To commemorate, the culmination of their long-running and successful X-Men movies, 20th Century Fox declared May 13th as “X-Men Day”, a day to celebrate all things Mutant and X-Men and celebrate Marvel’s iconic collection of superpowered beings who fight to protect a world that hates and fears them. After exhausting all of their storylines with their original cast, save for Hugh Jackman, 20th Century Fox began producing a series of loose prequels centred on younger X-characters and, while X-Men Day coincided with Friday the 13th this year, I’m going to spend the next few weeks looking back at the first three entries in this “Beginnings Trilogy” and see if they still hold up today.
Released: May 2011
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $140 to 160 million
Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Lucas Till, Caleb Landry Jones, Zoë Kravitz, and Kevin Bacon
In 1962, right in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis, newly-graduated Professor Charles Xavier (McAvoy) meets Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender) for the first time. United in their search for the Mutant terrorist Sebastian Shaw (Bacon), the two join forces with the United States government in forming the first team of Mutants and working to avert World War Three.
The X-Men have been an integral part of Marvel Comics ever since they debuted back in 1963. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men offered, through their Mutant heritage, an easy excuse to introduce multiple new superheroes with minimal effort. Since then, the X-Men, and all of Mutantkind, have existed as a metaphor for a variety of social issues and seen much success outside of the pages of Marvel Comics thanks to a number of action figures, cartoons, and videogames. After purchasing the film rights, 20th Century Fox profited greatly from the franchise; the first three X-Men movies (Various, 2000 to 2006) alone brought in over $600 million and they had seen similar financial success with a spin-off movie centered around the franchise’s breakout star, Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).
It was during the production of X-Men 2 (Singer, 2003) that the idea of a prequel revolving around younger versions of the X-Men was first proposed; after X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006) effectively ended the series, with most of the main cast either dead, depowered, or having exhausted their story arcs, Fox returned to the idea of producing prequels with plans for a spin-off focusing on a young Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Ian McKellen). Perhaps shaken by the mediocre critical reception of X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009), Fox abandoned any further ideas of individual spin-offs and ordered a rewrite of the script to focus on Erik and Charles’s early years and the formation of the original X-Men. Although Bryan Singer, who had helmed the first two X-Men movies and very much set the tone and standard for Fox’s franchise, was unable to direct, he returned as a producer and Fox hired Matthew Vaughn (who had previously dropped out of directing the third film) to direct and the idea for the prequel began to take real shape. X-Men: First Class released to strong reviews, a warm critical reception, and eventually made over $350 million in worldwide gross; for many who were disappointed with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class represented a step in the right direction for the franchise but, for me, it represented the first sign that Fox were playing it fast and loose with continuity.
X-Men: First Class begins with a shot-for-shot recreation of the opening from the first X-Men movie: that is, a young Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner/Brett Morris) first discovering his ability to control metal in a Nazi death camp. The purpose of this scene is blatantly obvious and two-fold; the film wants you to remember Erik’s tragic and complex beginnings while also wanting to course-correct back on track to align with Singer’s original vision for the franchise. Oddly, as I’ll get into later, this desire to shift the franchise back towards that quasi-science-fiction, grounded approach is at odds with the direction First Class’s script wants to take its characters so, for me, opening with this scene was more of an insult than a welcome homage.
The film could easily have just began with Erik in the office of Nazi scientist Doctor Klaus Schmidt (Bacon); this scene extends that of Singer’s original, impactful opening to show how Erik’s powers were a source of fascination for the Nazis and does just as much to setup his motivations for the remainder of the film. Schmidt, a Mutant himself, forces Erik to use his powers by first threatening and then executing his mother, which would be the driving force for Erik’s lust for revenge and hatred of humanity. At the same time, a young Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher) meets and befriends Raven Darkhölme (Morgan Lily) and, honestly, this should have been the first clue that these new X-Men movies were not going to concern themselves with things like logic or continuity. While X-Men: First Class gives some much-needed backstory to Raven (who, when she goes up to be Jennifer Lawrence, eventually takes the name “Mystique”), it does so at the cost of the continuity of the original trilogy as Xavier never once mentions that he had this brother/sister relationship with Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) nor does the older Mystique ever use this relationship to her advantage in those films.
Still, we continue, giving the film the benefit of the doubt, when these characters grow into James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively. Rather than the wise, all-knowing father-figure of the original X-Men films, Xavier here is a young, post-grad student who downs alcohol and uses both his knowledge of Mutations and his mental powers to pick up chicks in bars. With his long, thick hair and sixties sensibilities, Xavier is a far more “hip and groovy” character but the moment he meets Moira McTaggert (Byrne) and learns of Schmidt’s (now calling himself Sebastian Shaw) plot to incite a third world war, he’s all about assembling his own team of Mutants and working alongside Moira and the CIA to build better relationships between humans and Mutants. It’s an interesting look at the character’s early years but it’s nothing compared to the far more interesting story involving the future Magneto; desperate to hunt down Shaw and make him pay, Erik has spent his entire life tracking down those responsible for his incarceration, torture, and the deaths of his family and people. Fassbender excels in the role, bringing a tortured, focused edge to the character and shines in every scene he’s in; his quiet, seething vengeance is tempered somewhat when he meets and befriends Xavier (another contradiction to the original films as Xavier is clearly not seventeen in this movie…) but their relationship is destined to fail based solely on Erik’s desire to kill Shaw, to say nothing of his own conflicting desire for Mutant prosperity. Still, once the two begin working together, they are introduced to Henry “Hank” McCoy/Beast (Hoult) and, thanks to his prototype Cerebro technology, begin recruiting a team of young Mutants to help oppose Shaw’s own club of misfits. In true X-Men fashion, this means a whole bunch of characters are suddenly thrown into the mix with little to make them stand out beyond them all being young and sexy and having cool-looking powers. Of them all, it is, thankfully, Hank who gets the most screen time and development thanks to his immediate attraction to Raven, his awkward, quirky characterisation, and his desire to develop a serum to suppress his more unattractive physical qualities. Though it seems he and Raven are united in the desire to appear “normal”, she ultimately comes to embrace her unique appearance and, when Hank’s serum actually accelerates his Mutation, he is forced to do the same.
The other members of this proto-X-team aren’t so lucky; Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Jones) does alright, being the amusing comic relief of the team, but Alex Summers/Havok (Till) is little more than the “moody bad boy” of the group who, with very little motivation, comes to accept the team as his friends and surrogate family. Angel Salvadore (Kravitz) randomly decides to defect to Shaw’s side when he offers them the chance, with no real explanation or reason beyond the deal apparently sounding better than being mocked by the CIA, but the real slap in the face is the ultimate fate of Armando Muñoz/Darwin (Edi Gathegi) who, despite literally being able to “adapt to survive”, is unable to keep himself from being blown to pieces by Shaw. I mean, we’ve seen that he is able to spontaneously grow gills and armour-plating but it’s apparently too much to find a way to resist Alex’s concussive blasts. Yet at least these proto-X-Men get a neat little training montage to show off snippets of their personalities and powers, however this loses quite a bit of its impact when it’s revealed that they trained and mastered their powers in one week, which honestly isn’t quite as bad as the fact that Xavier found it perfectly acceptable to use this time in this way even though the threat of war is literally hanging over their heads. It’s almost as if the film has too many characters and should have just focused on Xavier, Magneto, Beast, and Mystique as the primary protagonists but this is, of course, only exacerbated by the fact that Shaw has his own evil team of Mutants.
Similar to Magneto’s original Brotherhood, the sheer number of characters and the pace of the film demands that these antagonists simply look cool and not much else, with the exception of Emma Frost (January Jones), who also looks sexy and has a slightly bigger role as she is Shaw’s right-hand woman and a telepath. Azazel (Jason Flemyng) has a great look and is clearly meant to be evoking Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) but we learn absolutely nothing about him; no seeds are planted for a relationship between him and Mystique that might lead to Nightcrawler’s birth and he gets only one line. Still, it’s one line more than Janos Quested/Riptide (Álex González), who says nothing the entire movie and simply whips up a few mini tornados (or twisters, whatever) and causes some minor inconveniences for the team. Again, it’s almost as if Shaw’s team should have been scaled down to four characters rather than five. Luckily, though, Shaw gets plenty of screen time and Bacon is clearly relishing the role, chewing the scenery and portraying Shaw as an unhinged sociopath who lays much of the groundwork for the villain Erik is destined to become. Able to absorb and redirect energy to maintain his youth, Shaw is a near-unstoppable antagonist, even more so when he acquires a special helmet from the Russians to protect himself from psychic attacks. His motivations are simple to grasp; like Erik, he’s seen the lengths of man’s inhumanity to man and wishes to use a full-scale nuclear war to cleanse the Earth and bring about an age of prosperity for Mutantkind and, as such, he’s a despicable character through and through with an undeniable amount of charisma, making for a fitting challenge for these proto-X-Men.
X-Men: First Class has an interesting premise and does a decent job, for the most part, of fleshing out the early years of Xavier and Magneto. However, despite its pacing being far better than that of X-Men (Singer, 2000) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it suffers from trying to cram everything into its runtime despite the fact that a sequel was clearly set up and going to be produced that would have allowed some of these storylines to play out at a much more comfortable pace.
As a result, we get numerous timeline discrepancies in the film: Xavier grew up with Mystique and meets Erik when they’re much older than first stated; Hank builds Cerebro rather than Charles and Erik, Xavier’s first students are wildly different than those hinted at in the previous films and, most egregious of all, the film concludes with Xavier being paralysed by an errant bullet and Erik assuming the role and name of Magneto. No matter how you slice it, none of this aligns with the continuity of the time as we saw a young, bald, walking Xavier, still friends with Magneto, in the opening sequence of The Last Stand and a young, bald, walking Xavier at the conclusion of X-Men Origins, both of which were still canon at this point. The film seems to be in a rush to catch up to the beginning of the first X-Men movie and, honestly, should have ended with Xavier fully-functional and planning to open his house to more Mutants alongside Erik, who would be affected and changed by his final confrontation with Shaw.
There is quite a big inconsistency in this film as well, though, wider canon notwithstanding. Obviously, I touched upon Darwin being offed so easily but, for me, the main issue is how vehemently Xavier opposes Erik’s desire to kill Shaw. Xavier believes that killing Shaw in cold blood will set Erik down a dark path he won’t be able to recover from and he’s right, of course, but the inconsistency is that we’ve seen (and, thanks to reading Erik’s mind, Xavier has seen) that Erik has plenty of blood on his hands already. He describes himself as a “weapon” and this appears to be true; he’s tortured and killed numerous people in his bid to track down and end Shaw so why should one more death darken his fate? It doesn’t help that Erik’s descent into villain as told in this film is repeated over and over again in the next three sequels, all of which repeat the same arc (Erik starts off good, becomes morally grey, and ends the film fully-garbed as Magneto and ready to strike back at humanity…only to start the next film good and the cycle repeats). It’s one of those things that seems to work on the surface but falls apart when you think about it and is, again, something that could have been improved upon had the script focused on just Xavier and Erik and a slightly altered greater conflict rather than throwing in a bunch of under-developed or superfluous characters.
Speaking of which, the also contains a bevy of cameos; Rebecca Romijn briefly appears in a fun cameo when Mystique is randomly seducing Erik (seriously, their sudden sexual relationship kind of comes out of nowhere and is purely motivated by Raven wanting to hurt Charles and feeling alienated from Hank) and veteran actors like James Remar, Ray Wise, and Michael Ironside all randomly show up in the film’s third act but the true icing on the cake was the brief cameo by Hugh Jackman as Logan. X-Men: First Class was the first real test to see if an X-Men movie could survive and be just as successful without Jackman in a leading role and, judging by its box office and reception, it clearly succeeded in this regard but it’s still fun to see Jackman randomly pop up and tell his future mentor and adversary to “Go fuck [themselves]”.
X-Men: First Class is a fun and engaging X-Men movie; it’s got a fantastic revenge subplot involving the future Magneto and is clearly inspired not only by Singer’s original X-Men movies but also 1960s spy thrillers, all of which give it a familiar, and yet unique, flavour within the franchise. McAvoy and Fassbender steal the show from start to finish but Bacon is a deliciously devilish villain and the acting and action sequences are pretty good, overall, with the film showing new and interesting takes on established characters and shedding more light on events only previously hinted at. And, yet, for me, Fox made a massive mistake by marketing and constructing this film as a prequel. It honestly should have just been a straight-up reboot, restarting the franchise with young actors and a whole new timeline of events rather than trying to awkwardly align with the established canon. For me, continuity is everything and you simply cannot watch X-Men: First Class as part of the wider X-Men canon because it just doesn’t fit; they should have done what the James Bond franchise did and kept Jackman but recast everyone else and started completely fresh because, when you need a convoluted timeline to explain what’s going and where things fit and it still doesn’t completely line up, you’ve kind of lost me as a viewer. The irony is that the very next movie had the perfect excuse to explain these inconsistencies and chose not to, meaning that my opinion of X-Men: First Class is decidedly frosty and conflicted, at best.
What are your thoughts on X-Men: First Class? Were you as annoyed by its disregard for the existing canon as I was or do you think the film is able to hold up despite this? What did you think of the cast and characters and the bigger role given to Mystique? Which heroes and villains, or storylines, do you think would have worked better for a proto-X-Men team? How did you celebrate X-Men Day this year? Whatever you think, feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions on X-Men below and be sure to come back next week for another X-Men review.