This 'X-Men' Is 'First Class' All the Way

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.

X-Men: First Class

Director: Michael Vaughn
Cast: James MacAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult
Rated: PG-13
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2011-06-01
US date: 2011-06-03 (General release)

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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