This year is the year of superhero overload. The Green Hornet and Thor have already passed while Green Lantern and Captain America are still yet to come. In between those four films is this week’s X-Men: First Class and it’s likely to be the best superhero film you’ll see all year. I’d even go so far as to say it’s the best since The Dark Knight. While it is by no means up to that film’s caliber, it’s nevertheless an immensely entertaining summer thrill ride with terrific action, great performances and some surprisingly effective drama.
As the title suggests, the film follows the younger versions of the X-Men characters as they figure out who they are and what they stand for. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has just finished school and earned his doctorate, giving him the title of Professor. Before he’s able to celebrate, however, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) enlists his help. Despite her best efforts, her agency won’t believe her when she says she saw mutants that are planning on starting a nuclear world war. Luckily, mutant genetics is Professor Xavier’s specialty. So he, along with his sister, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), and not-yet-an-enemy Erik (Michael Fassbender), begins to recruit mutants to help them put a stop to the evil opposition, led by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).
If you, like me, are not familiar with X-Men mythology, you will be lost when this movie begins. This is one of those films that loves to jump from place to place, establishing characters in different locales that will have an impact later on in the story. It starts in 1944 Poland at a Nazi concentration camp before jetting to 1960’s New York, Switzerland, England, Nevada, Argentina, Florida, Virginia and even an undisclosed covert CIA research base. In its opening moments, X-Men: First Class shows signs of cinematic ADHD, never truly focusing on anything in particular. Throw in the fact that the film then goes on to introduce no less than a dozen characters (most with superhero pseudonyms), like Angel, Riptide, Azazel, Emma Frost, Beast, Banshee, Darwin, Havok and more, and those without a familiarity with this universe will find the proceedings difficult to grasp.
Because of this, X-Men: First Class takes a while to get going and will not instantly grab many of its viewers. However, it must be said that once it settles down, it becomes easily accessible. Although there are a lot of characters, they are balanced delicately and, aside from a few notable cases (I can’t recall Azazel or Riptide speaking at all during the film), each comes into their own. In many cases, like with Mystique and Magneto, you get to see the downward spiral the characters take towards villainy. There is passion in their personalities and motivations and you come to understand why they choose the way they do.
X-Men: First Class is directed by Matthew Vaughn, the same guy behind last year’s Kick-Ass, an entertaining film that was nevertheless plagued by many problems. In comparison, this film seems to fix a lot of them, showing growth in Vaughn as a filmmaker. Kick-Ass had an inconsistent tone and its over-the-top goofiness undercut the climax’s dramatic intentions. X-Men: First Class avoids that problem by excellently balancing the seriousness of the story with some hilarious comic bits, including a couple of cameos that most viewers will find very amusing.
This is a stylish movie. It’s not as action packed as some will expect, but when stuff blows up, it blows up real good. The CGI is hit and miss, but when you’re having this much fun, you won’t really care. Still, it’s not perfect and when it stumbles, it’s noticeable. The script is so smart and witty that the numerous cheesy speeches about accepting and loving yourself stick out like a sore thumb. While certainly a good message in general and relevant to the story, it’s hand-fed so forcefully it comes off as childish. But don’t let those minor blunders stop you from checking it out. If upcoming films continue in cinema’s recent bout with mediocrity, X-Men: First Class could end up being one of the best of the year.
X-Men: First Class receives 4/5