounding the problem is that the plot runs way too long. The X-Men team assemble quickly, work in concert with the CIA to stop Sebastian Shaw and the Hellfire Club, then awkwardly inserts this internal conflict into the annals of real-world history with the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s a valiant attempt to put perspective into the actions of these fictional characters (that humans are just along for the ride as more and more mutants are exposed to the world), but then it ultimately doesn’t matter since the end has to line up with the X-Men history that we, the viewers, are familiar with in those films from so long ago.
The major problem with the film is that it’s doing too many things at once, and is taking so much time getting to that singular endpoint. It starts out as a light and likeable film, humming along with James Bond-like efficiency. Then, as it moves along in its long running time and got deeper into the story, the film got too serious, so heavy and plodding that I was wondering when it would end. This is — weirdly enough — reflected in the annoying insistent and seemingly endless musical score of the film, of all things.
One of the few good things about the film is the relationship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr. James McAvoy is miscast as the future Professor X (probably because I kept thinking about Patrick Stewart as the character) and he does merely a serviceable job. Charles is oddly a brash and cocky ass here in the past, which doesn’t mesh with the more cerebral and serene Xavier we know from the earlier films.
Michael Fassbender, however, owns the film as Lensherr, who will become known as Magneto in the future. He’s the one character that has a complete and consistent arc through the whole film; the one with sufficient motivation to go after Shaw, the main villain, and it’s reasonable how he develops his cynical views on human-mutant relations in the future. Even some of Erik’s actions here inform on relationships in the future, like how he subtly gets Mystique (who’s in a very strange relationship with Xavier throughout the film) to come to his side.
The Professor X-Magneto friendship and its eventual collapse is the backbone of the film and had more focus been put there instead of everywhere else, the film could have been much better. It just felt, at times, like it was one-sided. Xavier goes from womanizer to pacifist in a flash, oddly with no middle. That may have been because he had no issue with Sebastian Shaw. Erik has a personal vendetta against the guy so that increased the stakes in his story. Charles sits back and lets the conflict that Shaw brings come to him. Shaw, as played by Kevin Bacon, has an appropriate amount of menace about him, though he seemed to avoid direct conflict with the X-Men until the very end. That was just one of many oddities from this film.
The young X-Men in this film is proof of how sometimes disjointed the film felt. The team could have been a story all on its own. Mystique gets clumped in with new recruits that include Havok, Darwin (a mutant I’ve never even heard of within the X-Men mythology), Angel, Banshee, and Beast. They elect to give Beast a larger backstory, making him a young CIA scientist and inventor in addition to a slight romantic affiliation with Mystique. It would have been nice if they kept that Beast-Mystique connection as a small part of a larger canvas. But the writers don’t do that, instead intent on bashing us over and over again with the message of not hiding who they are as mutants.
There’s also the invention of a primitive “cure” for their mutant condition thrown in there for good measure, as if “X-Men: The Last Stand” didn’t cover that at all. Most of the time, these kiddie X-Men stand in the background to support Professor X and Magneto. They do get to do their thing in the final battle, but it really feels like noise when the film finally gets to that point. Angel, in particular, is a weak character. Her powers aren’t all that impressive, her character is one-note, and changes sides for no compelling reason. The younger X-Men have a lot in common with the rest of the Hellfire Club. Most times, they’re just scenery and support for the larger conflict at hand.
Superhero fatigue is fast approaching for me. This film actually makes me worry about the coming “Avengers” film next summer. If that film follows the same template as this one, it may not work. This is a competently-made film, which is amazing considering that it was apparently filmed in a rush under studio orders. I just wish it was better. It moves quickly at the beginning, then drags for much of the remaining screen time. I want for it to work because the X-Men franchise has been so good for so long, yet ultimately it can’t reach the rarified air of greatness owned by films like “The Dark Knight” or “Iron Man” or “Spider-Man 2″.
Character is sacrificed for a plot that didn’t have to be so convoluted, surprisingly enough. There are moments of great fun (including an inspired cameo from a beloved character in the film series), but those are cancelled out by an all too serious plot that wanted to change history, only to line up exactly with a fictional history we’ve all seen before. Maybe the X-Men films should stop trying to say so much in its narrative. Simpler would have probably equaled better.