One of the most surprising things about X-Men: First Class isn’t its extreme re-envisioning of either the early days of our favorite mutant superheroes or the entirety of the Cuban Missile Crisis, no. One of the most surprising things about it is the fact that it actually exists.
On the X-Men: First Class DVD’s sole bonus feature, “Children of the Atom” (in two parts), much discussion goes about how producer Lauren Shuler Donner had the idea to do a “young X-Men” movie while she was producing the fantastic X2 with director Bryan Singer. The idea had some fans but was tucked away. It, of course, would remain tucked away whilst the debacle that was X-Men: The Last Stand (more commonly known as X3) played out. Singer left so he could do Superman Returns, and a whole bevy of directors were approached to helm the new project, culminating in the choice of Matthew Vaughn, who, after producing some of Guy Ritchie’s most famous films and turning in a bravura movie of his own with Layer Cake, seemed to be the perfect fit for the new project. He signed on, made some essential casting decisions, and brought the framework of a plot into place, before dropping out two weeks into filming.
During “Children of the Atom”, no one mentions specifically what happens, but allow a surprising amount of internal strife to shine through on this studio-funded behind-the-scenes doc. Ultimately, Brett Ratner made X3, everyone wept, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine further tarnished the cinematic clout of one of Marvel’s most beloved franchises.
Vaughn, however, still had desires to make his own X-Men film, and essentially did the closest thing he could with the hyperactive Kick-Ass, which has gained a cult audience of its very own. A chance encounter between Vaughn and producer Simon Kinberg just so happened to be at a restaurant where Bryan Singer was also dining. The three drank, discussed things, and before long, X-Men: First Class was born, with Singer co-credited for story, and Vaughn both directing and serving as one of the screenwriters.
Although the movie only did adequately well at the box office, Vaughn can at least be given credit for making a far superior film to X3 and that god awful Wolverine spin-off. First off, he gave us an entirely new location to sit in: the ’60s, right during the heat of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Secondly, he gave us a whole new set of villains to deal with, headed up by the energy-absorbing Sebastian Shaw — played with venomous delight by Kevin Bacon.
Yet while this, like the first film, deals a lot with the recruiting of new mutants, the focal point is pared down to the relationship between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender). Xavier is a bit of a drunken womanizer, relentlessly smart and sympathetic to the emerging mutant cause, but oblivious to his shape-shifting companion Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), who hides her true identity at nearly all times.
Conversely, Erik’s powers are being molded by the Nazis, his mother brought in as a shameless prop to try and unlock the secrets of his telepathic magnetism. Unfortunately, the Nazis are successful in realizing that Erik’s powers work when controlled by blind rage, and he spends much of his post-War adulthood hunting and exterminating those who murdered his family.
Much of the film is focused on the relationship between Charles and Erik, and rightly so: their differing views on how humanity views mutants — combined with their shared pride in what mutants can accomplish — form the emotional crux of the film, Fassbender effectively portraying all of the layers of rage — some justified, some not — that Erik sorts through on a near-daily basis. Although McAvoy’s Charles can come off as a bit too single-minded in his sympathies, he none-the-less brings a ton of charisma to the character. Had McAvoy’s and Fassbender’s chemistry been even slightly off, there wouldn’t even be a film worth seeing.
It’s a good thing these actors work as well as they do, given that the rest of the characters in the film are given precious little attention. Many of the recruits are given precious little (if any) backstory, meaning that Havoc (Lucas Till), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), and Angel (Zoe Kravitz) are more props than they are characters, which can also be said for Shaw’s own dastardly duo, of Riptide (Alex Gonzalez) and Azazel (Jason Flemyng), although Azazel does get more than a few impressive fight sequences.
Given this submarine-load of characters, an audience can’t be blamed for caring about all of them, especially when topics such as military diplomacy, the definition of what is actually acceptable in society, and — rather fleetingly — the sneaking suspicions of who and who might not be a Communist all seep through, proving to be ample food-for-thought when placed up against spectacular action set-pieces like a nighttime CIA raid of Shaw’s yacht, Shaw’s own assault on the CIA compound housing the new mutant recruits, and just about any scene where Erik gets to extract revenge on his tormentors in Poland (or, as Topless Robot’s Rob Bricken would say, any scene where Fassbender gets to do a whole lot of Fassbending).
One side-plot that is genuinely worth mentioning is the blossoming quasi-romance between Raven and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult). Lawrence has one of the toughest roles, constantly changing her mind about which side of the mutant war she wants to be on, and she carries it off well. Hoult, meanwhile, absolutely owns his role as Beast: smitten, riled with secrets, and smarter than just about everyone else in the room despite his socially introverted nature. The connection between him and Raven is actually given time to breathe and grow, and it proves to be a fascinating parallel to the honest-to-goodness bromance between Charles and Erik — something that is directly alluded to by the makers of the film in that “Children of the Atom” doc.
It’s during that same featurette that Vaughn notes how he doesn’t entirely agree with the old saying about a movie being “90 percent casting”. He tones it down to a more modest 70 percent, but still notes that if you don’t cast the right people, you don’t have a movie, no matter how well the script is written nor how well it’s directed. Fortunately for him, he scored quite the home run with his cast for X-Men: First Class.
It’s not the best in the series, but it more than makes up for bitter aftertaste of X3 and Origins, proving that all this franchise needed was just a little bit of a tune-up. Fortunately for X-fans everywhere, Vaughn was just the right guy for the job.