Looking at the history of this film’s production, it really doesn’t sound like it should have turned out to be any good. Disney had just acquired the rights to Marvel, but 20th Century Fox still retained the rights to the X-Men franchise. In order to prevent the X-Men rights from reverting to Disney, Fox needed to continue production of films using the license, and they needed to do it fast. The solution was X-Men: First Class, a film that starred nobody from the previous films (save for a Wolverine cameo), was filmed on a minimal budget, and was rushed to theaters on a much shorter production cycle than is normal for a summer superhero blockbuster. But 20th Century Fox performed a small miracle here. Not only did they turn out a decent film, they turned out a decent film that was true to the spirit of the X-Men and succeeds at being much more than an ass-covering cash-in. The film is far from perfect, but it certainly is the best installment in the series since X2.
What really pulls this film together are the lead performances. The script is at times a bit schlocky, but James McAvoy (Xavier), Michael Fassbender (Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique), and Kevin Bacon (Sebastian Shaw) all perform spectacularly, and their talent really does a great job of communicating the struggle of oppressed mutants in a world that doesn’t know how to deal with their existence. The differing ways in which these characters grow and change throughout the course of the story to eventually become the people we know from the previous trilogy is really interesting to watch, and I think this was a really smart direction to take the X-Men franchise. Setting the film in the Cold War was a small stroke of genius, not only for providing a prequel, but also for showing prejudice of human beings against mutants as being largely symptomatic of the mistrust of the unknown that that era naturally engendered. And going back to the characters, there’s a lot that can be done in future installments by going back to the roots of the Xavier/Magneto dynamic, who are arguably the most interesting characters in the franchise based solely on that relationship. This film sets the stage for that quite well, and it makes me excited to see what the upcoming Days of Future Past adds to this timeline.
I also like that the film doesn’t feel overproduced, even though I recognize that this is a symptom of the rushed production time. The special effects aren’t flashy or even up to what were modern CG standards of the time, but most of the time they get the job done. I like that the film recognizes its limitations and doesn’t try to be an effects-driven spectacle, yet instead pushes the focus on the interactions of the main characters. It uses a lot of physical effects that are not only effective, but evocative of the special effects in films of First Class’s setting. That’s smart filmmaking, and I’d like to see more smaller-scale productions for sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero films so that not so much attention is placed on the special effects, but instead on the direction and character performances. Many a film has been the victim of over-production, but thankfully First Class is not one of them.
But as I said earlier, this isn’t a perfect film, and the film’s weaknesses are actually made all the more apparent by the ways the film succeeds. Some of the film’s effects aren’t particularly well done, most notably the make-up job done with Beast and the CG version of Emma Frost. They look painfully fake, and personally it pulled me right out of the experience. And speaking of the side characters, they are all immediately forgettable. Sebastian Shaw’s henchmen barely have lines, and January Jones as Emma Frost feels hollow and phoned in. Xavier’s team of teenage mutants don’t fare much better, serving mostly as blank slates for Xavier to develop his teaching skills on. While that serves the story well enough, it would have been nice for the kids to have a bit more three-dimensional personalities.
X-Men: First Class is a good film, and though it isn’t perfect, it makes me hopeful for the future of the X-Men franchise. In the wake of The Avengers, studios that still retain superhero rights are going to try to emulate the multi-film epic storytelling that makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe so popular. If any franchise has the potential to see that through, I think its X-Men. Let’s see how the upcoming sequel fares.
Look for my review of X-Men: Days of Future Past on the weekend of its release. Excited for the film? Want to throw in your two cents on First Class? Leave a comment below.