There is nothing more precarious than the prequel. Unless you plan on completely rewriting the mythology of a specific movie or piece of media – ala J. J. Abrams’ excellent Star Trek reset – you have to balance the needs of the new angle with the prerequisites of what’s already been established. Add in the beloved nature of the characters and/or circumstances, the standard source material obsessives, and a world of other potential problems, and it’s Butch and Sundance: The Early Years all over again. That’s why the latest installment in the always uneven X-Men franchise – appropriately titled First Class – is such a marvel. Not only does it revitalize a series on subjective life support, but it actually makes one giddy for where this entire idea can (and will most likely) go.
Veering from the comic book origins a bit, we meet up with Erik Lehnsherr/future Magneto (Michael Fassbender) when he is a small boy in a Nazi concentration camp. When a powerful official (Kevin Bacon) learns of his mutation – the ability to control metal – he makes it his goal to exploit it. In the meantime, lonely rich kid Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) befriends a runaway girl named Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) who has her own physical anomaly. Their paths all across in 1961 when the United States and Russia are pushed to the brink of nuclear war. But instead of some purposed political standoff, the confrontation is caused by the villainous Sebastian Shaw (Bacon), a tycoon with terror on his mind. Hoping to thwart his plot, the CIA, under the direction of Dr. Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), decides to gather together a mutant squad to help defeat the rising threat.
Thus we get a series heroes and villains, the good being made up of Xavier, Raven, Magneto and Angel (Zoe Kravtiz), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Havok (Lucas Till), Darwin (Edi Gathegi) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and the bad centering around Shaw and his minions Emma Frost (January Jones), Azazel (Jason Flemyng), and Riptide (Álex González). In between the usual sovereign grandstanding and war room machinations, we learn of the growing prejudice against the mutants, the various problems and personality flaws of the new recruits, their reluctance over revealing themselves to the world, and the growing bond between Charles and Erik. As tensions rise both internationally and internally, divisions will grow, forcing everyone to choose sides and declare/debate loyalty.
With its Cuban Missile Crisis backdrop and sensational script and performances, X-Men: First Class ranks right up there with recent re-imaginings of Batman and everyone’s favorite serious science fiction from the ’60s. This is a film as well as a franchise, an attempt to take the camp and commercial pandering out of the equation and, instead, insert wit, style, and a sense of seriousness the genre has long lacked. Like Christopher Nolan, director Matthew Vaughn ‘gets’ how to set such otherwise otherworldly elements in the real world, to make them connect to a concrete reality and sense of recognizable pragmatics. He doesn’t push the fantastical features of the characters and situations so much as make them flow organically within the confines. The result is a sensational spy thriller where the agents have the ability to undermine the enemy with telepathy, teleportation, and even more terrifying tricks.
At the heart of this extraordinary effort is the work of the exceptional cast, especially McAvoy and Fassbender. They create a camaraderie and a connection that settles over the entire film. While their individual stories are indeed intriguing, the working together to form the X-Men is the movie’s main emotional thrust. Charles wants to find a way for inclusion and balance with regular humans. Erik wants revenge and acceptance “by any means necessary.” The argument has been made by some that the former represents the kind of non-violent approach of Dr. Martin Luther King while the latter is more militant, more Malcolm X in his ideals. While the comparison is specious at best (considering what was at stake during the Civil Rights Movement), it still maintains a small amount of credence within the context of this world.
Equally compelling are the various ancillary characters that fill in the spaces. Some are just awkward adolescents growing into their already rejected social roles. Others are far more complicated, including Lawrence’s Raven, who obvious body issues could spawn and entire TLC-like channel, and Hoult’s genius doctor turned monster Beast. Both struggle with the core concept of acceptance, each going about it in the same opposing manner, as with Charles and Erik. But their pain is more recognizable, more carved out of the cliques we see/saw walking down to corridors of those social cesspools known as high school. In a rare bid to make this kind of movie wholly relevant to those who won’t know Asgard from Oa, the desire to take things ‘teen’ really works. It also adds another level of legitimacy to what is, by its very nature, pure fantasy.
This doesn’t mean, however, that Vaughn and his various script writers have forgotten the Summer movie sizzle. We get a terrific opening sequence inside the concentration camp (Bacon is bravura as the villain, if not quite up to the level of the rest of his cohorts) and the montage where Charles and Erik recruit if rife with excellent visual cues (and a nice cameo). Perhaps the best moments are those involving Shaw’s threat to the newly gathered good guys, and the final warship standoff has all the stunt spectacle you expect.
But in its soul, X-Men: First Class wants to be about people, about individuals gifted in ways that make the rest of the planet gawk in wonder – and shudder in abject horror. While the rest of the series (at least, as it stands now) would end up focusing the various battles between Magneto and the rest of civilization, this prologue punctuates a time when all mutants attempt to rise up as one and be respected. The result spells a series of sensational sequels – and one pretty amazing movie at its start.